An archaeologist has discovered a mass grave in New Zealand containing the remains of twelve British soldiers who died at a trenched fort during a major battle against Maori tribes in 1846.
After four years searching for the graves – last recorded being seen by locals in 1851 – Jonathan Carpenter, an archaeologist, found the site in a quiet grassy field in the country’s far north.
He used a radar to locate the graves after tracking them down using information passed on by locals who were descended from both the Maori and British fighters.
Mr Carpenter and a team of diggers found the remains of two men, including one with a musket ball underneath his ribs. It was decided to leave the ten other members of the communal grave in peace.
“These men took the Queen’s shilling,” Mr Carpenter told TVNZ.
“They came from halfway around the world and ended up dying here and now they’re bones… I hope that the British government takes an interest because we’ve found your boys and we’d like you to come down and help us take care of them as time goes on."
The soldiers have not been identified but were from a contingent made up of troops from the 58th Regiment of Foot, along with soldiers from the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, and a Royal Navy detachment.
The men had been buried according to Maori burial rites, along with objects that had been in their possession such as a clay smoking pipe.
The New Zealand government and the local Maori community plan to erect a memorial at the site.
Mr Carpenter said he hoped the British government would participate.
"It’s important so that the family and descendants of these soldiers can come here and identify the grave," he said.
The twelve soldiers died in New Zealand’s Northern War, in which Maori tribes staged a rebellion against colonial rule in 1845. The conflict ended with a major battle at Ruapekapeka, or “bat’s nest”, a carefully-designed fortified Maori settlement.
The battle, which followed a siege by the British forces, effectively ended with a stalemate whose precise details remain controversial. It appears that British troops breached the fortress palisades and finally entered on the morning of January 11, but discovered that most of the Maoris had left.
Fighting subsequently briefly broke out in the bushland around the fortress, leaving twelve British dead and about 30 injured. A greater number of Maori are believed to have died but the precise number is unknown.
Peter Johnston, curator at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, said the battle ended in a “bloody stalemate”.
“The pā [fort] was captured, but only after the Maori had withdrawn into the bush and consciously surrendered it,” he said.
“So on the one hand the British were successful in taking it but were left having taken casualties and in possession of a fortification with little ongoing strategic value. The Maori sued for peace shortly after – and the British Governor decided not to punish them further and confiscate their land.”
The local Maori community has long wanted to find the graves to ensure that they were properly protected.
Pita Tipene, a descendant of both the Maori chief and Colonel Robert Wynyard, who led the British troops, said the Maori community regretted that “we couldn’t give them the reverence and the respect that they deserved”.
"Enemies who died by our hands were revered in life and in death, and they always be,” he told The New Zealand Herald.
”It [the abandoned site] is not how we like to treat our dead whether they be friend or foe. Now it is important we all work together on a memorial of some kind, a way to commemorate them.”
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