State Highway 1 makes way for a sacred Maori site
Glance to your right on State Highway 1, about 47 km north of Hamilton and you’ll be looking out over a site of cultural and historical significance. The wetlands you can see, and the Pou (carved poles) mark the site of a pivotal battle in the 1863 Waikato land wars - The Battle of Rangiriri.
Governor George Grey ordered the move against the Waikato, the heartland of the Kingitanga Movement, because of Maori resistance to land sales.
He sent a force of more than 1400 British soldiers to attack Rangiriri Paa which was being defended by 500 Maori. A fierce battle followed. The British soldiers entered the paa but couldn’t take the central redoubt, and by nightfall there was a stalemate. Overnight, many of the defenders escaped in a trench to the east.
Next morning the remaining Maori raised a white flag, which they believed was a request to negotiate. But the British assumed it indicated surrender and took them prisoner.
As a result the British moved deeper into the Waikato and began confiscating land.
In more modern times the significance of the site was overshadowed by State Highway 1, which was built through part of the battle site, expanding a previous road and impacting further on the paa.
But now a special collaboration between Waikato-Tainui and the New Zealand Transport Agency has seen the return of that sacred site, with a new section of motorway guiding traffic to the west instead of over it.
Sam Bourne, NZTA’s principal advisor for urban design and landscape, played a role.
“It’s been an absolute privilege, a humbling experience to help put back into the landscape what had been lost,” he told Landscape Architecture Aotearoa.
“We believe we’ve built a new way of working together,” Waikato-Tainui tribal executive Te Arataura chair, Rukumoana Schaafhausen told Fairfax at the unveiling of the finished Rangiriri section of motorway and the opening of the paa site.
“We believe Rangiriri should always be remembered as a catalyst for change. (It shows) how we can move past our differences to shape a better future for our tamariki, mokopuna and whanau.”
Sam Bourne’s been involved in the project for 11 years, first with the project landscape architects Boffa Miskell, and more recently in his role with NZTA.
“One of our biggest challenges was we had remnants of the original paa,” he said. “How do you reinterpret the paa and a landscape where some of the original paa exists?
“It’s important not to lose the story of what happened there. We had to find a way that was respectful to the remnant.”
So they used a British military map from the time and overlaid that with an archeological survey so they could see what pieces of the paa had been destroyed.
“We reinterpreted the footprint of the original trenches and then clad those trenches with artworks (subtle carvings on timber) as part of the symbolism of the paa and Kingitanga.”
Six pou (carved poles) - you can see them from the expressway - stand on the site. They represent the battle, the role women and youth played in it, and the imprisonment of warriors afterwards. More pou will be added, making a landscape scale statement so road users will definitely know when they hit Rangiriri.
“It’s important because Rangiriri was this line of defence against the British,” Bourne says. “The pou are going to be evocative of that line travelling south.”
Kingitanga representative Rahui Papa, told Fairfax that it’s important New Zealand’s stories, such as the battle of Rangiriri, are taught as part of our school curriculum.
“Making sure that Rangiriri, Rangiaowhai, Orakau.. all of those particular sites should be remembered in the hearts and minds of every student in Aotearoa,” he said.
Bourne too is encouraging people to learn about the battle of Rangiriri Paa. They can begin by taking a left turn off the expressway on to Te Kauwhata Road.
“Go in to Rangiriri village and visit the paa,” he says. “A lot of the history hasn’t been in the history books. It’s a really important place because it will be a place to learn, and when people know the story people can engage in bicultural dialogue and come to a point of understanding.”
The project is a collaboration between Waikato Tainui, NZTA, Heritage NZ, Fletcher Construction, and MWH/ Stantec.