Cast of Characters

Henry Despard

There is no known photograph of Henry Despard

Colonel: prejudiced, old fashioned, incompetent?

Born               c. 1784 (Ireland)
Died               30 April 1859, Devon, England
Spouse           Anne Rushworth (m.1824)
Children         Unknown

Henry Despard was the Commander of the British forces during the Northern War. By most accounts, he did a very poor job. Despard certainly made some very bad decisions and repeatedly displayed his prejudiced and inflexible nature. 

Robert Fitzroy
Robert Fitzroy.

Governor: principled, dutiful, underappreciated

Born               5 July 1805
Died               30 April 1865
Spouse           (1) Mary Henrietta O’Brien (died young) (2) Maria Isabella Smyth
Children         three daughters and one son with his first wife, one daughter with his second wife 

Fitzroy was basically a decent man assigned a task made impossible due to a lack of support from the Colonial Office. He had a great many problems to deal with all at once, and he did make some genuine attempts to establish a lasting peace in the Bay of Islands. After his recall back to England he became a convenient scapegoat, blamed for a great many of problems, which were not really his fault.

George Grey 
George Grey in 1860.

Governor: intelligent, ambitious, ruthless

Born              14 April 1812
Died              17 September 1898
Spouse          Eliza Lucy Spencer
Children        One son, lived only five months

George Grey was the newly-appointed Governor of New Zealand during the Battle of Ruapekapeka. A ruthless and ambitious man, Grey served his second term as Governor of New Zealand during the Land Wars of the 1860s, and again as Premier in the late 1870s. He is remembered as one of the most complex and colourful characters in the history of New Zealand politics. 

Hone Heke 
Hone Heke (centre) with his wife Hariata and Te Ruki Kawiti.

Ngapuhi warrior chief: charismatic, fiery, intelligent   

Born               1807
Died               6 August 1850
Spouse           Hariata Rongo (daughter of the great Hongi Hika)

Hone Heke’s name will forever be synonymous with the Northern War. With his persuasive and charismatic personality, he wielded considerable influence. He convinced other powerful Northern chiefs to stand beside him and defend the rights of Ngāpuhi. However, he was also something of a divisive figure, and some Māori chiefs chose to take up arms against him.

Te Ruki Kawiti 
Te Ruki Kawiti.

Ngati Hine Rangitira: distinguished, honourable, talented

Born               1774
Died                5 May 1854
Spouse           (1) Kawa (2) Te Tiwha
Children         three sons (Taura, Wiremu Te Poro, and Maihi Paraone Te Kuhanga) with his first wife; one daughter (Tuahine) with his second wife

Te Ruki Kawiti was a distinguished leader and great fighting chief of the Ngāti Hine hapu. Kawiti led his people against the British during the Northern War. He was an excellent strategist and tactician, and will forever be remembered as the architect of Ruapekapeka pā.

Tāmiti Wāka Nene 
Tāmiti Wāka Nene.

Ngapuhi Rangitira: astute, diplomatic, misunderstood?

Born               c. 1780
Died               1871
Spouse           Up to six wives before he became a Christian; his second Christian wife was called Ruth
Children         Six children

Tāmiti Wāka Nene was a diplomat, a peace-maker, a war leader and respected Rangitira (chief) of the Ngāpuhi iwi (tribe).  During the Northern War he supported the British and fought against Heke and Kawiti. His reasons for aligning his people with the Crown reflected a political rift between factions of Ngāpuhi. To this day, Nene’s actions are a delicate subject among Northern Māori. Some feel that he betrayed his own people by fighting alongside the British.

In more detail...close all
Henry Despard

Early Years

Henry Despard was born in Ireland in 1784 or 1785. Joining the military must have seemed like a natural progression for young Henry as his father and most of his uncles were in the armed services. Unfortunately, one of his uncles was convicted of treason for leading an Irish uprising, and was the last man England sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered1. Despite the besmirched family name, Henry rose through the ranks of the British Army and retiring as a Major General.

Military Service

At 14 years of age, Henry became an ensign in the 17th Regiment on Foot. As a young man, he was stationed in India, fighting several campaigns and earning a promotion to Brigade Major in 1817. By 1829, he was a Lieutenant Colonel. By this stage, the British military had no significant wars to fight, so there was a shortage of jobs for career soldiers like Despard. He worked as the Inspecting Officer of the Bristol recruiting district for several years.

