New Zealand Wars

150 Years Ago: The Waikato Invasion

Today marks one hundred and fifty years since the first skirmishes of the Waikato Invasion were fought.  I’m not an expert on the subject but it feels wrong to not acknowledge such an important date in New Zealand’s history.  It isn’t about celebrating; it is about commemorating and remembering.

The Waikato Invasion was the largest campaign of the New Zealand Wars.  Governor Sir George Grey had decided that the Kingitanga Movement was too great a threat to British authority and that the most appropriate answer to that threat was shot, shell and steel – none of which were particularly diplomatic.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the politics and reasons behind the wars, not because they aren’t important but because they are complicated and there are others better qualified to explain them than I am.  Instead I’m going to focus on what happened when and where, and most importantly what it must have been like for the individuals caught up in the whole mess.

On 12th July 1863 British soldiers crossed the Mangatāwhiri River, which was considered the northern boundary of the Waikato, and from that point on armed confrontation was all but inevitable.  The first skirmishes of the campaign were fought exactly one hundred and fifty years ago.

Sketch made on 17th July 1863 Scrivener, Henry Ambrose, 1842-1906. Scrivener, Henry Ambrose, 1842-1906 :First encampment at Drury. 17 July 1863. Naval encampment of landing party from HMS Harrier... 1863.. Scrivener, Henry Ambrose, 1842-1906 :First encampment at Drury. 17 July 1863. Naval encampment of landing party from HMS Harrier... 1863; and (on verso) Nukulau Island, Fiji Islands. 1861... Ref: B-064-025. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Scrivener, Henry Ambrose, 1842-1906. Scrivener, Henry Ambrose, 1842-1906 :First encampment at Drury. 17 July 1863. Naval encampment of landing party from HMS Harrier… 1863.. Scrivener, Henry Ambrose, 1842-1906 :First encampment at Drury. 17 July 1863. Naval encampment of landing party from HMS Harrier… 1863; and (on verso) Nukulau Island, Fiji Islands. 1861… Ref: B-064-025. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

(The above sketch of the British encampment at Drury was made 150 years ago on 17th July 1863).

In this opening stage of the campaign both sides were eager to test their mettle against the other.  There were two key actions on 17th July – one ended with a bayonet charge by British forces and the other was a guerrilla style strike by Māori.  There would be no more diplomacy – the fire was in the fern.

Koheroa:  Battle for the Waikato Heights

After crossing the Mangatāwhiri the British advanced towards the strategic high ground overlooking the Waikato River; but an advance force of Māori warriors led by Te Huirama had already taken up position in the heights, and under the watchful eye of the14th Regiment were seen to be digging defensive rifle pits.

The 14th Regiment advanced uphill towards the Māori positions, joined by men from the 12th and 70th Regiments.  The first casualties were British, picked off as they advanced through the fern and Manuka.  The men waivered initially but were bolstered by General Cameron who led them on a bayonet charge – driving the defenders from their positions.  He was nominated for a Victoria Cross for this action but the request was turned down, with his superiors noting “a commanding general had no business risking his own life”.

About fifteen to thirty Māori were killed at Koheroa and one was taken prisoner.  Well, a boy was taken prisoner.  The British suffered only one fatality along with a number of injured – and they had won control of the heights overlooking the Waikato River.

After the battle General Cameron gave a short speech to his men, “You see, men, the only way to do with these fellows is to rush them at once”.  It was a morale-boosting and strategic victory for the British at Koheroa, but what those cheering men didn’t know was that there had also been another skirmish that same day.

Ambush at Martin’s Farm

The British had numerical and technological superiority over their adversary but the Māori forces were quick to identify the importance of the British supply lines.  While the British soldiers at the front were celebrating their victory at Koheroa, behind the lines they were recovering from a deadly ambush.

The Great South Road was the main artery for General Cameron’s military machine – it kept his forces connected to supplies and re-enforcements.  Without this vital lifeline the British war effort would grind to a halt.  I wonder how many Auckland commuters realise the historical significance of that road as they drive to work each day.  As frustrating as their commute might be, at least they don’t have to worry about being ambushed.  The same can’t be said for British soldiers during the Waikato campaign.

On 17th July 1863 fifty soldiers from the 18th Royal Irish Regiment were escorting a convoy of six carts along the Great South Road near Ramarama when they came under attack from Māori warriors who had concealed themselves in the thick bush on both sides of the road.  Several soldiers were killed in the first volley as the horses reared among the confusion.  The ambushers then rushed the rear guard, trying to cut them off from the main body – the outnumbered soldiers counter-charged with the bayonet and fought their way through.  The Māori continued to harass the escort until reinforcements came to their rescue.  Five soldiers were killed in the ambush and 11 were wounded, while Māori losses were minimal.

Illustrated London news (Newspaper). Illustrated London news :Views in New Zealand. The Great South Road, near Shepherd's Bush, the scene of the attack upon the escort on July 17 (London, 1863). Ref: PUBL-0033-1863-477. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Illustrated London news (Newspaper). Illustrated London news :Views in New Zealand. The Great South Road, near Shepherd’s Bush, the scene of the attack upon the escort on July 17 (London, 1863). Ref: PUBL-0033-1863-477. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The description published in the Daily Southern Cross the next day is truly horrific:

“One poor fellow had his face frightfully tomahawked, and his tongue was nearly plucked up by the roots.  It was, in truth, a ghastly sight.  Stiff and cold, they lay bathed in blood, – some stripped of their shoes; and the man I have mentioned presenting a more fearful spectacle than it often falls to the lot of one to witness.  The tomahawk broke in the bones of his face across the left eye and on to the temple, exposing the brain; and the swollen tongue lolled out of his mouth”.

