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  • Published: 16 April 2019
  • ISBN: 9780143773887
  • Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 224
  • RRP: $27.99

Sleeps Standing

A Story of the Battle of Orakau


Friend, we shall fight on for ever

Hemi Kelly


Whakarongo mai te runanga, me nga iwi: Ko te whawhai

tenei i whaia mai e tatou, a, i oma hoki hei aha? Ki toku

mahara hoki, me mate tatou, mate ki te pakanga, ora

tatou, ora ki te marae o te pakanga.


Listen to me, chiefs of the council and all the tribes! It

was we who sought this battle, wherefore, then, should we

retreat? This is my thought: Let us abide by the fortune of

war; if we are to die, let us die in battle; if we are to live,

let us survive on the field of battle.

Rewi Manga Maniapoto, quoted in James Cowan,

The New Zealand Wars, 1923


Sleeps Standing has been written to honour the people of Ngati Maniapoto, whose ancestors fought British and colonial troops in one of the most inspiring encounters of the New Zealand Wars. It has also been written and published to acknowledge the extraordinary decision, supported by the Crown in 2016 and enacted in 2017, to honour the New Zealand Wars with future commemorative events. The inspiration for this decision came out of submissions made to Government about the Battle of Orakau.



While reading the various accounts of Orakau, I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed with admiration at the bravery and selflessness exhibited by the assembled iwi, who faced an insurmountable battle. Hitiri Te Paerata of Ngati Te Kohera explained this in his account of the conflict: ‘It became as a forlorn hope with us; no one expected to escape, nor did we desire to; were we not all the children of one parent? Therefore we all wished to die together.’

The encounter has been considered the decisive action in the Waikato War. The battle lasted three days, 31 March to 2 April 1864. The pa had been quickly constructed during the final days of March; and while Rewi Maniapoto had called for supporters from other tribes to help in the fight, the British troops had prevented most of them from crossing their lines into the redoubt.

It is estimated that, at the height of the battle, 1700 immensely superior soldiers, well armed and supplied, laid siege to the pa where the defenders totalled just over 300, a third of them women and children. The defenders resisted heavy gunfire, cannon and hand-grenade attacks. They were severely lacking in provisions and ammunition, and had no water. Surrounded by troops, they were weary with being constantly on the alert and with the bombardment and fighting.

On the final day of the battle, Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron ordered Captain Gilbert Mair and another officer, R. C. Mainwaring, to negotiate a truce, and called for the defenders to submit. If they did, he would spare all.

The reply was given:


E hoa, ka whawhai tonu matou, ake, ake, ake!

Friend, I shall fight against you for ever, for ever!


The defenders refused to leave in the same circumstances as their Waikato relatives had done at Rangiriri. There, a white flag had been raised — the international sign of protection and an indication of a truce or ceasefire and a request for a negotiated peace. The British had chosen to interpret the flag as a sign of surrender.

The iwi of Orakau would not kiss the ground beneath the feet of the soldiers. Even when the pa was on the brink of being overrun, Rewi’s words and similar exhortations by other leaders inspired the men, women and children of Orakau to fight on, no matter that they were overwhelmed. With war chants and karakia on their lips, they ultimately chose death on the battlefield rather than to submit or surrender.


The New Zealand Wars are a colossal part of our history. Full knowledge of them has lain dormant for many years, and only lately have they begun to appear in the curriculum.

In the case of Orakau, those ancestors lived by the warrior’s maxim, ‘Me mate te tangata, me mate mo te whenua (the warrior’s death is to die for the land).’ Like so many others who fought and fell in the New Zealand Wars of the nineteenth century, they battled to retain the mana of the land and all its prosperities, not for their own personal gain but for the interests of those yet to come. Over 150 years later, we must ask ourselves the question: how do we honour the deaths of those who fell on the battlefields across this country?

The Battle of Orakau, fought on the banks of the Puniu River, marked the end of the war in the Waikato. After that battle, the Government carried out a wholesale raupatu (confiscation) of Maniapoto and Waikato lands for European settlement. A blockhouse remained on the site until 1875, in case of a fresh native outbreak. In recent years, Ngati Maniapoto has commemorated the battle on the site where it was fought. In 2010 a small gathering took place to discuss plans for the 150th commemoration of the battle in 2014. Each year thereafter the hui have grown to include descendants of the various iwi who joined Rewi. The slogan ‘Homai te ra, give us the day’ arose out of the commemorations — a demand that the Government acknowledge this integral part of our country’s history and set aside a day to commemorate all of the New Zealand Wars.

