Attention now moved to the Kīngitanga fighting pā at Rangiriri, on the eastern side of the Waikato River and fringed by swamp and Lake Waikare. The pā comprised massive earthworks dug into a ridge. Some of the 500 defenders were concealed in forward rifle pits. On 20 November 1863, the British assembled a land force of 850 men with three field guns supported by cannon aboard Pioneer and Avon. Following a two-hour bombardment, Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron ordered a frontal assault on the pā. Māori in the forward rifle pits were quickly overrun, but the main redoubt held firm. Intense fighting occurred in the forward trenches, but the British could not scale the parapets. Cameron ordered a retreat.
Three more assaults on the main redoubt were also repulsed. However, assault forces landing in the rear occupied the rifle pits and trenches, blocking the main line of retreat and preventing reinforcement of the pā during the night, though many defenders escaped to safety.
As dawn broke, a white flag was seen flying from the parapet. Interpreting this as notice of surrender, British officers entered the pā to discover that Māori actually wished to negotiate a truce. When Cameron insisted that Waikato lay down their arms, they offered no further resistance and nearly 200 men were taken prisoner. About 40 on each side had lost their lives during the battle.
Cameron occupied the Māori king’s village at Ngāruawāhia on 8 December 1863, and moved 3,000 men south of the settlement in January 1864. Mindful of the need to defend villages and sources of supply, Kīngitanga forces began constructing a massive line of fortifications centred upon Pāterangi. Behind this defensive line were food-producing villages such as Rangiaowhia. Cameron realised these fortifications could only be taken with very high casualties. Local Māori friendly to the British guided Cameron’s men around the southern flank of the defences under cover of darkness on the night of 20 February.
On the morning of 21 February 1864, a force comprising British regular infantry and two colonial units, Captain Gustavus von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers and Colonel Marmaduke Nixon’s cavalry, attacked Rangiaowhia. The few defenders of the kāinga fought back. Houses were set on fire, with defenders shot as they tried to escape. When news of Rangiaowhia reached Pāterangi, the pā was abandoned, allowing Cameron’s army to occupy the fortifications unopposed. Kīngitanga forces then sought to establish a defensive line along the Hairini ridge in front of Rangiaowhia. Cameron rushed troops to engage Māori at Hairini, forcing their further retreat.
In March 1864 taua from Pāterangi, Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Raukawa gained the agreement of Ngāti Maniapoto leader Rewi Maniapoto to fight the British at Ōrākau, near Kihikihi. Under his direction, 300 men began constructing defensive earthworks. On 30 March a survey party observed the pā under construction and Brigadier-General Robert Carey organised forward columns which arrived at Ōrākau the next day. Initial attacks were repulsed, but artillery continued to bombard the pā. Forward trenches built by British Engineers were close enough for grenades to be thrown into the pā. On 2 April, Cameron arrived and offered the defenders a chance to surrender, or safe passage for the women and children; both proposals were refused.
Āke, āke, āke!
The most famous incident of the New Zealand Wars was the Ōrākau defenders’ response to the offer of surrender or safe passage. The popular version is that they responded: ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke, āke!’ – ‘we shall fight on, for ever, and ever, and ever!’ There are several other versions of the response and it is unclear whether it was Rewi Maniapoto or another rangatira who spoke. In any event, ‘Rewi’s last stand’ became a legendary expression of Māori courage. The story was made into a silent film of the same name by Rudall Hayward in 1925 and remade as a ‘talkie’ in 1939.
With Rewi’s people suffering heavy casualties, and with a British incursion into the pā seeming imminent, Māori decided to abandon the pā and fight their way through the cordon of troops. On the afternoon of 2 April the defenders of Ōrākau crossed the south-eastern parapet in a tight group and moved quickly towards nearby swamps. The British rushed into the pā and fired on the retreating Māori.
Seventeen Europeans and up to 160 Māori were killed during the Ōrākau engagement, most of the Māori during the escape. It was the greatest loss of life in one battle of the wars. Whilst the battle ended in a clear victory for the British, it involved only a fraction of the Māori king’s forces. After Ōrākau, the Kīngitanga withdrew behind a defensive line along the Pūniu River. With their work done, and unwilling to pursue the king’s forces into Ngāti Maniapoto territory, the British troops returned to Auckland.