Battle of Ōrākau
Tihei mauri ora!
E ngā Rangatira katoa, e koro mā, e kui mā – o te paepae tapu - e ngā iwi o te motu kua tau mai ki Ōrākau, e mihi whakaiti nei, tēnā koutou katoa. Arikinui Tuheitia, te Kiingi Maori, me Atawhai – ka mihi ahau ki a kōrua. Arikinui – Ta Tumu Te Heuheu, tēnā koe.
Distinguished leaders, the elder men and women on the paepae, and the tribes of Aotearoa gathered here at Ōrākau I offer my humble greetings. Arikinui Kiingi Tuheitia and Atawhai – I greet you both. Arikinui Sir Tumu Te Heuheu I also greet you.
I specifically acknowledge Hon Christopher Finlayson and Hon Dr Pita Sharples, Ministers of the Crown; Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Representatives of the New Zealand Defence Force; and His Worship Jim Mylchreest, Mayor of the Waipa District and other mayors from the local districts – tēnā koutou katoa.
It is a great honour to be here, not only as the Queen’s representative and as a mark of respect for the people who fought here, but also in respect of my tupuna and as a former Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force. Today, I stand before you to acknowledge the brave men and women who fought and died on both sides of this battle. I share the sorrow of people here today whose tīpuna lost their lives at this place.
As we gather here today and recall the course of the battle, we can reflect on what it has come to mean in our nation’s story. 150 years ago today, the position of the defenders of Ōrākau pā was becoming desperate. They were surrounded by a cordon of British forces, cut off from access to water, escape routes and allies who had come to support them.
On one side, Maniapoto, Raukawa and Tūhoe warriors, supported by representatives from Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Waikato tribes, Ngāti Porou, Whakatōhea and Whānau-ā-Apanui were led by Rewi Manga Maniapoto. On the other side, the more than 1000 men were led initially by Brigadier-General George Jackson Carey, and in the closing moments by Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron. Although the British forces were better armed, with rockets, grenades and artillery at their disposal, the pā’s defenders had withstood bombardment and had repelled several direct assaults.
The defenders could see a sap, a trench, inching closer and closer from the British lines. It was only a matter of time before it reached the pā. They held on until the next day – day-three of the battle – the 2nd April when more British reinforcements arrived together with Lieutenant-General Cameron, the commander of Imperial Forces in New Zealand. On 2 April, the 300 men, women and tamariki in Ōrākau pā faced close to 1800 attackers.
Cameron assessed the defender’s situation in the pā as hopeless. He called for a cease-fire and sent a negotiator, Major William Mair, along the sap to invite the garrison to surrender. The defiant response was “E hoa ka whawhai tonu mātou. Ake ake ake! – Friend, we will fight on forever.” On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1914, the Evening Post declared that those words “will live as long as men in this land have thoughts and tongues to utter them”.
It takes a special brand of courage to take a stand when you know the odds are stacked against you. As the sap finally reached the pā walls, late on the afternoon of 2 April, the defenders broke through the British lines. The men shepherded their women and children in the middle of a wedge-shaped formation. However, as they fled the three kilometres to the Pūniu River, they were pursued by cavalry, mounted artillerymen and Forest Rangers, and cut down: women alongside their men.
After the battle, in his dispatch to Governor Grey, Lieutenant General Cameron said, “It is impossible not to admire the heroic courage and devotion of the Māoris in defending themselves so long against overwhelming numbers. Surrounded on all sides, cut off from their supply of water and deprived of all hope of succour, they resolutely held their ground for more than two days and did not abandon the position until the sap had reached the last entrenchment.”
Ōrākau is often described as ‘Rewi’s last stand’. While it certainly was the last battle of the Waikato Wars fought in the Waikato, it is worth remembering that Rewi and his group expected to keep on fighting. A new line, a new aukati, was marked. New defences were established at Rotomarama to halt the expected invasion of troops, and Paratui pā about 25 kilometres southwest of Ōrākau was readied. The invasion never eventuated, Cameron’s focus shifted to Tauranga.
Like other Māori leaders, Rewi Maniapoto turned to other ways to work for the interests of his people. In due course, the government built a house for him at Kihikihi. The house has gone, but the monument on the site, donated by Sir George Grey in Rewi’s honour, remains. A plaque on the monument states that Grey proposed that "Warrior Chief Rewi Maniapoto live at Kihikihi as a gesture of Māori and Pākehā unity”. And, in 1890, Rewi Manga Maniapoto was presented to the Governor, Lord Onslow.
At the 50th anniversary commemorations in 1914, a monument was unveiled here. It has Lieutenant-General Cameron’s name on one side and Rewi Maniapoto’s name on the other. And at those commemorations, elderly veterans from both sides were photographed shaking hands. It is worth remembering that four months later, Māori and Pākehā together would volunteer to fight in the First World War.
150 years on, Māori and Pākehā have come together again to acknowledge our shared history at Ōrākau. Many nations have battles that take on mythic proportions for their peoples. For New Zealanders, Ōrākau is one of those battles, one of those places.
In the 1920s, James Cowan saw Ōrākau as ‘a place of sadness and glory’, where the defenders made a heroic stand for independence. Ōrākau does symbolise a painful period in our nation’s history and yet, it is also a touchstone for unity: courage, dedication and determination in the face of adversity, and for loyalty to a cause whatever the odds.
With the passage of time, it has also come to stand for mutual respect, honour and the basis for reconciliation as we address the wrongs of the past and work in partnership for a better future. As we gather here today, it is my hope that this place and its story become firmly etched in our nation’s collective memory. I hope the children who are here today and all New Zealanders will encourage their children and their mokopuna to come here for the 200th anniversary commemorations in 2064 – to remember those who died here and to honour their example of courage, reconciliation and unity – and say “E hoa ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou, āke, āke, āke!”
Na reira e te iwi; kia ora, kia kaha, kia manawanui tātou katoa.