Finally, after many years of the land being used as an open commode for farm animals, the Government purchased the battle site of Orakau. Consultations are underway between local iwi, the Kingitanga and the Battle of Orakau Heritage Society about the future of the site.

In 2015, Otorohanga College students Waimarama Anderson and Leah Bell presented a petition to Parliament seeking a commemoration day, and for the history of the New Zealand Wars to be taught in schools. At the tenth koroneihana celebrations for Kingi Tuheitia in 2016, 152 years after the battle of Orakau, the Government announced that it would set aside such a national day to recognise and commemorate the New Zealand Wars. At the same time, the Crown handed back the battle site of Rangiriri to Tainui.

These moves to honour the New Zealand Wars alongside Anzac Day are a welcome sign that, as a country, we recognise and honour the deeds and sacrifices of Maori and the colonial and imperial soldiers who fought and fell on our own soil. One has to wonder why, however, it took so long. One of the ironies discovered during my research for this introduction was that in 1914 a committee was set up, representing the whole of the Waikato district, to celebrate the great fight at Orakau and ‘more particularly the fifty years of peace we have all enjoyed since’. Mr J. W. Ellis wrote a letter on behalf of the jubilee committee to the iwi involved. The letter was published in The Colonist newspaper on 5 March 1914:


I have been appointed by this committee to inform the tribes who were then in arms against us of what is proposed, and to ask them to join with us in celebrating these great events. The Europeans will attend to their side of the celebration, and I am to ask the Maori tribes to organise their side, so that they will be suitably represented at Orakau on the 1st April 1914. The Battle of Orakau was fought on the 31st March and the 1st and 2nd April 1864. The European Committee has unanimously selected the 1st April, the middle day of this glorious fight, in preference to the 2nd April when Orakau fell, as a tribute to a brave and gallant foe, and to show that it is not the fall of Orakau that they want to celebrate, but the splendid defence made by the Maoris.


At that time the Waikato Regiment had adopted Rewi’s words, imprinting them on their colours, and the Orakau monument was to be unveiled; a train, leaving from Auckland, was to bring veterans and members of the public to celebrate the day. ‘We Europeans’, Ellis continued, ‘have always considered that the grandest fight made by the Maoris . . . will never be forgotten, and will be valued as our common possession as long as our country lasts.’

Well, it was forgotten. Perhaps the nation’s pursuit of another war, the Great War, had something to do with it. And after that war was the flu epidemic and time and progress rolled over the events of Orakau. Some one hundred years later, it is fitting that we tell the stories of the battle, to remember, to share, to rewrite the curriculum and to educate ourselves and future generations on this nation’s history in its entirety, so that the sacrifices made here on our own soil will inspire New Zealanders to deeds of greatness, courage and selflessness.


There are many and various accounts of the Battle of Orakau. Apart from the official reports presented to Parliament, one of the best is by James Cowan in The Old Frontier (1922), which he followed with a more comprehensive version in The New Zealand Wars in 1923. Since then, in the non-fiction field, accounts have taken the military perspective, mostly reporting from commanders or relying on the despatches of the day to provide interpretation. Some dispute the sequence of events and offer behind-the-scenes views of a number of the officers who tried to minimise the more savage actions of men under their command. Others investigate the context of the battle, placing it within an interesting framework. James Belich’s The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (1986) took the lead. Recent examples of continuing scholarship are Richard J. Taylor’s thesis, ‘British logistics in the New Zealand Wars, 1845–66’ (2004) and Nigel Prickett’s Fortifications of the New Zealand Wars (2016). The most comprehensive account of the Waikato War to date is Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000 (2016), in which he calls it ‘the defining conflict in New Zealand history’. O’Malley’s earlier essay ‘Recording the incident with a monument: The Waikato War in historical memory’, in Journal of New Zealand Studies NS19, 2015, is also fascinating reading. In the New Zealand Listener, 20 February 2017, O’Malley further provided a graphic description of the British Army’s attack on Rangiaowhia, thus ensuring the end of our historical amnesia about this shameful incident.

A selection of New Zealand poets subsequently memorialized Rewi and the battle. Among them were Thomas Bracken (best known for writing the national anthem), Henry Matthew Stowell (writing as ‘Hare Hongi’) and Arnold Cork, writing in strophes such as this (published in the Auckland Star, 6 August 1935):


And tell them of the lashed stockade

And thy brown brother; tell them how

That ‘ake’ rings from Orakau

On echoes that will never fade.


