The Road of Invasion

How the Great South Road was built for the British Army to invade the Waikato

The Great South Road was built as a road of invasion. As Governor Grey explained to the Secretary of State For the Colonies in January 1862 this road would mean, “The Waikato River will lie quite open to our attacks at any moment.” 

On the 12th of July 1863 General Cameron declared war on the Waikato by crossing the Mangatāwhiri River. There were battles along the Koheroa Ridge, at Meremere and at Rangiriri. Cameron’s British Army troops occupied Ngāruawāhia then by-passed the great defensive line that had been built at Pātirangi and went on to attack the village of Rangiowhia where Colonel Marmaduke Nixon’s cavalry galloped into the village and burnt a whare with a number of occupants inside, killed non-combatants who may have been attempting to surrender and fired on residents of the village who had taken refuge inside the catholic church.

There were further skirmishes at Waiari and Hairini and the final battle at Ōrākau. Of the three hundred defenders at Ōrākau one hundred and sixty were killed inside the Pā or as they attempted to escape. The crown then confiscated 1.2 million acres of the Waikato north of the Pūnui River.

To learn about this invasion I drove down The Great South Road through the Waikato visiting these sites. I was inspired to do this after reading Vincent O’Malley’s book The Great War for New Zealand – Waikato 1800 – 2000

These paintings are the result of that journey.

The Great South Road. Oil on canvas, Eleven panels, each panel 41 x 88 cms.
My first Objective. Three panels, each panel 32 x 22 cms.

In May 1861 General Cameron informed the Military Secretary in London, “My first objective would probably be to penetrate the angle formed by Waipa and Horatiu (Waikato)  Rivers, and to take possession of a point near their confluence called Ngaruawhia.”

The Dense Forests and Impassable Swamps. Oil on Board, 122 x 30 cms.

“I soon found that from the dense forests and impassable swamps which intervened between Auckland and the country occupied by the Waikato tribes, and from the want of roads or other means of communication, it was impossible to commence operations against them with any hope of success.” wrote Governor Grey to the Duke of Newcastle, General Cameron was, Grey added, “pushing on, with all means at his disposal, a military road through the forests and swamps which lay between Auckland and the Waikato River.”

As Cameron’s army of occupation marched south these three significant mountains dominated the landscape: Maungautari in the east, Kakepuku to the south and Pirongia in the west.

Rangiaowhia.Oil on board, 20 x 13 cms (centre panel of three)

Early in the morning on the 21st of February 1864 the advance guard of General Cameron’s army of invasion, lead by Marmaduke Nixon attacked the undefended refuge at Rangaowhia.

We were obliged at last to set fire. Oil on board. 18 x 23 cms

One British soldier who participated in the attacks at Rangiowhia described how the first assaults on a whare in which women, old men and children were sheltering were unsuccessful so, “We were obliged at last to set fire.” to it. When the fire drove three of the occupants out they were gunned down. Seven more charred bodies were later found inside.

The Sacking of Kihikihi. Oil on Board, 120 x 14 cms (detail)

On the 23rd. of February 1864 Cameron’s army occupied, looted and destroyed Kihikihi, burning the historic meeting house Hui Te Rangiora. Edward Tedder, a member of the 40th regiment described the looting in his diary. 

“We appeared a queer string going home, everyman loaded with something. Kits of apples, peaches, potatoes, kumaras, marrow, cabbages, and every other succulent, while poultry, pigs dead and alive, turkeys, crockery, tubs, buckets, paddles, and a thousand other articles made up the selection.”

Songs for the Clearances. Oil on board. 180 x 30 cms.

Sometimes paintings take on a life of their own. This started out to be a painting of the band rotunda that now occupies the confluence of the Waipa and the Waikato Rivers at Ngāruawāhia where the Māori King’s flagpole once stood, but too many trees grew in the painting, so I called it Songs for the Clearances. Some of the soldiers in the invading British Army would have recent memories of being turfed off their own land during the highland clearances. 

For more detailed information about the invasion of the Waikato read Vincent O’Malley’s magnificent book The Great War for New Zealand, Waikato 1800- 2000. It is published by Bridget Williams Books. 

This exhibition was at Whitespace Gallery Auckland from the 24th of October to the 11th of November, 2017