Great South Road's 'critical' role in the New Zealand Wars

Great South Road is now a major transport route between Auckland commercial and suburban areas.
TOM CARNEGIE/FAIRFAX NZ

Great South Road is now a major transport route between Auckland commercial and suburban areas.

It's used by thousands of people everyday, yet few know about the dark role it played in New Zealand's history.

Today Great South Road is mainly known as a transport route between Auckland commercial and suburban areas. This includes the suburbs of Epsom, Greenlane, Ellerslie, Penrose and Mt Wellington.

Its use is a stark contrast from when the route was conceived and developed as a military road in the 19th century.

William Temple's photograph taken circa 1863 shows Deviation members of the Royal Artillery working on the Great South Road.
Alexander Turnbull Library/William Temple

William Temple's photograph taken circa 1863 shows Deviation members of the Royal Artillery working on the Great South Road.

From 1863 to 1864 about 14,000 colonial troops marched down Great South Road from the Albert Barracks, in Auckland Central, and camps at Penrose, Otahuhu and Drury for the invasion of Waikato.

Read more:
Book on Waikato War illuminates dark period of New Zealand history
Review: The Great War for New Zealand, Vincent O'Malley
New subdivision planned for site of historic eviction reignites anger of the land wars

The invasion, also known as the Waikato Wars, has been described by historians as the biggest and most important campaign of the New Zealand Wars - a series of battles that took place from 1845 to 1872 between the New Zealand government and Maori.

Great South Road: there's more to it than you might think.
TOM CARNEGIE/FAIRFAX NZ

Great South Road: there's more to it than you might think.

The Waikato Wars was between the colonial government's military forces and a federation of Maori tribes, called the Kingitanga Movement, and lasted for nine months.

Historian Vincent O'Malley, in his book The Great War for New Zealand, documents the important role Great South Road played in the invasion.

Its development was ordered by Governor George Gray, who O'Malley says wished to destroy the Maori king movement.

O'Malley says Waikato was seen as an incredibly fertile area just a few miles from Auckland that was closed to European settlement.

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"Governor George Grey arrived in New Zealand on September 26, 1861. By December he had ordered the construction of the Great South Road," O'Malley says.

Grey believed the invasion would have been impossible without a military road due to the dense forest and swamps between Auckland and the Waikato river, O'Malley says.

"Around 2300 British soldiers were deployed on road building after the order was given for construction to begin."

The road was completed in 1863, enabling large numbers of colonial troops and supplies to descend on the Kingitanga movement.

O'Malley says the Maori casualty-rate of the Waikato Wars was higher on a per capita basis than New Zealand soldiers in WWI.

"You have a professional standing army belonging to the world's sole super-power, which Britain was at the time, up against a civilian population. It was an asymmetrical war," O'Malley says.

As suburban sprawl escalates O'Malley says more needs to be done to protect important landmarks of the New Zealand Wars.

"I think part of the problem is that we have widespread assumption of nothing of interest happened here and that we don't really have a history.

"When the fact is it is all around us. Sites like Great South Road, the Albert Barracks, Britomart and so on are great examples of this."

 - Stuff

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