So stirring were Cork’s words that they were used as the epigraph for A. W. Reed’s novelisation (1944) of Rudall Hayward’s sound film Rewi’s Last Stand (1940). Indeed, it is as a feature film, or two, to be exact — a silent version in 1925 and then with a soundtrack in 1940 — that a sterling attempt was made to bring the battle into the national cultural inventory. Both films proved popular, and it’s interesting to note that the second version was released to coincide with New Zealand’s Centennial Celebrations.

What of the impact, if any, internationally? Witi Ihimaera remembers as a boy discovering a faded cartoon on Orakau among a cache of old London newspapers on his father’s farm at Te Karaka, but all subsequent attempts to locate the illustration have failed. Ihimaera believes that the words, deeds and sacrifices of the few must surely have spread quickly throughout the world. Yes, they echoed like a mantra among Maori people fighting a history of oppression, but, universally, the world has always admired courage, especially heroism in the face of huge odds. There are very few battles that have attained such epic stature. The 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas at the pass at Thermopylae in 480bc was one; his soldiers pledged themselves to fight the great army of Xerxes, calculated at over 100,000, to the death. The siege of the Alamo in December 1835, where 200 Texians fought off a massive Mexican army for thirteen days, was another. A third was the two-day battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 during the Anglo—Zulu War.

A surprise discovery for Ihimaera and me was that the battle was enacted at Wembley Stadium, London, in 1924. Staged for a huge three-day British Empire Exhibition, the vignette showed Maori warriors resisting Imperial troops. Apart from the Reed novelisation, Sleeps Standing is, as far as we are aware, the first major fictional account of the battle. The novella is the latest in a line of works in which Witi Ihimaera has explored significant little-known events from Maori history: the Te Kooti wars (The Matriarch); the events surrounding Rua Kenana and the sacking of Maungapohatu (The Dream Swimmer); the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm and subsequent imprisonment of Whanganui Maori as political prisoners in Tasmania (The Trowenna Sea); the Taranaki wars, including the story of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai at Parihaka (The Parihaka Woman); and the unknown story of Maori soldiers in World War I in his play, All Our Sons.

In the novella, a young man of Maori ancestry, born in Australia, returns to New Zealand to seek permission to name a child that is soon to be born after an ancestor, Moetu. The name means ‘Sleeps Standing’. How did Moetu come by that name? From this point the novella becomes a story within a story, reflecting the reclamation of our past that so many of us are setting out to discover in these extraordinary years of New Zealand’s maturity.

Reclamation of language is also a voyage of discovery for all New Zealanders. Thus, in this publication, we are providing a te reo version, Moetu, of the novella. The te reo version follows the tradition of Pounamu, Pounamu and The Whale Rider, which were translated into Maori by noted Maori linguists and te reo experts Jean Wikiriwhi and Dr Timoti Karetu, respectively. Pounamu, Pounamu was the first book of fiction published in the Maori language.

What must be noted is that Ihimaera tells the story of Orakau not from the perspective of the Ngati Maniapoto people, who were the main protagonists in the Battle of Orakau, but from the viewpoint of one of the tribes that went to support Maniapoto: the Rongowhakaata people of Turanga, Gisborne. They are sent by the great chief Raharuhi Rukupo, of whom Witi Ihimaera is a descendant. Both Ihimaera and I wish to acknowledge, however, the right of Ngati Maniapoto to tell the tribe’s own story and that of their ancestor, and a few words about Rewi would be pertinent here to set the scene for Sleeps Standing.

‘It’s one thing to be a leader of a tribe,’ Witi Ihimaera considers, ‘but it’s another to be able to call on other tribes — or have tribes turn up asked or not — because of who you are or what you represent.’ In this respect, Ihimaera believes that it was Rewi’s diplomatic relationships that vaulted him to the front of Maori nationalism; thus he became, during the New Zealand Wars, the cynosure of his times — the man above all others whose actions and leadership qualities made him the centre of attention and admiration.

‘What other reason could there be for the astonishing support that he inspired?’ Ihimaera asks. ‘Maniapoto, Waikato, Raukawa, Tuhoe, Taranaki, Rongowhakaata, Kahungunu, Ngati Porou and other iwi supported him not only at Orakau but throughout the New Zealand Wars.’