In 1842, Henry Despard made his way to Australia to take up the command of the 99th Lanarkshire Regiment on Foot. His regiment was stationed in Sydney on convict guard duty. In Sydney Despard’s true character was exposed: upon arrival, he immediately made himself unpopular by refusing to attend a ball thrown in his honour. He also refused to adopt modern drill methods, insisting on maintaining old-fashioned techniques, which caused chaos on the parade ground.

New Zealand

Despard arrived in New Zealand on 1 June 1845 to support Governor Fitzroy in his efforts to quell the Ngāpuhi “revolt”. Despite a formidable reputation, Despard was a man approaching old age who hadn’t seen active combat for almost 30 years. A painful case of gout did not improve his temper2. He took command of all of the British troops stationed in New Zealand. Within a week, Despard and a large contingent of men were sailing to the Bay of Islands. The objective was Ohaeawai Pā, the current base-camp of the Ngāpuhi leaders Te Ruki Kawiti and Hone Heke.

The troops set up camp at the Waimate Mission Station to prepare for the march inland. Not long after their arrival Wāka Nene, an allied Māori chief, paid Despard a visit to offer his assistance. Despard’s scathing reply revealed his prejudiced views: “When I want the help of savages I will ask for it.” Fortunately, (for the British cause) this response was not translated back to Wāka Nene.

The Battle of Ohaeawai was a terrible disaster for the British. On 24 June, Despard opened fire upon the pa with his small brass cannons and 12-pounder carronades. A week later a massive 32-pounder cannon arrived on site. The defences were very strong and cleverly designed, and to start with the bombardment had little effect. On 1 July, some warriors conducted a daring sortie from the pa and briefly captured the 32-pounder cannon. They were soon driven back into the pa, but they took with them the Union Jack which had been flying on the flagpole above the position. Soon, the Union Jack was fluttering on the flagpole inside the pa, underneath the flag of Kawiti and Heke.

Despard made a dreadful decision. Against all advice, he ordered a direct assault even though the palisades had not been breached. The attack made little sense in terms of proper military tactics, and it seems that Despard was motivated by a fit of ill temper more than anything else. The troops were ordered to cut down the palisades or to scale them with ladders, tasks that proved impossible. The defenders, safely behind the palisades, opened fire at the mass of British troops and within minutes more than 100 lay dead or wounded. Despard was distraught.

"Despard watched the carnage with horror and amazement. In the frenzy of his despair, he lost his self control. He ordered the bugle to sound ‘retreat’, and immediately afterwards demanded to know who had given the order. “You yourself, Sir, did this very minute”, answered Ensign Symonds”.3

Despard tried to blame the disaster on his troops (many of whom were dead) for failing to carry ladders and axes with them as ordered. However, he did concede at a later date that the attack had little chance of success, given the strength of the outer defences.

The officers, the troops, contemporary newspaper reporters, and virtually every historian who has since written about the battle have attributed the outcome to Despard’s extreme incompetence. However, James Belich, the revisionist historian, makes an interesting point about Henry Despard and the role of Victorian racial stereotypes. Rather than admire the intelligence and skill of the Ngāpuhi defenders, it was easier to blame stupidity of the British commander. How else could a handful of “savages” defeat 600 of the finest British troops?


Peace negations were put aside when George Grey, the new Governor, arrived in late 1845. Despard was ordered to attack Kawiti’s new stronghold: Ruapekapeka Pā. With twice the number of troops than at Ohaeawai and substantial artillery support, Despard marched inland.

Despard exercised a great deal more care and caution and avoided many of the mistakes of Ohaeawai. He concentrating his fire at specific points along the defences and fired shots throughout the night so that repairs could not be made. His tactics proved successful and ten days later the defences were breached. However, Despard again demonstrated his poor judgement. Despite the horrible experience of Ohaeawai he almost carried out a premature assault upon Ruapekapeka Pā. In this instance, Despard actually listened to the advice of his Māori allies and called off the assault until the following day. Had he not, it is likely that a great many more British troops would have lost their lives.

In his post-battle report, Despard stretched the truth and claimed that Ruapekapeka Pā had been taken by assault. (In fact, the troops had found the pa to be virtually empty, because Kawiti and his men were in the process of an orderly and planned withdrawal). If Ruapekapeka was a victory for the British, it certainly was a hollow one. The British Government were in need of any kind of victory at all, and so Despard’s version of events was perpetuated.

