New Zealand Wars

150th Anniversary – Battle of Rangiriri

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.

Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s :Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863]. Cassell's picturesque Australasia, edited by E. E. Morris. London, Cassell & Co, 1890. Ref: PUBL-0046-4-39. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s :Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863]. Cassell’s picturesque Australasia, edited by E. E. Morris. London, Cassell & Co, 1890. Ref: PUBL-0046-4-39. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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

The Governor - The Lame Seagull (Episode Five)

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

6 replies »

    • Wow I didn’t realise they were the same day until you mentioned this, thanks for pointing it out! I’m interested in some of the connections between the two conflicts, which were fought at the same time but obviously in different places and for different reasons.

      Some of the same military technology was being implemented and I suspect there may have even been some individuals who managed to fight in both wars.

  1. I missed this posting when you wrote it, Lemuel (that comes from relying on an unreliable RSS feed!). But better late than never …

    It certainly is amazing that the 150th anniversary of such an important event in our history has slid beneath the radar so much. When you compare this to the way the Americans commemorate their history of the same period (and the war between the North and the South was every bit as controversial as our own wars).

    I never knew ‘The Governor’ was (partly) available online. A shame my internet connection isn’t up to watching it online. But if it has made it this far, maybe sometime it will come out in other media?

    It certainly wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to find someone fighting in both our colonial wars and the American Civil War. Let alone veterans from many of the other wars that happened around the world in those years (why, maybe even the famous Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE fought here, as there is a hole in his reminiscences covering much of the the 1860s, and that fits nicely with this part of the NZ Wars!).

    • The comparison between the New Zealand Wars and the American Civil War is valid; while obviously fought for very different reasons and between different combatants they were both fought at the same time and both had a huge impact on the future of the their respective nations. So it is interesting how compared to the New Zealand Wars the American Civil War is well taught in schools, represented in popular culture, the battle sites visited by many and the anniversaries acknowledged. I’ve often got the sense that the New Zealand Wars are ‘too inconvenient’ to be accepted as part of our popular history the way that the ANZAC legend is.

      I should confess that I had a brief sniff around for examples of veterans who fought in both the New Zealand Wars as well as the American Civil War and I came across a few leads that suggest there were several such individuals. This obituary tells of a particularly fascinating story – I had a quick look and was unable to verify that he was a veteran of the wars as claimed but I have it bookmarked as needing more research – there could be a cracker of a story there if true!

      Re: ‘The Governor’, I hold out hope! The original contracts hark from a time when television was a screen once affair. Huge amounts of money were poured into television dramas which would only air once or twice, perhaps then be sold in a few other regions, and then never be seen again. Unfortunately New Zealand is a small market, even smaller when you think about how many people would want to buy a copy of an old costume drama, so the sad reality is that the re-negotiating of contracts to re-release these classics isn’t a profitable exercise. I say there may be hope though, as another beloved NZ drama series, ‘Hunter’s Gold’, was recently released on DVD despite facing very similar issues. Here is a link to an article about Hunter’s Gold before the issues were resolved – So keep your fingers crossed!

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