The decisive battle for Waikato was fought in November 1863 at Rangiriri, where a defensive line was constructed along a ridge between the river and Lake Waikare. The defences consisted of an entrenched parapet with ditches on both sides. Concealed rifle pits covered by fern were protected by wooden stakes driven into the ground. The most obvious approach route from the north was covered by a central redoubt designed by Pene Te Wharepu. Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron, commander of the Imperial forces, later conceded that the strength of this position had not been detected by the British. Swampy ground made an approach from the south difficult. But formidable as Rangiriri’s earthworks were, they were incomplete.
A number of important Māori chiefs – including King Tāwhiao and Wiremu Tāmihana – were present at Rangiriri, but the pā was seriously undermanned. The Kīngitanga forces had now been managing the circulation of warriors between their ‘homes and the field’ for the best part of three months. After Meremere, manpower was stretched to the limit. According to Belich, it was ‘inevitable that the Meremere army should break up’.
The British were not going to wait until it reformed. On the morning of 20 November they assembled a force of 860 men - backed up by artillery - just north of Rangiriri. Another 600 men were ferried upstream by the river fleet. Men from the 65th, 12th and 14th regiments were organised into three lines, with a detachment of the 40th and the remainder of the 65th in reserve. A scaling party carrying ladders and planks was poised for action. Royal Artillery led by Captain Henry Mercer was ready to shell the pā.
The river force eventually made it ashore and quickly occupied the now-abandoned rear defences. The central redoubt was surrounded but would be a tough nut to crack. ‘Barely 12 paces’ wide, it was crowded with defenders, including a number of women who reloaded muskets for their warriors to fire.
With British soldiers now within the pā, the artillery fire was halted. All available men – including Mercer’s gunners – were mustered for a final assault. Strong resistance continued. Mercer was shot in the face and dragged to a ditch where 20 other men lay wounded or dead. Assistant Surgeon William Temple disregarded his own welfare in attending to the wounded. Lieutenant Arthur Pickard showed similar courage by running back through enemy fire to seek help from Cameron. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their endeavours.
A naval force followed Mercer’s artillerymen in charging the pā. They chased a number of Māori into the swamp, shooting nearly all of them. But when they returned to assault the rifle pits they were quickly forced to take cover. By nightfall there was a stalemate. The bank of the central redoubt had proven too high to scale. The ditch and approaches were ‘littered with dead and wounded’.
A combination of factors thwarted a plan to blow up the redoubt and plans were made for a renewed assault at dawn.
Overnight a number of Māori were evacuated via the eastern ditch – the only remaining escape route to Lake Waikare. As many as 36 warriors accompanied Tāmihana and a similar number may have escorted King Tāwhiao and the Māori wounded, who included the mortally wounded architect of the pā, Pene Te Wharepu.
The planned dawn attack became unnecessary when Māori raised a white flag. While a white flag may symbolise surrender, it is also recognised as a ‘protective sign of truce or ceasefire, and request for negotiation’. The British chose to interpret it as a sign of surrender. Facing no resistance, they moved into the redoubt. The remaining Māori defenders were confused. Lieutenant Pennefather, one of the first men to have ‘tumbled into’ the central redoubt, gave this account to Archdeacon Robert Maunsell:
The Maoris then (at 5.00 a.m.) hoisted the white flag. He [Pennefather] at once scrambled into their redoubt, and with his men mingled amongst them, shaking hands, and the General 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. [Maunsell’s italics]
A decisive victory?
Casualties at Rangiriri were high – 35 British and a similar number of Māori were killed. Ten more members of the British force died later from their wounds, including the unfortunate Mercer, who had lost most of his jaw.
Many reports exaggerated the magnitude of the British victory, with claims of up to 280 Māori casualties. Other accounts were less celebratory, seeing the number of Māori killed as a poor return for 130 British casualties. Settler William Morgan wrote in his journal that it was ‘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.’
The Māori captured at Rangiriri were initially taken to Auckland and held in a hulk on Waitematā Harbour, then transferred to Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf. To the embarrassment of the authorities, they escaped to the mainland in September 1864.
The Kingite forces had suffered a major blow. In addition to those killed and wounded, 183 prisoners – including a number of chiefs – were taken along with their weapons. The importance of the victory was recognised by Cameron’s subsequent knighthood.
Cameron knew that the war was not yet won. But the occupation of the Kīngitanga’s capital, Ngāruawāhia, on 8 December 1863 prompted Grey to tell London that ‘there can, I think, be no doubt that the neck of this unhappy rebellion is now broken.’
While this was a moral and political victory for the British, King Tāwhiao had already retreated into Ngāti Maniapoto territory (now known as the King Country), where he would remain unmolested for 18 years. Cameron knew that ultimate success depended on the capture of the economic heartland of the Waikato around the settlements of Rangiaowhia, Te Awamutu and Kihikihi.