After the Battle of Ruapekapeka, nobody wanted the fighting to continue. After a lot of talking (and posturing on the part of Governor Grey), the Northern War was officially over. Grey and Despard were quick to claim a great victory, putting a very favourable spin on it as they wrote their official reports. For people actually living in Northland – Māori and pākehā alike – the reality was very different.

Recently, historians have re-interpreted the Northern War, bringing into question the British claim of victory. Based upon these new interpretations, Heke and Kawiti didn’t lose the Battle of Ruapekapkea and they may even have won the Northern War. However, in the longer term Ngāpuhi lost a very great deal. Ultimately, they were unable to retain their lands, their rights, and their chiefly authority in the face of British colonial policy.

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A Brilliant Success?

Soon after the battle, Heke and Kawiti met with Tāmiti Wāka Nene and his companions. All agreed that the time to fight had ended. In the words of Kawiti “peace shall be made with the Governor, and peace shall be made with Nene.” Heke and Kawiti reached out to Governor Grey with Nene acting as an intermediary. On 23 January, Grey issued a formal proclamation granting a “full pardon” to all of those involved in the “rebellion”. The Northern War was officially over.

Despard and Grey announced that Ruapekapeka had been “taken by assault” and that the outcome was a “brilliant success” for the British. According to the official despatches, the rebels had been thoroughly beaten and dispersed. In the months that followed, Grey took on a magnanimous persona, announcing pardons and arguing against the confiscation of lands.

“... anyone to read Despard’s despatches would think that we had thrashed the natives soundly whereas really they have had the best of us on several occasions. I really begin to think that it is perhaps all a mistake about us beating the French at Waterloo. I shall always for the rest of my life be caution how I believe an account of a battle.”

F. E. Manning, settler, 1846

View a newspaper article from the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 14 February 1846 (PDF, 176K)

The official accounts have Heke and Kawiti humiliated, Ngāpuhi broken and defeated. This was not the case, as Greys actions – if not his words – confirm. Grey’s unconditional pardons and the lack of land confiscation contradicted his pre-battle statements about the need to crush Heke and Kawiti once and for all. His about-face was not motivated by kindness and generosity, although he couched it in those terms.

“The flagstaff in the Bay is still prostrate, and the natives here rule. These are humiliating facts to the proud Englishman, many of whom thought they could govern by a mere name.”

Henry Williams, 1846

Grey was clever enough to realise that land was a very delicate issue and that to confiscate any would cause ongoing unrest. He had other things to worry about. Trouble was brewing with Ngāti Toa in the Wellington region over disputed land purchases. The last thing Grey wanted was a general Māori uprising. Soldiers were sent to deal with the Wellington issues (with limited success), and Heke and Kawiti lived out the rest of their lives free from British interference.

Grey’s claims to have broken and humiliated Heke were completely false. Heke’s mana and authority increased after the war ended and he certainly had no reason to feel humiliated. Together with Kawiti, he had fought with valour against an enemy with massive technological and numerical advantages. There had been no rout, as the flagstaff lying prone bore witness.

Grey made no attempt to re-erect the Kororāreka flagstaff. At the time, he was praised for his wisdom and kindness, for not rubbing salt into the wounds of his humiliated enemies. The truth is he didn’t really have much choice the matter. If the symbol of British sovereignty was again cut down, he’d be honour-bound to do something about it. The government simply couldn’t afford for the fighting in the north to resume.

In January 1858 Maihi Paraone Kawiti, the son of Te Rukki, erected a new flagstaff above Kororāreka. It was 95 feet long and two feet thick, and it took hundreds of men to carry it up Maiki Hill. The operation was planned, paid for, and carried out entirely by Māori who had fought against the Crown. The government was ambivalent about the idea, still worried that any flagstaff atop that hill would attract trouble. They needn’t have worried, because the new flagstaff had a different meaning: it symbolised reconciliation and unity in the aftermath of the Northern War. The flagstaff is called Te Whakakotahitanga and it stands on Maiki Hill to this day.

Maihi Paraone Kawiti.

Maihi Paraone Kawiti

Photographer unknown. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. 1/2-075214-F

Winners and Losers

Who won the Battle of Ruapekapeka? The question is simple but the answer is not. Until recently, most non-Māori commentators have regarded Ruapekapeka as a British victory. Despard’s overblown version of events was doubted from the beginning, at least by some, but the underlying assumption of a British victory was not called into question.

In the 1980s, James Belich offered a radical re-interpretation. He argued that the Battle of Ruapekapeka was a tactical draw. He emphasises the strategic nature of Ruapekaepka Pā, located far inland, difficult for the British to access and safely distant from villages and crucial food resources. The purpose of Ruapekapeka Pā was to draw the enemy in, to cause them a great deal of trouble, and then to be abandoned “without a qualm”1.

“1000 men were occupied a full month in advancing 15 miles and in getting possession of a pah from which the enemy escaped at the last moment, and escaped with the satisfaction to him of a drawn battle. The question is, was it worthwhile to go through all that laborious march to obtain such a result.”

Captain Collinson

So, if the British didn’t win the battle, what of the war? Kawiti was never defeated in battle, and the only defeat suffered by Heke occurred during his parallel-but-separate war with Tāmiti Wāka Nene. In terms of strategy and tactics, it can be argued that Heke and Kawiti won the Northern War2. However, this “victory” came at a very high price. Ngāpuhi were forced to defend their territory against foreign invaders, expending enormous effort to build the pā and to maintain a very long campaign. The yearly economic cycle was disrupted, important resources were consumed, and profitable trade with the pākehā was halted. At least 74 warriors were killed and 90 plus were wounded3. In the proper context these numbers are not so small – remember Ohaeawai was defended by a mere 100 warriors, Ruapekapeka by about 500 in total.

What of the ultimate cause of the war – the loss of Ngāpuhi chiefly authority in contravention of Te Tiriti? Heke and Kawiti may have delayed the forcible imposition of the Queen’s sovereignty, or at least exposed the weakness of the British position in 1840s Northland. However, as the decades passed, as settlers flooded in and the colonial government extended its powers, Ngāpuhi were overwhelmed. That fight – the fight to retain chiefly authority – was a fight that Ngāpuhi ultimately could not win.

1 Belich, J. 1986:64

2 Belich, J. 1986:64-70

3 Johnson, R. 2006: 413

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