Tom O'Connor: The true story of Rangiaowhia
OPINION: Removing memorials to significant people in history is something akin to burning books.
We can't rewrite history or undo the past by pulling down memorials. Nor should we judge historical events by the rules of today. That said, the actions of Colonel Marmaduke Nixon and his troops in the sacking of Rangiaowhia in May 1864 during the New Zealand land wars, were as much an atrocity then as they would be in modern warfare. Removing his memorial, as has been suggested by people who have recently discovered the true story of the Rangiaowhia tragedy, will not undo anything.
Given the very high standards of conduct expected by General Duncan Cameron, it has been suggested that, had Colonel Nixon not been mortally wounded at Rangiaowhia, he may well have faced a court martial over the affair.
A standoff at Pāterangi, between the general and Rewi Maniapoto in the early summer of 1864 had dragged on for more than a week before Cameron made his move to outflank the massive defensive system. During this time Cameron or his aides had sent messages to the defenders to send their women and children to safety before the artillery barrage commenced. Those who did leave went to Rangiaowhia.
The huge Pāterangi complex could withstand any amount of artillery and covering shotgun and musket fire would take a heavy toll on infantry attempting a frontal assault. Behind and slightly to the west of Pāterangi lay the extensive grain fields, farms and flour mills surrounding the Rangiaowhia township which formed the supply system for the Māori fighting force. Cameron quickly realised that taking possession of this food supply would bring the contest to a rapid conclusion without the massive loss of life for both sides in an all-out assault on Pāterangi.
There were about 200 men, women and children in the village when the attack started and many sought refuge in the churches or houses of the town.
While ill-disciplined infantrymen burned and looted the almost abandoned town, Colonel Nixon sent Lieutenant McDonnell and Ensign William Mair of the cavalry forward to demand the surrender of a number of Māori who had taken refuge in a large raupo house. With burning and looting going on all around them, the old men among the defenders distrusted the truce flag and opened fire. The house was soon surrounded by infantrymen and an intense fire fight developed.
Finally in frustration, a young sergeant rushed the house and began shooting through the doorway with a revolver but he was shot dead and dragged inside. Colonel Nixon then stepped forward and fired into the house and was wounded by a shot from the open doorway. More soldiers were shot down until the house was set alight, some say by the flash of muskets within and others claim it was deliberately torched.
The fire eventually drove one of the occupants, a tall elderly man, out of the burning house. As he stood up from the low doorway with hands in the air and obviously unarmed, one of the officers shouted to the soldiers to cease fire and to spare him but he was felled with a volley from at least a dozen rifles at close range.
The officer was furious that his order had been ignored but, as there were so many men firing, no one was arrested or charged with an offence. When the soldiers were finally able to enter the burnt-out house, they found charred bodies of the young sergeant and seven Māori.
About a dozen other buildings were put to the torch and, at the Catholic church, about thirty Māori defenders had intended to fight to the last but, when it was found the wooden walls were not bullet-proof, escaped southwards.
Colonel Nixon died of his wounds on May 27, 1864, and was buried in Auckland's Grafton cemetery and a monument in his honour was later erected at the junction of the Great South and Māngere roads in Ōtāhuhu near the military original barracks.
During the development of the Auckland Southern Motorway during the mid-1960s, more than 4100 bodies were moved and re-interred into two memorial sites at the cemetery and many headstones were relocated. Colonel Nixon's headstone was relocated to the foot of his memorial in Ōtāhuhu.
Memorials say as much about the event remembered as they do about the people who erect them so, rather than remove the memorial, it would be better to add a plaque to it telling the true story of Rangiaowhia.