After the Northern War

The Northern War drew to a close after the Battle of Ruapekapeka and Despard was sent to New South Wales. Soon afterwards, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of Bath, a highly prestigious order of chivalry. In light of this, it is possible that stories of Despard’s incompetence have been exaggerated. However, the standard interpretation is that Henry Despard was unfit to command the British Troops during the Northern War. A product of the Napoleonic era, he was too old-fashioned, too inflexible, too prejudiced and too impatient.

Despard retired from the army in 1854 at the rank of Major General, and died five years later in Devon, England.

1 His sentence was commuted to a simple hanging and beheading.

2 M. Wright, 2006:49.

3 T. L. Buick, 1976:171.

Robert Fitzroy

Early Years

Fitzroy was born into the upper echelons of society, the grandson of the Duke of Grafton and the Marquis of Londonderry. Although born into privilege, he was not in line to inherit any titles or great wealth. Like many aristocratic young men in his position, he chose military service, becoming a lieutenant in the Royal Navy at about 20 years of age. During his time at naval college, he excelled in the study of mathematics, classics, history, geography, navigation, and many other fields.

By 1828, he was captain of his own ship – and not just any ship. Fitzroy was captain of the Beagle during Charles Dawin’s famous voyage of discovery. The two men became friends, and Fitzroy established a reputation as a scientist, navigator, and surveyor. Upon his return, he published an account of the voyage in four volumes. A deeply religious man, he had some difficulties reconciling his scientific observations with his Christian beliefs, especially in his later years.

Governor of New Zealand

Fitzroy began his term as Governor of New Zealand in December 1843. Everybody had high expectations of him – Māori, the settlers, and his superiors in England. However, it was almost impossible for him to live up to expectations. He was instructed to maintain order and to protect the rights of Māori and at the same time to satisfy the land-hungry settlers flooding into the colony. Even if he had sufficient resources – which he certainly did not – it would have been an extremely difficult task. New Zealand was bankrupt, funding from the British Government was not forthcoming and sufficient military support was not available.

One of the first issues he had to deal with was the aftermath of the Wairau affray, when the warrior chief Te Rauparaha killed 20 settlers near Nelson. Fitzroy examined the facts and determined that the settlers had acted unlawfully. His decision not to act against Te Rauparaha was a sensible one, especially given the absence of proper military support, but he earned the enduring enmity of the settlers. Several times during his tenure Fitzroy refused to send soldiers to evict Māori land claimants, which did not improve his relations with the pākehā settlers.

Meanwhile trouble was brewing in the North. Hone Heke chopped down the flagstaff for the first time in July. Heke was trying to force the Governor to communicate with him and pay attention to his grievances. Fitzroy didn’t really comprehend Hene’s intentions, and he insulted the Ngāpuhi chiefs by re-erecting the flagstaff before responding to their communications. He sent to New South Wales for military support, and decided to send a contingent of soldiers to the North to protect the flagstaff. The chiefs were determined to keep the soldiers out of the North, and stepped up their diplomatic efforts.

To his credit, Fitzroy was prepared to listen to advice from the missionaries and several of the Ngāpuhi chiefs. He arrived in the North in August and attended the second of two very important meetings held at the Waimate Mission Station. He came unarmed, without soldiers, and with a genuine desire to negotiate peace4. An agreement was reached: certain Ngāpuhi chiefs promised to maintain the peace and to keep Heke under control and in return Fitzroy agreed to keep the soldiers out of Northland.

Fitzroy had a great many problems to deal with during the build-up to the Northern War. A lot of them were financial: the Colony was desperately short of money, and Fitzroy was forced to take drastic action. Against instructions, he issued government debentures and went on to declare them legal tender. No doubt under a great deal of stress, Fitzroy refused Heke’s invitation to travel north for a meeting in late 1844. In early 1845, when Heke again attacked the flagstaff, Fitzroy responded by sending soldiers to the North.

It was not his handling of the Northern War that led to Fitzroy’s dismissal as Governor of New Zealand. His dismissal was announced in the House of Commons in May 1845, less than two months after the war began. It was his handling of financial issues that got him off-side with his superiors. This was quite unfair. Fitzroy faced huge problems that the Colonial Office failed grasp. Disobeying orders was a last resort, but the British authorities could not countenance such behaviour. In November 1846, George Grey took over as Governor in, with twice the salary and three times the budget.

