The Ōrākau battle site memorial obelisk is located on Arapuni Road, 4 km south-east of the Waikato town of Kihikihi, which is 4 km south of Te Awamutu on State Highway 3. The memorial marks the site of one of the best-known battles of the New Zealand Wars, popularly remembered as the last stand of Rewi Maniapoto.
A Ngāti Maniapoto chief, Rewi was a prominent military leader in the Kīngitanga – the Māori King Movement – throughout the Waikato War. In March 1864, Tūhoe and Ngāti Raukawa allies persuaded Rewi – against his better judgement – to make a stand at Ōrākau on a site that lacked a water supply and could easily be surrounded. Despite his misgivings, Rewi led by example against great odds.
Ōrākau pā was situated roughly on the midline of a low ridge that runs from Kihikihi to Ōtautahanga and Maungatautari. It was built in great haste 350 m east of the village of Ōrākau. Although unfinished, the low-profile modern pā was deceptively strong.
About half of Ōrākau’s 300 defenders were Tūhoe and Ngāti Raukawa. The rest were from Waikato, East Coast and Hawke’s Bay iwi. Only a few were Ngāti Maniapoto. Up to one-third of the pā’s occupants were women and children.
On 30 March, the Māori activity at Ōrākau was spotted from Kihikihi. Brigadier-General George Carey, in command of the forces based at Te Awamutu, immediately assembled some 1100 imperial and colonial troops. The British forces marched overnight and attacked the pā at dawn on 31 March. Three frontal attacks were driven back, with the loss of five dead and 11 wounded.
Carey now encircled the pā, cutting off the defenders’ access to water. He ordered an artillery bombardment by Armstrong guns positioned on the highest point of Karaponia ridge about 350 m south-west of the pā. When the shelling caused little damage to the earthworks, Carey ordered the construction of a sap (a covered zig-zag trench along which infantry could approach the pā in comparative safety).
Over three days, Ōrākau’s defenders repelled five British assaults. However shortages of food, water and ammunition meant that they could not hold out for much longer. Early in the afternoon of 2 April, after the arrival of Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron, the officer commanding all British forces in New Zealand, a ceasefire gave the defenders a chance to surrender. They responded with their now famous declaration of defiance: ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke!’ / We shall fight on forever! (Some attribute these words to Rewi, but accounts vary. In 1888 a veteran of the battle, Hitiri Te Paerata of the Ngāti Te Koheroa hapū (sub-tribe) of Ngāti Raukawa, gave an account of the conflict at Parliament buildings. He attributed the words collectively to Hapurona, Rewi, and his father. Although Rewi may not have spoken these words at Ōrākau, they reflected his attitude to the British invasion of Waikato. Earlier, at Ngāruawāhia, he is reported to have said: ‘Kāore ahau e whakaae kia mutu te whawhai, ko taku tohe ano tenei āke! āke! tonu atu!’ / I will not agree that the fighting shall cease, I will maintain this for ever and ever.)
Soon afterwards, Ōrākau’s defenders left the pā and broke through the British lines. At least half of them escaped through a swamp and crossed the Pūniu River into Ngāti Maniapoto territory; others were not so lucky. Colonial Defence Force cavalry, mounted Royal Artillery troops and Forest Rangers hunted down and killed many, especially women and the wounded.
Māori casualties were heavy. Although British estimates were much higher, Rewi later said that 80 Māori were killed; at least 40 more were wounded. Total British casualties during the battle were 17 killed and 52 wounded. Most of the British dead were buried in St John’s churchyard at Te Awamutu.
Ōrākau proved to be the last battle of the Waikato War. After the war, the land on which the battle was fought was confiscated by the government and sold to settlers who soon developed farms. The pā site itself was split in two by the construction of Arapuni Road.
This memorial was probably erected in late 1911 or 1912. Some sources suggest that the stonework was erected by public subscription, with government-funded inscriptions. Others suggest that the government funded the entire memorial; its intention to do so was reported in the Poverty Bay Herald on 9 August 1911. It is certain that the memorial had been standing for several years, and that the government added at least some of the inscriptions, before it was unveiled on 1 April 1914.
Minister of Defence James Allen unveiled the memorial on the 50th anniversary of the battle’s second day. F.E. Smith, Chairman of the Waikato Orakau Jubilee Committee, felt that the date marked ‘not only … the jubilee of this glorious fight, but more particularly the 50 years of peace we have since enjoyed.’ The ceremony was attended by ‘several thousand Europeans and Natives’, including government ministers Dr Māui Pōmare and W. Herries, Bishop Alfred Averill, military personnel, and New Zealand Wars veterans from both sides.
The unveiling at Ōrākau reignited public interest in both this dramatic episode in New Zealand’s history and the battle site itself. Newspapers throughout the country evoked the ‘Maoris’ Splendid Stand’ and ‘The Memory of Heroes’. The Poverty Bay Herald claimed that the battle bore ‘the same relation to the Maori race as did the classic Thermopylae to the ancient Greeks’; ‘nothing [was] more heroic or worthier of remembrance’. For some, including Edith Statham, inspector of old soldiers’ graves in the Department of Internal Affairs, the existing memorial was not sufficient. Something more substantial was required.
The more ambitious proposals envisaged the purchase of land and diversion of the road to enable the reunification of the pā site. In April 1914 both the New Zealand Herald and the Dominion published letters advocating the purchase of the land and the construction of a lookout. Both newspapers proposed the erection of an additional memorial on the pā site to commemorate the 40 Māori who were thought to be buried there. Hari Wahanui, a descendant of Rewi Maniapoto who had participated in the unveiling, wrote to Statham in May to ask that the road be moved from the pā site to the western side of the reserve.
