Causes of the Northern War

Māori of the Ngāpuhi iwi (tribe) went to war with the colonial government of New Zealand in 1845. They fought because Great Britain tried to impose an unacceptable version of the Queen’s sovereignty upon them. Before 1840 (when New Zealand officially became part of the British Empire) Ngāpuhi had dominion over northern New Zealand. Despite the growing influence of foreign traders, missionaries and settlers, the chiefly authority of Ngāpuhi was indisputable.

The signing of The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi was a turning point. There were two versions of this document (one in Māori and one in English) but they did not say exactly the same thing. The problem was that the British and Māori had very different understandings of the deal they were entering into. Māori believed they would retain authority over their own lands and people. The British, on the other hand, intended to govern Māori as British subjects. 

In the early 1840s, the situation in Northland changed dramatically: British sovereignty changed everything. The government imposed new laws which undermined the mana (prestige) and the economic wellbeing of the northern Māori. Ngāpuhi began to fear that they would lose their lands, and government policies relating to land sales generated considerable anger.

Northern rangātira (chiefs) agreed that the Crown was breaking the terms of Te Tiriti, the version of the document that bore most of the Māori signatures. They had different opinions as to how the problems should be addressed. A faction led by Hone Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti demanded action. Heke focussed his attention upon the flagstaff at Kororārkea (Russell) a potent symbol of British sovereignty on the hill above the town. He cut down the flagstaff four times in all. Heke’s fourth attack upon the flagstaff ended with the town of Kororākea a smouldering ruin. The destruction of Kororāreka ignited the Northern War.

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Northland in the Early 1800s

Few Europeans resided in New Zealand before 1840. There was about 1400 of them living in the entire North Island, a large proportion in the Northland region. They came from diverse backgrounds. There were the adventurers and opportunists, traders, a few convicts escaped from Australia, and missionaries with wives and children in tow.

Kororāreka in 1835/6 showing European houses, Māori houses, gardens, waka (canoes) and other boats.

Kororāreka in 1835/6 showing European houses, Māori houses, gardens, waka (canoes) and other boats.

By J. S. Polack. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. PUBL-0115-1-front

For a start, Ngāpuhi welcomed or at least tolerated a European presence in Northland. Of course, there were misunderstandings and the occasional violent incident. For the most part, however, maintaining friendly relationships was beneficial to all. The foreigners depended upon the goodwill of their Māori neighbours, who were themselves pleased to gain access to valuable European trade goods. Some of the early European residents formed relationships with local women and became fully incorporated into Māori society.

Kororāreka in 1838 showing pākehā men shifting barrels and working on a sail boat.

Kororāreka in 1838 showing pākehā men shifting barrels and working on a sail boat.

By T. R. G. Mesnard. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. A-234-010

Although few Europeans settled in New Zealand in the early years, there was an exponential increase in the numbers of visiting ships. Many were whalers seeking whale oil to illuminate and lubricate the industrial revolution, and whale bone to make corsets for fine ladies. In the 1830s, something like 1000 ships visited New Zealand every year. Māori offered fresh food, timber and flax in exchange for an array of manufactured goods, including muskets, fabric, fishhooks and metal tools.

The missionaries played an important role in the early days. They functioned as intermediaries and translators, they taught literacy and European farming practices. Many Māori did convert to Christianity – nominally at least – blending the missionaries’ teachings with traditional Māori beliefs.

Māori society adapted to take advantage of new opportunities. This was especially the case in the Bay of Islands, a focal point of early European activity. Rangatira (chiefs) who were able to monopolise European trade became more powerful and their mana increased. Many Māori people became involved, harvesting timber, growing vegetables, and rearing pigs for their European customers.

As well as altering the Māori economy, the flood of European trade goods had a profound effect upon Māori warfare. Differential access to muskets altered the balance of power between different iwi with dramatic consequences. Ngāpuhi were the first to obtain a large number of muskets, which they put to good use against their enemies of old. The inter-iwi Musket Wars were brutal and protracted, killing perhaps 20 000 people1 and displacing countless others. The wars did not end until the 1830s when other iwi acquired muskets of their own, and the balance of power was restored.