Back in Great Britain, Fitzroy became something of a scapegoat for the failure of Colonial Office policy in New Zealand5. The history books have treated him unkindly, in part due to the calculating nature of his successor:

“When Sir George Grey became Governor of New Zealand he deliberately wrote down the results of the work of his predecessor … people though a remarkable improvement had been made in a short period. … However, Sir George Grey was unable to destroy all the records. The records that have been kept of that period show that Governor Fitzroy was not the rogue which his successor made him out to be, and Sir George Grey was not the brilliant man he made himself out to be.”6

Later Years

In 1850, Fitzroy retired from active military service. His achievements in science were recognised when he was elected a fellow of the highly distinguished Royal Society of London. A few years later, he was employed as a meteorologist, in charge of Great Britain’s first weather office. He made impressive achievements in the field of weather forecasting, but he was stressed and overworked. To make matters worse, his money was gone and his debts were mounting. A man dedicated to his work, Fitzroy had exhausted much of his personal fortune on public expenditure.

The eventful life of Robert Fitzroy ended in tragic circumstances. Suffering from severe depression Fitzroy committed suicide on 30 April 1865. He left behind his wife Maria and five children.

4 R. Johnson 2006:117

5 A. Salmond 1992:58

6 J. G. Edwards, speech, 30 August 1957

George Grey

Early Years

Grey was born in Lisbon, Portugal, into a military family. His father was killed just eight days before his birth during a particularly bloody episode of the Napoleonic Wars. As a child, Grey was sent to an English boarding school and after that he attended Sandhurst, the prestigious military college. Upon his graduation, he was commissioned an ensign in the army and sent to Ireland with his regiment. Grey’s experience of the poverty and misery of the Irish people convinced him of the merits of emigration to the colonies.


In 1836, Grey went to Australia. Adventurous and ambitions, he had arranged to explore parts of Western Australia in the hopes of finding suitable land for a settlement. His expeditions were disastrous, but he was nevertheless appointed resident magistrate at King George Sound a few years later.

Australian aboriginal culture was of great interest to Grey and he began to develop theories about assimilating and “civilising” indigenous peoples. When he became Governor of South Australia in 1840, his theories proved impossible in practice. Violence on both sides continued, and his schools for Aboriginal children were a failure. Grey did succeed in balancing the books by ruthlessly cutting expenditure.

Governor of New Zealand

On 14 November 1845, Grey arrived in New Zealand to replace Robert Fitzroy as governor. It was a delicate time: the war against Heke and Kawiti was not going well for the British, and the economy was in a very poor state. Fitzroy had been working on a peace deal with the “rebel” chiefs, but Grey promptly issued an ultimatum with an unreasonably tight timeframe: accept the current terms at once or hostilities would resume.

Grey displayed his excellent skills as a propagandist after the Battle of Ruapekapeka. He was present during the battle and so he knew the truth behind Colonel Despard’s account of an overwhelming victory. In the months that followed, Grey worked hard to generate and perpetuate the myth that that British won the Northern War. He wrote that “the rebel Chiefs had been defeated and dispersed” and that Heke and Kawiti had “made their complete submission to the Government.” The reality was that he could not afford for the Northern War to continue. There were rumblings of discontent from Māori in Wellington and Wanganui, and Grey did not have the resources to fight two wars at once. Even worse was the thought of a general uprising of Māori across the country.

After Ruapekapeka, Grey did not enforce any punitive measures against Heke and Kawiti. He basically decided to leave the north alone. This approach was in sharp contrast to his pre-battle rhetoric, that it would be “absolutely necessary to crush either Heke or Kawiti before tranquillity could be restored to the country”. Excellent spin-doctor that he was, he framed his about-face as an act of clemency.

Grey served as Governor of New Zealand until 1853 and again from 1860 until 1868. During his first term, he had far greater resources than predecessor (three times the funding and twice the salary) and by some measures he did quite a good job. He appeared to honour the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi, but at the same time, he convinced many Māori to part with large tracts of land. Echoing his experience in Australia, his efforts to ‘civilise’ Māori were not very successful. His relations with European settlers were not harmonious, due in part to his reluctance to establish an elected government. In fact, he was personally inclined towards democracy, but he could see that the system proposed by the settlers was extremely unfair to Māori. Grey eventually did write a constitution for New Zealand, setting up provincial and central representative assemblies.

In 1853, Grey left New Zealand to become the governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner for South Africa. Race relations were again a problem and there were frequent outbreaks of violence. On a personal note, Grey’s relationship with his wife Eliza was faltering. She accused him of repeated infidelity and was herself involved in an extramarital romance. The two lived apart for the following 36 years. At the same time, Grey’s professional relationship with the Colonial Office was becoming strained.