Rewi Maniapoto was born at Kihikihi, reputedly in 1807, of the Ngati Paretekawa hapu, and was a direct descendant and namesake of the tribe’s founding ancestor; already he had expectations to live up to. The redoubtable James Cowan has left us a short profile of Rewi in his Famous New Zealanders series in The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Vol. 8, Issue 4, 1 August, 1933. He writes, ‘Rewi was a warrior born,’ and gives us some hints on how Rewi was able to call on others to come to support him against the British troops. There was, for instance, his upbringing as a warrior. Cowan records that Rewi marched on his first intertribal fighting expedition with his father when he was not yet fourteen years old; at that stage, Ngati Maniapoto were fighting Taranaki. Yet, by the 1860s, we find Rewi — now a highly acclaimed chieftain — leading Maniapoto warriors alongside Taranaki warriors in their bitter struggle against British army aggression. The times and circumstances had changed, and Rewi was able to redirect loyalties to suit.

It’s also apparent that Rewi acted with a pro-Maori clarity of action, which was very easy for other Maori looking on to understand and respect. Cowan describes him as ‘small, quick-moving, keeneyed’, and, as a Maniapoto representative within the Kingitanga, he brought the qualities of plain-speaking, responsiveness and strategy to a tribal council often riven by conflicting views of how to negotiate with Pakeha. Cowan relates a particular direct intervention made by Rewi, who was a master not just of words but action, in marching a war-party to Te Awamutu to stop pro-Government propaganda being printed by John Gorst, the Governor’s agent. While Gorst was tolerated by the King movement, ‘he (Rewi) thrust Gorst out (or rather forced his recall by the Governor),’ Cowan writes, ‘and sent his printing gear off to Auckland after him. This precipitated the Waikato War.’

‘For Maori looking on,’ Ihimaera says, ‘even if they were not involved, this action showed him to be fearless and unafraid of the Governor.’

And then there was Rewi’s personal appeal. He definitely possessed the charisma of leadership. Just prior to the battle of Orakau, he made a recruiting expedition to the Urewera. ‘There by his thrilling appeals and his chanted war songs,’ Cowan writes, ‘he infused a fighting spirit into the mountain men — indeed, they did not need much urging, although they had no quarrel with the Pakeha.’ They were the largest contingent at Orakau.

There’s another quality to note in Rewi, and this has more to do with his relationships with Pakeha. Having been brought up not just in traditional Maori knowledge but also in English — he went to a Wesleyan mission as a young boy — he was literate and able to use the English language with nuance and irony. This enabled him to present himself as an equal, speaking to Pakeha at their own level of thought and discourse, and to be pugnacious in presenting his arguments to them. Following Orakau, his subsequent relationship with George Grey can only be described as extraordinary: a relationship of two men who had every reason to dislike each other but who came to a position of respect.

Ihimaera tells of the battle 153 years later. He is aware that there might be different stories involving ancestors he has named in the novella. His intention has been to honour those ancestors and not to misrepresent them. Thus, with his version, he wished to set actual Maori eyewitness accounts, and we have reproduced five of them in Sleeps Standing. Three are in English translation and two in te reo, which were not translated into English at the time they were written. The three English accounts are those of Rewi Manga Maniapoto from Ngati Maniapoto, published in the Otago Daily Times, issue 8284, 10 September 1888; Hitiri Te Paerata, from Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Te Kohera, published in Te Aroha News, vol. VI, issue 293, 23 August 1888; and Paitini Wi Tapeka, Tuhoe from Ruatahuna, whose 1906 account was published by Elsdon Best in Children of the Mist. The two te reo accounts are from Te Huia Raureti, Ngati Maniapoto and Ngati Paretekawa, and Poupatate Te Huihi, Ngati Maniapoto and Ngati Unu; both are published in Robert Joseph and Paul Meredith (eds), The Battle of Orakau — Maori Veterans’ Accounts: Commemorating the 150th Anniversary 1864–2014, Orakau Heritage Society and the Maniapoto Maori Trust Board, 2014.

Te Paerata gave his account in person, on invitation, at the Parliamentary Buildings in Wellington on 4 August 1888. Of note is that the interpreter for Te Paerata was Captain Gilbert Mair, the very person who, as major, had been the negotiator who attempted to obtain the Maori surrender.

Ihimaera and I honour the accounts as incredible taonga. They are sacred and translucent teardrops, coming as they do from men who were actually there, at Orakau.

Sleeps Standing Witi Ihimaera, Hemi Kelly

A little book containing so much: a novella, history, eyewitness reports, Maori translation, verse and images.

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