During the 1830s, officials in Britain were becoming worried about the situation in New Zealand. There was no way to control unscrupulous sailors and traders, like the crew of the Elizabeth who facilitated a massacre. There were stories of ships recruiting Māori crewmen, who were then mistreated, unpaid and abandoned far from home. Furthermore, competition and violence between iwi was detrimental to European commercial ventures.

James Busby, British Resident.

James Busby, British Resident.

By R. Read. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. NON-ATL-P-0065

The Colonial Office intervened in 1832 with the appointment of James Busby as British Resident. Busby functioned as an intermediary, and sought to encourage Ngāpuhi towards a more stable form of government. Busby convinced the northern chiefs to band together and to select a flag to represent the “United Tribes”. Shortly after, he put together a Declaration of Independence for the chiefs to sign (He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nū Tīrene). Although under the protection of Britain, the chiefly authority of Māori over their own lands was as yet undisputed.

20th century depiction of the flag of the United Tribes.  James Busby and Maori chiefs and dignitaries are shown. The ship is the HMS Alligator.

20th century depiction of the flag of the United Tribes. James Busby and Māori chiefs and dignitaries are shown. The ship is the HMS Alligator.

Shaw Savill Line postcard Alexander Turnbull Library ref. 82-419-01


1 This figure is an estimate provided by James Belich (1996:157)

Te Tiriti and The Treaty

The British Government’s policies to do with New Zealand changed in the late 1830s. The shift was necessitated by private interests in Britain and in France, who were planning to buy up Māori land and establish colonies of settlers. After intense debate, the Colonial Office decided that the New Zealand’s sovereign independence ought to be transferred to Britain. The aim was to do it peacefully by means of a treaty with the chiefs of New Zealand.

Northern Māori were not adverse to the idea of a treaty with Queen Victoria. They could see that the situation in Northland was deteriorating, with unruly pākehā (European) visitors causing strife. The chiefs looked to the British authorities to bring the situation under control. Ngāpuhi already had a special relationship with the Crown, acknowledged in the 1835 Declaration of Independence. And Hongi Hika (a powerful Ngāpuhi chief) had actually travelled to London in 1820 and spoken directly with King George IV.

The English version of the Treaty of Waitangi was written by Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson and James Busby. In this version, the chiefs agreed to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty”. Furthermore, the British would control all land sales. In return, the signatories were promised protection, and “all the rights and privileges of British subjects”. It was not very good deal for Māori.

Most of the Māori signatories did not sign that document. They signed a different document – Te Tiriti O Waitangi – supposedly a translation of the English version into Māori. In this version, the chiefs ceded kāwanatanga (governorship) to the British, but retained te tino rangatiratanga (the unqualified exercise of their chieftainship). The Treaty was translated in haste by the missionary Henry Williams and his son. Some historians have suggested that the Williamses deliberately blurred and softened the meaning of the Māori version, to encourage the chiefs to sign2.

On 5 February 1840, Māori from all over the region gathered at Waitangi to meet with representatives of the British Crown. After an intense debate, which lasted well into the night, the chiefs reached a consensus. The following day (the first Waitangi Day) more than 40 rangatira signed the document, and New Zealand became part of the British Empire. Hone Heke and Tāmati Wāka Nene, central characters in the war, which would erupt a few years later, both signed Te Tiriti that day. Te Ruki Kawiti was one of the few chiefs who did not sign. He argued strongly against Te Tiriti, although after further discussion with his people he agreed to sign a few months later. In the months that followed, Hobson and others toured the country gathering signatures as they went.

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (modern reconstruction). Tāmiti Wāka Nene is signing the document.

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (modern reconstruction). Tāmiti Wāka Nene is signing the document.

By M. King. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. G-821-2


2 J. Belich 1996:194; C. Orange 2004:26

Decline of the 1840s

The British authorities and the Māori rangatira had very different understandings of the deal they had entered into. The British believed they had full sovereignty, that they were entitled to govern Māori as British subjects. Māori believed that they were guaranteed their autonomy and authority over the land. They expected kāwanatanga (governorship) to apply to the pākehā settlers, traders and land agents, but that the chiefs would look after their own people as they always had. These conflicting expectations, created or exacerbated by the different versions of Te Tiriti, ultimately caused the Northern War.

