A trip to Rangiriri, as part of the National Māori Hui on Labour weekend, was a day that no one present will ever forget. It brought our hidden history out of the shadows and demanded a response.
Just off State Highway One, as you head into Auckland, is a small corner of New Zealand called Rangiriri. Literally thousands of us drive past every day, but for most of us, the story of the land and its people has been buried and forgotten.
At the National Māori Hui, though, this story was brought vividly to life. Rangiriri is the site of the one of the bloodiest battles in the New Zealand land wars.
‘I want the world to know why Waikato was invaded. It was to annihilate our people. But I want the world to know that they were unsuccessful. We survived. We live on,’ Brad Totorewa of Ngāti Naho, director of the Rangiriri Museum and Cultural Centre, told Stuff. He led our hui whānau into an immersive experience of Rangiriri’s hidden history.
We learnt how the Kīngitanga movement was deeply Christian in origin. Wiremu Tāmihana—known as the ‘Kingmaker’—was famed as saying, ‘Without a vision, our people perish’. Later, when he was converted to Christianity, he found these exact words echoed back at him in the Bible.
The Kīngitanga movement was ignited to ‘stop warfare, stop the flow of blood, unite iwi, hold to traditions and reign as equals with the Queen of England’, recalled Te Oko Horoi Totorewa in his kōrero.
The first Māori King, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, was appointed unanimously by 39 chiefs. But Governor Grey was not happy with this choice. He wanted to control the decision. The British rule in New Zealand was on a determined path to gain Māori land, and a united Māori people presented a serious threat. Grey vowed to wage war until Te Wherowhero gave up the Kingship.
In the oral history tradition, Te Oko Horoi recalled the conversation:
‘ “Really?” says Te Wherowhero to Governor Grey, “This taonga does not belong to me but if you wage war we will resist you, we will not go away”.
“I will block off all your waterways until they are no more”, says Governor Grey.
“We are from the depths of the earth, we will not dry up, we will not go away”, replies Te Wherowhero.’
Then, 20 November 1863, 1500 British forces invaded Rangiriri. Many of the local warriors were away fighting in the land wars elsewhere, so they were met by only 500 Māori—including women and the elderly. Despite being hugely outnumbered, they fought through the night. Over 100 elderly, women and children—strapped to the adults’ backs—were shot as they tried to escape via Lake Kopuera.
At dawn, Māori raised the white flag, in what has been a contentious moment ever since. Māori had observed the white flag used to begin negotiations, and believed they were starting cease-fire talks. The British troops saw it as surrender, and took almost 182 prisoners.
The government seized over 1.2 million acres of Waikato land as ‘compensation’ for the war—with soldiers given allotments. This marked the beginning of the catastrophic loss of land and culture for Māori.
As I heard this story, I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t taught this at school? We learn about the atrocities of the World Wars, but we do not name the atrocities on our own land. Rangiriri was just one example of one group of people oppressing another. The echoes of this invasion continue to reverberate in our nation.
We were then taken to the local gravesite, where British causalities of the war were each given a gravestone and burial, while Māori were buried in a mass grave—now a simple mound covered in grass. ‘Not all were dead, some were reaching up. It’s as if the soldiers were trying to cover up what they had done,’ recalled Wairuaiti Tumai.
The Great South Road (SH1) was cut through Rangiriri Pā, as if to symbolise the devastation of the Māori land and people.
But the most heart-wrenching moment was still to come.
We were taken to the restored Pā site, where a replica of the battle trenches has been recreated. Brad divided our group in two—with people of Māori descent going one way, and the rest of us another. Then we were told to march toward the Pā. Brad led our division, yelling: ‘They are nothing! They are nothing! Rape and pillage! We will destroy their land and we will destroy their people. They are nothing!’
Then, he continued: ‘That is why we have high numbers of incarceration today. That is why we have high numbers with mental health issues. Rape and pillage!’
Then, on the bow of the hill appeared a woman giving a plaintive karanga, and a Māori warrior doing a fearsome haka. Suddenly, others appeared over the hill—no longer were they our fellow hui members, they were warriors. They descended towards us doing the haka, until we were face to face. We were at war.
Finally, at the end, Brad asked us to describe how we felt during this experience. Many said ‘shame’ or ‘whakamā’. Others said, ‘roimata’, ‘grief’, ‘devastated’. But still others said, ‘mana’, ‘mauri’, responsibility’ and ‘aroha’.
‘Today, you didn’t hear the story, you became part of the story,’ said Brad. ‘Behind all this is peace and whānau.’
National Māori Ministry leader Tau Mataki says that the ‘motorway and the mound’ serve as a metaphor for the weekend and for Māori Ministry. ‘You can drive past this historic reality and know nothing about it. But once you have been there, once you have had this encounter and you know, what do you do? That is the journey in Jesus Christ—if you don’t know right from wrong you are not accountable, but once you know, you have to give an account. We experienced the joy of fellowship as the light came on in different ways for different people.
There are a lot of people in the waka, but only a small amount are rowing—this encounter helped push Māori Ministry forward so that everyone is rowing the waka. We all became part of the encounter, it was quite extraordinary—it was an encounter with the Holy Spirit, afterall.
Tau summed up with this final challenge: ‘But the encounter is not the end. We have seen the “motorway and the mound”—what do we do now?’
(c) 'War Cry' magazine, 17 November 2018, p14-15- You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.