Rangiriri pā - roadside stories

The remarkable earthworks at Rangiriri pā (Māori fortified settlement) formed a defensive line more than a kilometre long. In 1863 Rangiriri was stormed by Imperial forces during the Waikato War. Although the British eventually took the pā, they were repelled eight times, and suffered 130 casualties. The remains of the central Māori fortification are still visible.


Imperial officer (actor’s voice): The place is situated very low; and the entrenchment appeared to be open to enfilade from the river, besides seeming to be otherwise not formidable. It is just a common embankment with a trench cut in front of it also.

Narrator: Although they are now eroded and covered in grass, the earthworks at Rangiriri pā still give us some idea of the scale of the bloody battle which took place there in 1863 as part of the Waikato War.

The British claimed that through the Māori King movement, Waikato tribes were opposing Queen Victoria and threatening the capital of Auckland. But the main motivation was to gain Waikato land for settlement.

The movement of the colonial forces through the Waikato was slow because they met stiff resistance from Māori defending their fertile land. After capturing a stronghold at Meremere, the British advanced southwards towards Rangiriri.

Rangiriri had an elaborately constructed, and extremely effective, defensive line over a thousand metres long. It consisted of an array of wide trenches, rifle pits, bunkers and other earthworks.

The British troops landed via the Waikato River and began the attack with a two-hour artillery bombardment. This caused little damage to the Māori fortifications.

The main problem for the British was a large 20-foot high central redoubt, cleverly designed by the Waikato chief Te Wharepu.

Late in the afternoon, a detachment of the Royal Infantry unsuccessfully tried to storm the redoubt, but underestimated its strength. An officer was killed in the botched attempt. In all, eight attempts were made by British troops to secure the pā, but each time they were repelled.

Imperial officer: We could not drive out the Maoris, partly owing to their bravery, but mainly owing to the consummate skill with which they had arranged their defensive works.

Narrator: Although they had an impressive array of fortifications, the Māori defenders had only 500 men, compared to the British who had about 1500. The outnumbered Māori warriors were forced to abandon their flanks and concentrate on defending their central redoubt. Four hundred Māori reinforcements from nearby tribes were on their way, but arrived just after the battle.

By the time fighting ended at dusk the British, though having three times the number of troops, had not taken the pā, and had suffered heavier casualties than the Māori.

Imperial officer: We spent the night bivouacked on the wet ground, disgusted and disheartened.

Narrator: Overnight the Māori defenders evacuated a large number of their wounded and most of their high-ranking chiefs. Then shortly after daybreak, the Māori inside the pā hoisted a white flag. The British troops took this to mean an unconditional surrender, but Māori later argued they simply wanted to negotiate terms.

Imperial officer: The Maoris then (at 5 a.m.) hoisted the white flag. Lieutenant Pennefather at once scrambled into their redoubt, and with this the men mingled amongst them, shaking hands. The General [Cameron] came up about ten minutes afterwards, complimented them on their bravery, and demanded their arms. To this they demurred, but the chiefs felt that to resist now was out of the question and decided upon delivering up the arms as required, having first said that the reason of hoisting the white flag was that they might ask what terms they might expect.

Narrator: The battle at Rangiriri was [one of] the bloodiest of any during the New Zealand Wars. Around 130 British troops were killed or wounded compared to Māori casualties of around [70].

Imperial officer: It is extremely annoying, in fact it is galling, to think of our losing so many fine officers and men by such savages as those we had a sight of yesterday. Worse, not more than 50 natives have been found killed.

Narrator: Though they suffered fewer casualties, the Māori tribes had 180 prisoners taken by the British, which hurt the King Movement. Though the British took Rangiriri, it was not a decisive victory and fighting continued into 1864.

Since this video was made, some errors have been brought to our attention. Corrections to the transcript are indicated by the use of square brackets.

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