I should point out that you kind of have to take newspaper reports of the conflict with a large pinch of salt.  Relying on them as your only primary resource would be a bit like relying purely on Fox News to give a fair and balanced view of the Iraq War.  There is no doubt some truth in the newspaper accounts – but with side servings of embellishment, patriotism and colonial propaganda.

And so that miserable winter day one hundred and fifty years ago ended with casualties on both sides, the Māori retreated from Koheroa while the British reeled in the rear with a newly found distrust of roadside shrubberies.  Meanwhile the Auckland public were starting to work themselves into a panic as rumours of the fighting began to reach them, and down south in Otago – well prospectors were still busy finding gold and drinking whisky.  However as I mentioned in my last post it wasn’t to be the most comfortable of winters for them either.

© Lemuel Lyes

Further Reading:

Matthew Wright, Two peoples, one land: the New Zealand Wars, Reed Books, Auckland, 2006

James Belich, The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict, Penguin, Auckland, 1988

9 replies »

  1. Hi – thanks for the shout-out! Much appreciated. I’d forgotten the anniversary was coming up…and yes, I know I wrote the book on this war… 🙂 It’s one of the few fields in our history over which there has been any kind of historiographic debate, though really there shouldn’t have been.

    • I have to admit that I had a little bit of hesitation when posting about this anniversary – not because I don’t find it fascinating and think it should be talked about more often but because more than any other area in New Zealand history this is the one field that one can feel they almost need a PhD in before they are “allowed” to comment.

      The academic debate can be fascinating, but I do think it is also part of the reason why we hear so little about what in my opinion is one of the most important parts of our local history.

      • My own experience of the academic debate is that it sums up all the reasons why I didn’t seek a job in a university and have tried to keep well clear of their subculture. The debate itself was basically hijacked by Belich’s interpretation, which became the ‘reality’ largely for non-military academia.

        I wrote ‘Two Peoples’ partly to show how these ideas had then been reduced to complete nonsense by subsequent repetition and reduction by others – it got to the point where one kids book suggested that Maori had invented trench warfare and the British then stole it for the First World War. This is flat out wrong. Really I wasn’t even presenting an argument – I simply looked up the data associated with the origins of trench warfare, which is irrefutable, and showed how it applied to the New Zealand Wars.

        The outcome was that (a) internationally, my work was warmly received at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst as a significant contribution to the field, and (b) here in New Zealand I found my work trawled for any ambiguity on which to deny my worth, character and scholarship. I was told I was wrong for ‘challenging’ Belich’s ideas. To me this wasn’t debate, it came across more like an in-crowd running a standard academic invalidation routine as my punishment for disputing their doctrine.

        I would have liked to discuss this with Belich himself – he is regarded as one of our foremost historians and I for one enjoy an adult discussion of issues which – let’s face it – are pretty abstract. Unfortunately his sole response to my book was to get instantly angry and swear, merely when my name was mentioned to him while he was being interviewed on Chris Laidlaw’s radio programme in 2008. I have the recording.

        I suppose, in a kind of inverse way, the whole circus has been a local validation of what I’d written in their academic terms – I guess I had to be taken very seriously to spur such personal anger from total strangers. The only real problem I’ve had has been that not one of these people has had the integrity to approach me in person about it for an honest discussion. Not one. And that isn’t the way to earn my respect – either of them as people, or of the institutions they represent.

      • It certainly doesn’t sound like a very healthy environment. The politics of academia certainly don’t appeal to me one bit and it seems to me that the negative side of those politics can be amplified when the subject is one that is open to such different interpretation. Add to the mix the common human mistake of investing too much of the sense of self in ones ‘life work’ and I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the result.

        As a teenager I was a huge fan of Belich (even writing a ‘fan letter’ at the age of 15 and swapping notes on the 1843 Wairau Incident), but in retrospect what I admired the most about his work was the way he made 19th century New Zealand history interesting to people who may not have previously given it much thought – I’m referring of course primarily to his ‘New Zealand Wars’ documentary series. I was naively unaware at the time of the academic politics and was simply thrilled to see the subject on the tv screen. Funnily enough, along with other historical documentary series such as ‘Epitaph’, ‘Shipwreck’ and ‘Colour of War’, the NZ Wars series was part of my inspiration to pursue a career in media and sidestep what I suspect might’ve been a frustrating career in the academic world. Completely by chance my first job in television was working on an Australasian version of the ‘Colour of War’ franchise – talk about perfect timing!

        Hearing about your experience certainly confirms what I’ve heard elsewhere about the unpleasant dynamics that seems to bog down decent debate and discussion in the academic world. Fortunately, despite what some might say, working for a university isn’t the only way that one can research, interpret and share our rich history.

  2. An excellent and engaging write-up of the events of 150 years ago.

    Amazing we don’t commemorate 150 years – compare it with the Gettysburg 150th commemorations in America only a couple of weeks ago. And they’re just as raw as us about some of the ongoing outcomes.

    • Thanks for the compliment!

      I agree – it is sad to see such a big anniversary sliding past with very little media attention. Hopefully there might be more interest in some of the upcoming anniversaries of battles such as Meremere and Rangiriri.

  3. Thanks for interesting read. Would the attack on the supply train have taken place on what is now called Ambush Rd, Ramarama?

    • Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know the area very well so can’t answer definitively, but I suspect you might be right. ‘Report on the redoubts of the Great South Road’ in the Auckland-Waikato historical journal, September 1993 might have more information. If it is indeed named after that incident then it is great to hear that the history is remembered in a place name like that!

  4. Perhaps I should have also added that Ambush Rd is immediately off the old Great South Rd, Ramarama. I will come back if I can find out definitively.

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