Fire in the fern

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Vaughan Yarwood

Driving down State High­way 1 from Auckland it is easy to miss the loop road to Rangiriri, just beyond Te Kauwhata, where 140 years ago a bloody showdown took place between entrenched Waikato Maori and advancing British troops. Though the outcome was less than the outright victory British commander General Duncan Cameron had hoped for—there were to be other skirmishes—it nevertheless sounded the death knell for Maori resistance in the rich Waikato heartland and opened the way for the area’s occupation by settlers.

To mark the significance of the clash, former teacher Pat Gaitely established the Rangiriri Battle Site Heritage Centre. The centre is just a few minutes’ walk from the remains of a British redoubt, erected in a peach grove where Maori had dug rifle pits to defend the stronghold of Rangiriri, and directly opposite a military cemetery containing fallen from the battle.

Commemoration of the site was late in coming. Much of the Rangiriri defences, which had been built with great cunning across a narrow strip of land between the Waikato River and Lake Waikare, was destroyed during the construction of State Highway 1. Indeed, motorists and tour-bus passengers breaking their journeys at the roadside tea-­rooms in which the museum is housed may be surprised to learn of the historic importance of the seemingly unremarkable stretch of country they are passing through.

In the tea-rooms, alongside cabinets displaying stone adzes, whalebone-­and-hardwood wahaika (clubs) and nephrite hei-tiki, stand the dress uniform of a Black Watch Highlander dating from 1846 and the tunic of a soldier from a Welsh regiment. Among the assorted military hardware are a period cavalry sword, a British Rifle Volunteers officer’s sword and a double-barrelled musket.

A small Manual of Military Law, 1863 edition, lies in a display case.

On one wall is a vivid painting of a Rangiriri battle scene, the work of British war artist Dawn Waring. Waring’s forebears were no strangers to life in the colony. In the 1880s her great-great-grandfather was the commandant of Auckland’s Fort Britomart.

The museum it­self owes something to historical con­junctions. Gaitely, 76, had the idea for it while on a trip to Thailand, where he came across a museum dedicated to a celebrated Second World War battle near the Burmese border, at Hellfire Pass, on the River Kwai. Later, while visiting war graves at Rangiriri, he discovered that the derelict grocery store nearby was for sale. He bought it with the intention of replicating what he had seen in Thailand, and when the old store burned down he had the present 1860s-style building erected.

In a small auditorium behind his shop, Gaitely runs a short video presentation for visitors. It is a nicely judged summary of the poignant events leading up to the capture of the stronghold, starting with the drawing of a boundary line south of the Hunua Ranges by Tawhiao, the second Maori king, to put an end to the alienation of Maori land. If British soldiers crossed this line, decreed Tawhiao, then “the fire was in the fern”—there would be war.

Of course, there was war. Settler politics, fuelled by record immigration in the 1850s and ’60s, saw to that. Having built a sizeable redoubt at Pokeno, Cameron’s troops crossed the Mangatawhiri River in strength and drove the Waikato Maori, reinforced by Rewi Maniapoto’s warriors, back to their first line of defence at Meremere—the ridge overlooking today’s abandoned power station.

In late spring Cameron attacked Meremere, only to find it deserted. The defenders had fallen back to Rangiriri, which Cameron attacked on November 20, 1863. Against fewer than 500 Maori warriors he threw some 1500 soldiers, supported by gunboats and heavy artillery. Repeatedly throughout the day his men charged Rangiriri’s fortifications, with their formidable seven-metre-high parapet, only to be doggedly repulsed. Outlying rifle pits were taken, but, as dusk fell, the central redoubt remained in Maori hands.

Under cover of darkness, some of the chiefs, including Tawhiao, escaped, promising to return with reinforcements, but during the night fate worked against the defenders: heavy rain wet their powder.

Next morning—confused, some say, by an unfamiliar white ensign flying from a gunboat—they raised the white flag to parley. The British, reading the gesture as a signal of surrender, piled into the redoubt, roundly congratulating the warriors on their bravery. Despite their protests, the defenders were all taken prisoner. It was an ignominious end to a battle which had claimed the lives of 47 Maori and an equal number of British soldiers, and which had left hundreds wounded.

Among the casualties was Captain Henry Mercer, who was shot in the face while leading an assault on the stronghold by a Royal Artillery detachment. Two soldiers earned the Victoria Cross attempting to rescue Mercer, who later died of his wound. His name survives in a township 20 km north of the battle site.

The bodies of British officers were taken to Auckland for burial, while other ranks were laid in unmarked graves near a raupo-walled Anglican Maori church (long gone) which served as a hospital during the fighting. Their names were inscribed on regimental monuments. In the 1890s Maori dead were exhumed and reburied on Taupiri mountain.

Some 480,000 ha of fertile land was confiscated by the victors, ostensibly to pay for the war, crippling the Waikato tribes, which had flourished on agricultural trade. Tawhiao’s dispossessed supporters withdrew south into what came to be known as the King Country.

Gaitely’s video ends with a 1926 recording of the tender lament E Pari Ra: “Like to the tide moaning in grief by the shore mourn I for friends captured and warriors slain.”

Thanks largely to Gaitely’s efforts, Rangiriri has been getting more attention of late. The day I visited, 80 pupils from Epsom Girls’ Grammar arrived. The following day it was to be the turn of Rangitoto College.

And, though their numbers have been thinned lately by worries over global unrest and contagion, overseas tourists still call in.

“The Brits especially love this place,” says Gaitely, who makes a point of staying in touch with the soldiers of the 94th battery, Mercer’s old unit. At present stationed in Iraq, the battery—officially 94 (New Zealand) Headquarters Battery, Royal Artillery—is something of an oddity in the British army. The men don black jerseys to play rugby, their mess is decorated with Maori carvings, and when they go to war they do so, uniquely, under the New Zealand flag (Gaitely recently sent them a new one).

Rangiriri’s museum has now caught the attention of the New Zealand government, and plans are afoot to develop it as a regional study centre under the ownership and guidance of a new body, the Rangiriri New Zealand Wars Heritage Trust, with Gaitely as curator. The aim, says Gaitely, is to heighten awareness of the wars and their legacy.

The study centre might also help avert destruction at other historic sites of the sort that saw Rangiriri’s trenches carved up by road construction. Gaitely points to Mould’s Redoubt and the Maori escape trails near Meremere, now threatened by the proposed building of a 650-bed prison and the creation of what will be Australasia’s biggest landfill, an adjacent 87 ha tip bordering the Waikato River.

“It is my prediction that if these proposals were to proceed . . . the resulting desecration of the waahi tapu could cause enough anger to effect a land occupation,” Gaitely wrote in a monograph on the redoubt.

Environment Waikato commissioner John Kneebone has declared himself unconvinced by talk of potential desecration, and the projects are likely to go ahead. But this stretch of the Waikato has frequently proved itself to be politically turbulent. In late 2002, concern over Karu Tahi, a one-eyed taniwha said by Ngati Naho to live in swampland near the Meremere power station, held up work on the new Waikato expressway.

By expanding Gaitely’s educational mission, the new Rangiriri trust may give historical considerations equal bite.

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