New Zealand Wars

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Ōrākau

Cavalry units seldom saw combat in open terrain during the New Zealand Wars of the nineteenth century. The Māori had no wish to confront the British and colonial forces in conventional European battles in open fields, but instead usually fought in the bush, the hills, or behind the ramparts of their ingenious earthwork defences. Consequently, colonial cavalry units spent much of their time employed as scouts; as escorts for pack-horses or wagons; or raising civilian morale by parading through the towns looking handsome in their dashing tunics.   The last day of the Battle of Ōrākau was a rare exception, on 2 April 1864 – 150 years ago today.

It is hard to imagine a cavalry charge in New Zealand, but that is exactly what the illustration below purports to show. It was less than a decade after one of the most well-known cavalry charges of all time – that of the Light Brigade against the Russians at Crimea.

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Orakau Lemuel Lyes Collection

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Orakau
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Like the Light Brigade’s infamous gallop, and like nearly every other cavalry charge, the truth of the military action at Ōrākau isn’t nearly as glorious as how it is portrayed in art.

It was the last day of the Battle of Ōrākau and Rewi Maniapoto’s besieged warriors, along with some women and children, were low on ammunition and supplies. The British gave the defenders a chance to surrender but were instead met with these iconic words of defiance, “E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke! – Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever!” An offer for the women and children to leave unharmed was also refused, this time by Ahumai Te Paerata, the daughter of one of the chieftains, with the words “Ki te mate ngā tāne, me mate anō ngā wāhine me ngā tamariki’ – ‘If the men die, the women and children must die also.”

Hostilities continued and in desperation Rewi’s forces, along with the women and children, boldly broke through British lines and tried to make a run for it. They had no choice – but in the open they were vulnerable and the colonial cavalry pursued with their swords extended. The defenders tried to make it to the safety of a swamp, which was impassable for the horses, but many were cut down as they emerged into the open on the other side. There is rarely any real glory in a cavalry charge and this one was certainly no exception.

The illustration of the charge in my collection was published in the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia in 1886 with the title “CHARGE OF THE NEW ZEALAND CAVALRY AT THE BATTLE OF ORAKAU”. I’ve seen a number of framed examples like my one but this is the only copy I’ve personally encountered that has been coloured – although I should point out that this would have been the work of a different artist, possibly recently. The Alexander Turnbull Library also has a copy, which they attribute to a Frank P. Malony, however upon closer examination of the print in my collection the signature is actually that of well-known Australian colonial artist Frank P. Mahony.

He earned a reputation for his choice of horses as subjects and for illustrating action scenes. You can see some of his other work here, here and here. I’d love to know what happened to the original copy used in the Australasia Atlas – if anyone has any information please get in touch.

Of course the illustration does little to convey the truth of what happened that day – but it captured my attention and encouraged me to read more about it. When I first saw it I was surprised that there had been such an action here in New Zealand. Cavalry charges were supposed to happen on the distant battlefields of Europe, or during the American Civil War, and certainly not in the paddocks of the Waikato.

There has been some criticism that the 150th anniversaries of battles such as Rangiriri and Ōrākau have gone relatively unnoticed compared to anniversaries of more recent conflicts that were fought on foreign battlegrounds. I have to say that I agree with this. I do feel that the last six months have been a missed opportunity to better remember events that occurred in our own fields, bush and swamps – events that played an undeniably important part in the formation of this country and who we are today.

There is a fictional portrayal of the battle, including the inglorious cavalry charge, in Episode Five of The Governor (1977). For a long time this epic television drama was relatively inaccessible, I considered myself extremely lucky to have been able to watch the series on VHS while working on a TVNZ documentary series, but fortunately since then the team at NZOnscreen have done a remarkable job at making this episode available for viewing online. You can watch it here, and I really recommend you do:

The Governor - The Lame Seagull (Episode Five)

(Skip to Part 3 if you just want to see the cavalry charge).

To learn more about the battle of Ōrākau, or the Waikato Campaign in general, you can head on over to NZ History or, even better, visit your local library.  To read more about the use of mounted forces during the New Zealand Wars check out this fantastic article.

© Lemuel Lyes

15 replies »

  1. So much history that many of us out here are completely unaware of – that’s why your site is so important Lemuel. I went into the Mounted Rifle site as well, and glad to see the grandsons continued the tradition.

    • That Mounted Rifle site is fantastic isn’t it! There is quite an active community of New Zealanders who are particularly fascinated by the history of the Mounted Rifle units, especially their involvement in the First World War. My great great uncle was one of those troopers – he fought in the Middle East.

      Some of their fathers would have rode on horseback in the Boer War, and some of their grandfathers would have done the same in the New Zealand Wars.

      Thank you very much for your support! I’d love to see more people take an active interest in history, especially in the stories of their own communities. As I’m sure you are well aware it can be extremely rewarding to read, research and better understand the past!

  2. A wonderful and very timely post! I’m about to (re)publish the Turnbull copy of the Mahoney engraving in an upcoming reprint/second edition of one of my books (not ‘Two Peoples’, alas) – more on that soon – thanks for pointing out the correct spelling of the surname, which I’ve been able to fix.

    It’s a little sad how the 150th anniversaries of the NZ Wars have passed with so little notice. Overtaken, I fear, by twentieth century wars; and yet these wars of the 1860s, Orakau especially, defined New Zealand in many ways. Not in the ways that colonial mythology believed, but they unquestionably shaping for us, even down to giving us the locations of various towns – Hamilton, Cambridge and so forth. One point, which I find intriguing, is the number of churches that were put up on the battle sites in the decade or so afterwards – I’m thinking of Ohaewai and Pauahatanui especially, but there are others. One form of cultural symbol was being deliberately used to over-write another, in effect.

    • I agree – it is a real shame that the 150th anniversaries have slipped by without much attention. I suspect that for many the New Zealand Wars are simply too inconvenient to commemorate, although I like to think this is slowly changing.

      Your point about the use of churches on battle sites is an interesting one. I visited Ohaewai for the first time a year ago and was struck by the lonely church on its own in the field. It felt to me like it was an attempt to cleanse the earth. A very moving place.

    • It is a fantastic series isn’t it! Unfortunately, from what I understand, there are rights that need to be cleared before it can be seen again on TV or DVD. Rights that are likely to be cost-prohibitive to clear. I live in hope though – it would be great to see it broadcast again. It is a one of a kind series!

      In the meantime, NZOnscreen have done a great job at making some of the episodes available online.

  3. Hi, Lemuel, I’m visiting your site after hearing your wonderful, funny, and very moving presentation at PechaKucha Dunedin this evening. I met a woman who teaches 6-7 yr. olds, and she was very excited about your talk. She’s now thinking of using postcards to teach her students about WW1. Hopefully, she’ll find this website. You are an inspiration to all teachers!

    • Hi Mark, thanks for your kind words of encouragement! I’m relatively inexperienced at public speaking but was overwhelmed by the positive response. What a great idea to use postcards as a teaching tool. The teacher might want to check out ‘Jim’s Letters’, published by Penguin this month. It is a children’s book that uses letters and postcards to tell the story of a soldier at Gallipoli. They used some cards from my collection as illustrations. Feel free to get in touch if there is anything else I can do to help. Thanks again!

  4. “There is rarely any real glory in a cavalry charge” — I’d go so far as to say there is never any glory in warfare …

    • I think you are right. The promise of glory on the battlefield has too often been used to trick young men into maiming and killing others who were fed the same lies.

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