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150 years since The Battle of Ōrākau in the Waikato War

The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ōrākau in the Waikato War (1863–1864) will take place on Tuesday 1 April. One of the most well-known battles of the New Zealand Wars, it took place between 31 March and 2 April 1864. Seventeen British troops died at Ōrākau, while the number of Māori killed is estimated at 150.

Kuia at the dawn ceremony - image is courtesy of John Cowpland, alphapix. More images are available here.

On 1 April, there will be a special ceremony close to the site where the battle took place, attended by senior government representatives including His Excellency the Governor-General, Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, Hon Christopher Finlayson and local government officials. Iwi leaders will include King Tuheitia, elder statesman and former Cabinet Minister the Honourable Koro Wetere, Paramount Chief of Tuwharetoa Sir Tumu Te Heuheu and the Kingmaker, Anaru Tarapīpipi Tamehana.

Tom Roa, Ngāti Apakura elder and Chair of Ngā Pae o Maumahara, the group established to commemorate and raise awareness of the war says the battle of Ōrākau was a decisive shift for iwi throughout the motu (country).

“One hundred and fifty years ago the battle of Ōrākau galvanized Iwi under the mantle of the Kīngitanga to defend their sovereignty, their mana and their lands and Tainui will never forget the honour and dignity shown by those Iwi who fought alongside them at Ōrākau,” says Roa.

To mark this day, there will be a flag raising and karakia at 6am. The first pōwhiri will be held at 7:30am where Waikato-Tainui will welcome iwi from around the motu. The second official welcome will be at 11am for all local and central government representatives and personnel. Addresses from the Governor-General and Hon Christopher Finlayson will be between 1pm and 2pm, followed by the unveiling of a plaque and a New Zealand Defence Force memorial service. The ceremony will conclude with a procession of parekawakawa (wreaths) and laying of wreaths in memory of those who died in the battle.

“There will be several tributes paid to those who gave their lives defending their lands and defending the mana of the Kīngitanga and we will always remember this battle because it was a critical moment in the history of our people. Takoto mai koutou i roto i te Atua,” says Roa.

The commemoration will be held adjacent to the memorial on Arapuni Road where the battle is believed to have taken place, located 4 kilometres south-east of the Waikato town of Kihikihi, south of Te Awamutu.

Photographs taken at the commemoration will be made available during the course of the day for media use. To download, please register by emailing and go to the following link:

Historical background

The Battle of Ōrākau

In late March 1864 about 300 Māori, led by Rewi Maniapoto and including Ngāti Maniapoto keen to reassert their mana over the area, hastily built a . Brigadier-General G.J. Carey led an 1100-strong strike force of British and colonial troops, with the first assaults by units on the morning of the 31 March.

Artillery was brought up and the was encircled. Over the next 48 hours, a sap (covered trench) was dug towards the so a field gun could pound the walls at short range. The troops made three more futile charges against the deceptively weak-looking structure, losing men each time.

By midday on 2 April, the third day of the siege, Cameron suggested that the Māori surrender. The response was defiance – ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, Ake! Ake! Ake! - We will fight on for ever and ever!' – and a vow that the women would die along with the men. Several hours later, the entire garrison – men, women and children – left the in a disciplined wedge formation, broke through a weak point in the British cordon and headed for the Pūniu river, three kilometres away. Many were hunted down and killed by cavalry and Forest Rangers, but between half and two-thirds of the defenders crossed the river and reached safety.

Ōrākau was a major setback for the Kīngitanga, but it did not end their ability to fight. Further defensive lines were soon built to the south and east, screening the remaining territory held under the Māori King’s mana. The next major battle would be fought in Tauranga – at Gate Pā – several weeks later.

The Battle of Ōrākau inspired Rudall Hayward’s two dramatic films entitled Rewi’s Last Stand (1925 and 1940).

The Waikato War

The Waikato War was the key campaign in a long conflict which is known today as the New Zealand Wars.

The New Zealand Wars were in large part fought over land. In the decades after 1840, the European population grew rapidly. Māori land ownership was recognised by the Treaty of Waitangi, and many Māori had no wish to sell their land so newcomers could settle on it.

The Kīngitanga (King Movement) was founded in the 1850s to unify those opposed to land sales, and to assert Māori authority and mana over their land. From 1860 there was open warfare as British and colonial forces fought to open up the North Island for settlement by Europeans.

The Waikato War began in July 1863. Over the following months British forces fought their way south towards the Kīngitanga’s agricultural base around Rangiaowhia and Te Awamutu. On the way they outflanked formidable modern pā at Meremere and Pāterangi, and captured the pā at Rangiriri.

In April 1864 Kīngitanga warriors under Rewi Maniapoto were heavily defeated at Ōrākau in the last battle in Waikato. By mid-1864, 400,000 hectares of Waikato land had passed under Crown control.
Up to 3000 people died during the New Zealand Wars – the majority of them Māori. And for many Māori the wars were only a prelude to the loss of their land through confiscation or the operations of the Native Land Court.

This loss of land had particularly devastating economic, social, environmental and cultural consequences for Waikato–Tainui. But the iwi always upheld its mana and asserted its right to compensation in the face of official indifference.

Since the 1990s, the Crown has negotiated Treaty Settlements to redress the historical grievances in the Waikato region and New Zealand as a whole.

In 1995 the first major settlement of an historical confiscation, or raupatu, claim was agreed between the Crown and Waikato-Tainui. The claim was settled for a package worth $170 million, in a mixture of money and Crown-owned land.

The settlement was accompanied by a formal apology, delivered by Queen Elizabeth II in person during her 1995 visit to New Zealand. The Crown apologised for the invasion of the Waikato and the subsequent indiscriminate confiscation of land.

For more information about the Waikato War and the New Zealand Wars see:
David Green, Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: A Visitor’s Guide, Penguin, Auckland, 2010.

Updated on 23rd July 2015