The Battle of Rangiriri: European Expansion into the Waikato

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The repulse of the Royal Navy storming party, Rangiriri Pa. (20th November 1863)

In the New Zealand Wars, the Battle of Rangiriri was won by the British at considerable cost to the forces of its Imperial Army.

The New Zealand Wars erupted at the start of the 1860’s in Taranaki, where British imperial ambitions met head-on with the indigenous people determined to protect their property rights and traditional way of life. The real power base of the Maori people at that time however, and the centre of its increasingly organised King movement (Kingitanga), lay along the lower reaches of the Waikato River.

By the time war broke out to the south, settlers were arriving in the capital Auckland in large numbers, and unsuccessful gold-diggers were leaving the Coromandel in search of new ways to make their fortunes. There was pressure on a new colonial government to make land available for farming, and the Great South Road was in the making. The lands of Kingitanga had become of great strategic value.

Governor Grey is Rebuffed by Tainui

The rich land that lay beyond Auckland’s southern hills was an obvious target for colonial expansion, and in January 1863 Governor George Grey travelled to Ngaruawahia seeking an arrangement with the Maori King. He returned to Auckland under no illusions; The Tainui people of Waikato did not welcome European settlement in their territory, and they would not allow British ships to sail on their river.

As negotiations for colonial access to the region failed and competition for the Waikato lands became inevitable, there were also fears of a possible Maori attack on the capital itself. While New Zealand had recently become self-governing in most respects, its defence was still in the hands of Britain. The military presence in Auckland was strengthened when the Imperial War Office despatched 3,000 additional troops, many of them from India, and commissioned a number of river-capable ships to sail under the Royal Navy ensign. A new front would soon open in the New Zealand Wars, and as a result of ill-conceived British actions, the site of its defining engagement would be Rangiriri.

Invasion of the Waikato

In July 1863 the first deadly skirmishes occurred in South Auckland when well-organised bands of Maori made attacks on settlers. The military response was swift, and as the army marched south, encountering stern resistance from the warriors along the way, the naval gunships Avon and Pioneer entered the Waikato River. The small steamships were armed for assault upon the Maori positions they passed as they moved upriver, and would prove effective as the war in the Waikato reached its climax. They were also invaluable for the transport of men and supplies as the advance moved further from the redoubts (forts) built on the territory claimed along the way.

As the invasion of Waikato proceeded, the Avon and Pioneer were used to tow into the battle zone barges carrying troops and their heavy artillery. In late October, the fortifications of Meremere quickly succumbed to a British bombardment, and the way was opened for a strike at the heart of Kingitanga territory. 20km upriver was the stronghold of Rangiriri, defended by 500 warriors under the leadership of Ngati Haua Chief Wiremu Tamehana, the ‘Kingmaker’.

On 20 November 1863, General Duncan Cameron led 1,300 troops against the Ngati Haua at Rangiriri. As the main contingent marched from Meremere, the naval flotilla travelled upriver carrying troops who would attack the rear of the Maori defences, the plan being to affect a coordinated pincer movement.

The British are Impatient for Success

Arriving in position by mid-afternoon and ahead of the boats, Cameron decided he couldn’t wait, and unleashed his light artillery on the fortifications. This engagement had little effect on the well dug in Maori warriors, but Cameron wasn’t done. Impatient for progress as high winds and a swift current delayed the flotilla, a full attack was launched. It was a mistake. The seriously outnumbered defenders of Rangiriri, highly adept at protecting their positions from trenches and behind parapets that shielded the high ground of their pa, repulsed the British attack with rifle fire on the troops below.

The British force suffered serious casualties as a result of its badly timed manoeuvre. But eventually the river-borne reinforcements arrived to take position at the rear of the main defences. All through the night the British were subjected to rifle fire from within the pa, counting their losses and pondering their initial failure to take the stronghold. But for the defenders of Rangariri, it was just a matter of time before they would be overcome.

Rangiriri Falls to the Imperial Force

Maori fortifications, however well engineered and bravely defended, were not designed for long sieges. Having regrouped, the British attacked again at first light. Earlier, in the cover of darkness, Tamehana had led an organised retreat from the battlefield, and the remaining 183 defenders came forward carrying a flag of truce. To the British, this was tantamount to surrender. Rangiriri was duly taken and its surviving defenders taken prisoner and shipped to Auckland for confinement.

The action at Rangariri had cost the British more than 130 casualties. The southward march continued until May 1864, when the Battle of Orakau (near Te Awamutu) signalled the end of the Waikato invasion. Along the way the British learned that there were better ways to subdue the Maori than by engaging in full frontal attacks. Wiremu Tamehana in the meantime had come out seeking peace, and was an early advocate for redress over the loss of tribal land endured in the wake of the New Zealand Wars.

References

  1. Ryan, T., & Parham, B., The Colonial New Zealand Wars, Grantham House, Wellington, 2002
  2. Walker, R., Struggle Without End, Penguin, Auckland, 1990
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