Rangariri Pā. Image: Heritage New Zealandexpand/collapse

'Bloody Rangiriri' was the key battle in the Waikato invasion.  It threw open the river basin to imperial troops, but at a huge cost.  The British suffered more casualties than in any other conflict in the New Zealand Wars.  Rangiriri Pā boasted steep ramparts, clever escape routes and fern-covered rifle pits.  But its warriors were outnumbered nearly three to one.  

Today you can walk the remaining earthworks and picture the Māori defenders firing muskets loaded by women who fought and died with their men.

Battle of Rangiriri

As night fell on Rangiriri, the humped shapes of dead and wounded British soldiers littered the approaches to the redoubt. But behind its thick earth walls the Māori warriors knew they were facing defeat. Surrounded on three sides by hundreds of troops, some 200 Kingite defenders slipped away during the night. At about 5am those who were left hoisted a white flag. 

There is evidence that the flag was not a sign of surrender, but of a desire to negotiate. One officer, Lieutenant Pennefather, described how on seeing the defenders’ white flag, he “at once scrambled into their redoubt, and with his men, mingled amongst them, shaking hands”. The General came up about ten minutes later, complimented them on their bravery and demanded their arms. According to Pennefather, the chiefs were reluctant to hand over weapons, explaining that they had hoisted the flag to discuss terms with the British. But in the end, resisting was out of the question.

More than 180 Māori prisoners were taken from Rangiriri, and many of the 200 who escaped overnight were seriously wounded. The Kīngitanga fighting force could not survive the blow. In the aftermath of the battle, the British forced mass evacuations from tribal land – people were settled with different hapu, in what became known as the King Country. Families were displaced and those who came back decades later found that their kāinga (villages) no longer existed, or had been taken over by others. 

Official government records of the time proclaimed a stunning British victory at Rangiriri. But the troops’ commander, General Cameron, was shaken by the losses: 132 British were killed or wounded. Forty-one Māori died, including six chiefs. The Māori dead were buried in the trenches and in a mass grave next to the thatched Māori church that served as a hospital during the battle. Today the cemetery at Rangiriri holds gravestones for the British who died and a grassed mound for the Māori who lost their lives.