Statham appears to have endorsed these proposals with enthusiasm. In July 1914 she proposed to James Hislop, the Under-Secretary for Internal Affairs, that the road be diverted and the site fenced as a park that would act as a memorial to Māori warriors. This was the first of many recommendations from her regarding the site.
With New Zealand going to war and funds urgently required elsewhere, Hislop was reluctant to endorse such an ambitious proposal. The matter appeared concluded when, on 28 August, the Waipa County Clerk expressed doubt that any Māori were buried on the road line; the Council was therefore unwilling to bear the cost of diverting the road. In February 1915, Hislop advised Statham that the proposal was too costly.
Statham visited Ōrākau on 3 May 1915. As an alternative to earlier proposals, she suggested a memorial dedicated to ‘the gallant Maories’ on the opposite side of the road to the present one, or on the pā site itself. Hislop stated that no such memorial could be built before the war was over.
Undeterred, Statham turned to the inscription on the existing monument. In her view, the line ‘Rewi Maniapoto’ was too plain; she wanted ‘to say he was the commander of the pa during the heroic defence put up by his gallant men’. On 10 March 1916, Statham wrote to Henry Walton at Waikanae requesting that he obtain an appropriate inscription from Rewi’s descendants. Te Heu Heu of Tūwharetoa provided this on 28 December:
Rewi Maniapoto was one of the highest of the chiefs of Ngati Maniapoto and Ngati Raukawa. He was an upholder of the Kingdom of Potatau Te Wherowhero and Tawhiao, and at the time of the war waged by the Pakeha race against the Maori King, he fought in the war on the side of the Maori King, with the result that he was defeated here at Orakau, his tribe subdued, and his lands taken by conquest.
This was not what Statham had in mind:
[N]ow that I see the translation, I do not quite like it, as it does not set forth the main fact that I was anxious to give publicity to, viz that Rewi was the chief commanding the Maori troops and made such a gallant defence against our men.
In early 1917, Hislop referred the matter to Dr Allan Thomson, Director of the Dominion Museum (the predecessor of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa). Thomson in turn consulted Elsdon Best, the foremost ethnographer of Māori society. Best outlined Rewi’s opposition to fighting at Ōrākau and suggested a neutral inscription. Statham liked this approach, but asked whether ‘a few more [words] could be inscribed expressing the bravery of the men who fell at the defence?’
In February 1918 Statham confirmed that the inscription provided by Te Heu Heu ‘appears to be much too long and not quite what’s required, so the matter is left in abeyance in the meantime’.
Efforts to expand the inscription were renewed in June 1919; by April 1920, both the Under-Secretary and the Minister of Internal Affairs were involved. In May Thomson suggested an inscription in both English and Maori: ‘A chief of the Ngati Maniapoto tribe whose gallant defence of Orakau against British troops in 1864 lives in their defiant cry We will fight on for ever and ever’.
Nothing was done. The inscriptions on the memorial today are those unveiled in 1914.
The tenacious Statham revived the idea of a creating a memorial reserve at Ōrākau in mid-1920. She also suggested that a marble cross be erected in honour of the gallant Māori who had died on the site, and proposed that the Rewi inscription be postponed until this work had been completed. Hislop was unmoved:
It is not proposed to erect a monument at Orakau in memory of the Maoris who fell in that engagement. The matter must accordingly remain in abeyance ….
The release of the feature film Rewi’s Last Stand in 1925 renewed public interest in Ōrākau. Statham wrote to the Under-Secretary on 30 July to express her hope that the film ‘may draw public attention again to the matter’ of a memorial to the Maori dead. He replied that the work ‘must stand in obeisance [sic] for a little while longer’. Statham appears to have made no further requests on the subject.
Others took up the cause. On 2 April 1927, the journalist and historian James Cowan wrote in the Auckland Star that British troops had buried 40 Māori in the outer trench of the Ōrākau pā, a last resting place that should be marked.
Cowan had personal ties to Ōrākau. Soon after his birth in 1870, the family moved from Pakuranga to a farm that included part of the battle site. Cowan’s father, William, fenced off the burial place. Both he and Andrew Kay, who owned the rest of the site, planted trees on it – bluegums, on the Cowan side. Over time, however, the fence and the trees disappeared.
Cowan wrote several more articles for the Auckland Star. On 2 April 1935 he called again for the Maori burial place to be marked in some way. On 1 April 1939, he claimed that wreaths in memory of both races had been laid at the foot of the Ōrākau memorial each 2 April for the previous 25 years. He asked again that the soil in which dead were buried be fenced off and marked.
Despite all these requests, no major works have been undertaken at the site since the memorial was unveiled in 1914. A picnic area below the memorial, inlaid with three plaques, was constructed by the Waipa County Council in 1964 to mark the centennial of the battle.
Today, the site of the most famous battle of the New Zealand Wars remains private farmland and road reserve. No traces of the pā are visible.
Erected / in commemoration of / Battle of Orakau / fought / March 31st / April 1st and 2nd 1864 / Erected on the site of the pa / Harris A K
Lieutenant General / Duncan Alexander / Cameron K. C. B. / Commanding the troops / in New Zealand
A bronze plaque embedded in concrete at the base of the obelisk plinth features a plan view of the pa site.
On this site in an unfinished pa / about 300 Maoris with some / women and children, poorly / armed and with little food / and no water, held at bay 1500 / better equipped British and / Colonial troops. Refusing to / surrender, on the third day / a remnant of the Maoris / escaped across the Puniu / River.
[Plaque B] features a map of the area including the battle site
This picnic area was / constructed by the / Waipa County Council / to mark the centennial / of the Battle / of Orakau