Heritage Trails

Heritage Trails: The Auckland-to-Waikato Great South Road

This article first appeared in Contractor‘s December 2016 issue.

The Auckland-to-Waikato Great South Road is arguably the most important in 
New Zealand history. HUGH DE LACY explains why.

p48-Heritage-trail-300x300IT FAILED TO PRODUCE the decisive military victory its builders hoped for, but general Duncan Cameron drove a road into the heart of Maori Waikato that snuffed out the single biggest obstacle to total British colonial control of the country.

Whatever the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi, by which most Maori had accepted British sovereignty two decades earlier, by 1860 the Waikato tribes had united under the so-called kingship of Potatau Te Wherowhero and were determined to resist the tide of land-hungry settlers building up in Auckland.

Cameron had already arrived in the country, fresh from a glittering campaign in the Crimea where he had distinguished himself all the way from Balaclava to Sebastopol.

Initially at the instigation of governor Gore Browne, soon to be sacked for his inability to impose peace on Taranaki, Cameron and a professional imperial army that eventually grew to 18,000 men were brought to New Zealand to deal to the Maori King Movement and its 4000 part-time warriors, presumed to be at the root of the Taranaki troubles.

Enjoying like Cameron the warm regard of the Colonial Office in London at the time, Governor Grey soon set off on the war-path that had proved governor Browne’s undoing, and turned Cameron loose on the King Movement tribes.

Cameron’s soldiering reputation was honestly won, and he quickly perceived that the Maori genius for defensive warfare could only be countered by the full complement of British military might – cannon, modern small arms, cavalry, bush-warfare and overwhelming weight of numbers.

The Waikato River was an obvious option for transporting these resources to the war zone, and keeping them supplied, and Cameron could – and did – take gunboats up the river, but their influence extended little further than the riverbanks.

Accordingly, Cameron decided that as well as the river he had to have a proper military road to carry his troops and supplies to within range of the fortified Maori positions.

p48-Heritage-trail-300x300-2And so began the construction of the Great South Road from Drury to the Waikato River along a track surveyed back in 1853 by a surveyor called Hayr.

It was Christmas Eve 1861 when Cameron ordered 2400 of his troops out of Auckland and down to Otahuhu to build four military camps between Drury and Pokeno, and on January 1 work began on the road proper.

Under the direction of the country’s deputy assistant quartermaster-general, colonel Dominic Gamble, 1700 men from the 12th, 14th, 40th, 65th and 70th regiments hacked through the bush and over the hills to create a metalled road capable of taking heavy wagons all the way to Pokeno and the river.

Cameron generated competition among the regiments to be first to complete their assigned sections of the road by offering bonuses for every cubic yard of scoria they shifted, and there were never fewer than 1700 men working on the road on any given day.

It was completed at precisely 1pm on June 18, 1862.

From there the road, nine metres wide, was pushed out to the Mangatawhiri River where a 100 square metre camp initially for 500 men, but later greatly expanded, was built of 100,000 linear feet (30,500 metres) of sawn timber and called the Queen’s Redoubt.

This part of the road was completed by the end of March 1863, and for some months Cameron lived in the redoubt, which became the British Army’s main base in New Zealand, and used it as the base for his push into the Waikato.

The Crimean campaign with its logistical disasters heavily influenced Cameron’s preparations for the Waikato invasion: poor food and medical supplies had meant that at any one time 15 percent of the Crimean troops were unfit for battle.

In New Zealand Cameron slashed that toll to just five percent, and his Transport Corps in particular came in for well-deserved praise from the War Office in London for the quality and consistency of the supply it kept up along the 160 kilometre road into the Waikato.

The invasion began in July when the 14th (Buckinghamshire) regiment crossed the Mangatawhiri, with Cameron hoping to draw the Maori, under Rewi Maniapoto and Tawhana Tikaokao, into a decisive battle at Meremere.

Maori raiding parties foiled conflict at Meremere for months and the decisive battle eluded Cameron.

So it was on to Rangiriri where the Maori repulsed eight British assaults, and the pa and 180 prisoners were given up only after Cameron, according to the Maori, used a flag of truce as a cover for the final and successful frontal charge.

The British Army then moved to confront the Paterangi line of fortified pa, the most elaborate and heavily manned defensive line the Maori ever built.

This challenge led to Cameron’s most notable military achievement in New Zealand when, in a brilliant move, he outflanked and swept aside the Maori line, resulting in the conquest of the whole district.

Still seeking a decisive victory over the King Movement, Cameron thought he saw an opportunity at Gate Pa, near Tauranga, where a strong force of Ngai Te Rangi under Rawiri Tuaia was assembled.

Cameron brought in by sea his best troops and most powerful artillery, and a day-long bombardment on April 29, 1864, saw the palisades breached.

The Maori had by now perfected their pitched-battle defensive system against cannon and mortar, sitting out the bombardment unharmed in trenches, then emerging to surprise the charging British marines and soldiers.

Around 50 British were killed in the Maori crossfire at Gate Pa, including the two officers leading the charge, with only minor losses to the Maori.

The Maori may have won this battle, and Cameron was forced to concede that they could not be lured into a final Armageddon, but the King Movement’s military strength had been dissipated, and even Titokowaru’s stand in Taranaki four years later barely threatened British control of its last major colony.

The crushing of the Paterangi defensive line had been the critical point in the Waikato campaign, though probably neither side realised it at the time.

In his later Taranaki campaign Cameron was scornfully written off by the Maori as a “lame seagull”, but he was unquestionably a commander of rare ability, and his road into the Waikato lands made possible the military conquest on which colonial authority was finally established. 

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