The imposition of European laws and government regulations generated resentment among northern Māori. For example, the case of Maketū caused a furore. Maketū murdered a pākehā woman, a servant, and two children, one of whom was the granddaughter of an important rangatira. It was never a question of whether Maketū was guilty – he certainly was. It was a question of who should administer his punishment. In the end, he was tried and hanged by the British, a method of execution, which some Māori considered barbaric. Māori were angry that chiefly authority and traditional justice had been pushed aside in favour of the British justice system.

Kauri tree.

A highly prized kauri tree. Northern Māori were offended when the Governor tried to ban the felling of these trees, seen as a direct threat to Māori revenue.

Photo: Department of Conservation

In 1841, Governor Hobson declared a ban on the felling of kauri trees, intended to stop dishonest operators from taking trees to which they had no right. Māori perceived it differently: it was government interference and a direct threat to Ngāpuhi revenue. More money was lost when Hobson banned the northern chiefs from charging anchorage fees. The chiefs had been doing so for some time, charging perhaps five pounds per vessel. The chiefs were banned from collecting the money, in favour of a system of customs dues payable to the government.

The shift of New Zealand’s capital from the Bay of Islands to the nascent city of Auckland caused a downfall in the fortunes of northern New Zealand. The move was insulting to Ngāpuhi who had spent decades building a relationship with the British. Shipping declined, demand for produce and timber dried up, and Ngāpuhi found it increasingly difficult to obtain European goods. In summary, Ngāpuhi were worse off financially after the signing of Te Tiriti than they had been before.

Land Issues

After 1840, land-hungry settlers flooded into New Zealand. Private land agents, notably the New Zealand Company, purchased land in bulk and their advertising campaigns convinced many to emigrate from Britain. The towns of Auckland, Wellington, and Nelson grew rapidly.

Land was at the heart of everything, and Ngāpuhi were becoming very worried about losing theirs. Certain government policies were blatantly unfair, such as the policy regarding “surplus land”. The policy applied to pre-treaty land sales (where the buyer was a pākehā). Upon investigation, many claims of ownership were found to be to be invalid or excessive. The problem was this: land, which was not awarded to the pākehā claimant was presumed to be owned by the government. It was not returned to Māori. The issue was a key driver of resentment among Ngāpuhi, which eventually led to the Northern War.

The policy of “pre-emption” was another land issue, which angered Māori. Under the terms of the Treaty, Māori could not sell their land privately (they could only sell it to the Crown). It was infuriating for Māori to see land they’d sold to the government for a very cheap price being on-sold to settlers for a great deal more. It was also a problem for Māori who wanted to sell land that the government didn’t want to buy. In 1844, the Crown began to grant waivers to the policy of pre-emption, in an attempt to smooth over Māori discontent.

“It is but too evident that the Europeans will possess themselves of their [the Natives] country – some of them are pretty well aware.”

Richard Davis, CMS missionary, 1841

Hone Heke and the Flagstaff

On 8 July, Hone Heke cut down the flagstaff on Maiki Hill above Kororāreka (Russell) for the first time. Originally donated by Heke, the flagstaff was intended to fly the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. The British shifted it from Waitangi to Kororāreka to fly a different flag. Cutting it down was a highly symbolic act, reflecting Heke’s unhappiness with the reality of British sovereignty. To him, the British ensign flying high above Kororāreka (on his flagstaff) reflected the loss of Māori mana.

“The pole that was cut down belonged to me. I made it for the Native flag and it was never paid for by the Europeans.”

Hone Heke, Letter to Governor Fitzroy, July 1844

After the flagstaff fell, Heke and other prominent rangatira reached out to Governor Fitzroy (Governor Hobson had died suddenly a few years earlier). Heke offered to erect a new flagstaff and urged Fitzroy not to send any soldiers. Fitzroy ignored the offer, and ordered British officials to re-erect the flagstaff without discussion. This was a grave insult to Ngāpuhi and to Hōne Heke in particular.

Robert Fiztroy, Governor of New Zealand from 1843 – 1845.

Robert Fiztroy, Governor of New Zealand from 1843 – 1845. 

