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.
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:
(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