Today marks an important date in New Zealand history. One hundred and fifty years ago one of the bloodiest battles of the New Zealand Wars took place between British troops and Māori warriors at their defensive earthworks at Rangiriri. By the time the battle was over early the next morning over seventy men had been killed and many more were wounded. At the time the British considered this a victory, but the events of that day are still debated, the wounds are still felt by many and the impact it had on this country is still greatly under-appreciated.On 20th November 1863, General Cameron’s force of British and Colonial troops approached the Māori defensive line at Rangiriri. The British were backed by artillery and gunboats. Throughout the afternoon, repeated attacks on the parapets failed and many men on both sides fell during fierce fighting. Two men from the Royal Artillery were both later awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery during one of these attacks. The series of assaults were unsuccessful, and during the night some of the defending warriors slipped away. Early on the morning of the 21st November a white flag was raised by the remaining defenders and the British forces entered the redoubt and shook hands with the bemused Māori. They had not intended to surrender, but wanted to discuss terms.
It seems easier to commemorate the sacrifice made by those New Zealanders who fell fighting on foreign battlefields than it does those who were killed at Rangiriri. This isn’t surprising. The New Zealand Wars have fallen out of living memory, were under-taught in our schools for generations, are under-represented in the media, the emotions they provoke can be uncomfortable; and their causes, outcomes and meaning are still keenly debated by academics – a healthy process but one that in my opinion can at times come at the cost of accessibility to the public. Today isn’t about celebration, or even necessarily about a search for reason and meaning, it is about commemoration and acknowledgement of those that fought on both sides.
So far I have been disappointed at how little media attention has been given to the 150th anniversary of the Waikato Invasion. Looking at the TV schedule for this week I can’t see anything scheduled specifically to commemorate the anniversary, although there are a large number of documentaries for Sky viewers with an interest in the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination.
However, I’m hopeful that there will be good news coverage of today’s commemoration at the battlefield where descendants from both sides will meet to remember the bravery of those who fought that day and remember those who fell. For those that can’t make it to the commemoration, here is a selection of relevant media that is available for viewing online.
Marae Investigates – Battle of Rangiriri
Marae Investigates – Interview with a Pakeha descendant
‘Rangiriri – Angry Sky’ – A documentary about an archaeological dig at the site
The Governor – The Lame Seagull
This episode of ‘The Governor’ includes a recreation of the battle. The scale of this dramatisation is almost unparalleled in New Zealand television history, yet sadly the series rarely sees the light of day, apparently due to rights issues that make it difficult to re-broadcast or distribute the series through other means such as DVD release.
The original broadcast of this series in 1977 was highly controversial due to both the subject matter and the cost, but it also inspired many New Zealanders to learn more about their own history. That is something I’d always like to encourage, but especially on an anniversary like today. The Waikato invasion may be an uncomfortable topic, the memories painful, the reasons and outcomes still debated, but the worst thing we can do is pretend it didn’t happen.
© Lemuel Lyes