Photograph of an original portrait. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. 1/1-001318-G 

Fitzroy had no particular desire to go to war with Heke. He did not have a warlike nature, and the colony’s meagre resources were stretched to the limit as it was. However, the British flag was sacrosanct and the matter of the flagstaff was non-negotiable. Fitzroy wrote to the authorities in New South Wales requesting military support. Nearly 200 soldiers from Sydney were sent to Northland to protect the flagstaff and to “restore tranquillity”3. Māori reacted with indignation because soldiers represented a blow to chiefly mana and Ngāpuhi authority.

Fitzoy was prepared to talk matters over in person. He travelled to the Bay of Islands in late August and attended a hui (meeting) at Waimate, organised by several influential missionaries. Heke, deeply offended by Fitzroy’s earlier lack of communication, did not make an appearance at the hui. However many important Ngāpuhi rangatira did attend, determined to maintain the peace and to persuade Fitzroy to send the soldiers away.

The hui had a significant outcome, which explains in part how some Ngāpuhi ended up fighting alongside the British in the war that followed. Basically, a group of chiefs led by Tamāti Wāka Nene vouched for Heke’s good behaviour. They promised to keep Heke under control, on the condition that the soldiers were withdrawn from the north. They also agreed to pay utu (reparation) for Heke’s actions. This was a final attempt to keep the peace and to prevent an armed invasion of Northland by all means necessary.

Tāmiti Wāka Nene, a prominent Ngāpuhi chief who disagreed with the actions of Hone Heke.

Tāmiti Wāka Nene, a prominent Ngāpuhi chief who disagreed with the actions of Hone Heke. 

From a painting by M. Matthews. From the Alexander Turnbull Libraryref. 1/1-003858-G

Relationships between the British settlers and Ngāpuhi continued to deteriorate after the Waimate hui. New arrivals were less likely to respect Māori authority, and more likely to infringe upon traditional laws or offend an important chief. Māori meted out traditional forms of justice such as the taua muru, loosely equivalent to a court-imposed fine. A party of warriors would descend upon the property of the offender, yelling and brandishing their weapons. The intention wasn’t to injure anybody – it was to seize possessions to compensate for the offence committed. That said, taua muru must have been absolutely terrifying to a recently arrived settler!

The situation continued to deteriorate for the remainder of 1844, and the Governor refused Heke’s request for a meeting. On 10 January 1845 Hone Heke chopped down the flagstaff for the second time, an act which demanded Fitzroy’s attention. He issued a bounty of 100 pounds for Heke’s capture and sent a group of soldiers to Kororārkea aboard the brig Victoria. Heke’s actions also caused the political rift between the factions of Ngāpuhi to widen. After all, Tamāti Wāka Nene and others had vouched for Heke’s good behaviour. Some were becoming concerned about Heke’s motives: was he trying to extend his chiefly authority, to raise himself above all others?

Depiction of Hone Heke cutting down the flagstaff.

Depiction of Hone Heke cutting down the flagstaff. 

By A. D. McCormick. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. A-004-037

The flagstaff was soon re-erected by the soldiers, but it was to stand for less than a day before Heke cut it down again. Governor Fitzroy resolved to quell the challenges to British authority by force. He began to prepare for conflict, sending to Australia for troops and navel support. The soldiers built a blockhouse on Maiki Hill (Kororārkea) next to the flagstaff, and surrounded both with sturdy wooden palisades. The redcoats were made ready to fight for the symbol of British sovereignty.

Meanwhile, Heke had been gathering support from around Northland. Early in 1845, he sent a message to Te Ruki Kawiti, the distinguished warrior chief of Ngāti Hine. Heke sent to Kawiti a beautiful greenstone mere (club) smeared with human excrement. This was no ordinary weapon. It was a named taonga with great mana, handed down from Hongi Hika. The message was clear: Ngāpuhi mana, honour and authority had been trampled by the British. Heke was asking for help, and Kawiti agreed to join with him.

Heke’s fourth attack upon the flagstaff was to have dire consequences for the town of Kororārkea, and was the event, which marked the beginning of the Northern War.

3 Fitzroy, July 1844, cited in R. Johnson 2006:112

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