Grey’s second stint as governor of New Zealand began in 1860 as strife broke out in the Taraniki region. He hoped to smooth over the situation, but he did not succeed. Grey was at the helm during the second phase of the New Zealand Wars, with widespread fighting in the central North Island. In the aftermath, Grey agreed to massive land confiscations – three million acres – from the “rebel” chiefs. His time as Governor of New Zealand ended on a sour note. The British Government had decided to withdraw imperial troops from the colony, an instruction that Grey failed to implement. His appointment as governor was terminated in 1868.

After his termination, Grey went to England for a short while, but shortly returned to his mansion on Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf. His involvement in New Zealand politics was not over: he served as superintendent of Auckland province and was elected to parliament. By October 1877, he had clawed his way back to the top, and served as premier for several years.

Later Years

Grey’s later years were colourful and eventful. As a back-bencher in Parliament he was radical and outspoken, making quite a few enemies in the process. He devoted some time to his life-long interest in naturalism and he wrote books about Māori language and culture. In 1893, he left New Zealand for the last time, to live out his final years in England. He reunited with his estranged wife in 1897, one year before his death. Grey is remembered as a complicated and interesting character and a key figure in early New Zealand politics.

Hone Heke

Early Background

Heke was born in 1807 in Pakaraka in the Bay of Islands and he attended the mission school in Kerikeri. The missionaries found him an intelligent and troublesome child. He grew into an imposing figure, six feet tall and well-built. During the upheaval of the 1830s, Heke made a name for himself as a warrior. When he married Hariata Rongo, the daughter of the great chief Hongi Hiki, his status was further enhanced. By 1840 (the year of the Treaty of Waitangi) Hone Heke was an influential leader.

Heke and Te Tiriti

Heke started out as a supporter of The Treaty/Te Tiriti. He stood and spoke at the Waitangi hui (meeting), and helped to shift the general mood of the meeting in favour of signing Te Tiriti. He was probably the first Māori chief to sign the document.

Within a few years, Heke was disillusioned and angry. In his eyes, the British were not honouring the terms of the agreement he facilitated. At first, his reaction was peaceful and restrained: he wrote letters and discussed his concerns with missionaries and officials, but to no avail. By 1844, he was deeply concerned about the continued erosion of Ngāpuhi mana and chiefly authority. Fully aware of its symbolic importance, he cut down the flagstaff at Kororāreka, an act which forced the authorities to pay attention.

The War in the North

Heke persisted with his attacks against the flagstaff, culminating in March 1845 with the destruction of the town of Kororāreka. Heke and his allies had not planned to destroy the town. They intended only to engage the British troops long enough to cut down the flagstaff for the fourth time. However, the British took Heke’s actions to be a declaration of war.

In May that year, Heke and the venerable Te Ruki Kawiti forced the British to withdraw at the Battle of Puketutu. During that engagement, Heke and his men were stationed within the pā, while Kawiti’s forces engaged the troops outside. Heke provided covering fire and at one point, he sallied from the pā to allow Kawiti time to re-group.

Heke’s next military engagement was a great disaster. He attacked Tāmiti Wāka Nene at Te Ahuahu and suffered a decisive defeat. Many of his men were killed and Heke himself was gravely wounded. His men managed to transport him to safety, and he spent many months recovering, unable to participate in the action. He missed the Battle of Ohaeawai at the end of June 1845, just a few weeks after his defeat at Te Ahuahu.

During the lead up to the Battle of Ruapekapeka, Heke remained at Hikurangi tending food crops. He had arranged to join Kawiti when the soldiers began their attack, but the British sought to stop this from happening. Governor Grey contacted a local chief aligned with the Crown, asking him to prevent Heke from reinforcing Kawiti at Ruapekapeka. Heke and his taua (war party) finally did arrive at Ruapekapeka, only two days before the British gained possession of the pā.

Later Years

Heke’s mana and authority increased after the Northern War drew to a close, and he lived out the rest of his life relatively free from British interference. He passed away on 6 August 1850 from tuberculosis. Claim and counterclaim were made for his body. The missionary Richard Davis, who had given him spiritual support in the last months of his life, made a request for a Christian burial but was refused. He was allowed to read parts of the funeral service, before the body was taken away. Hone Heke was buried in secrecy in a burial ground called Kaungarapa, where he joined notable tribal leaders of the past.

Te Ruki Kawiti

Early Background

Te Ruki Kawiti was born in Northern New Zealand into an illustrious family. He traced his descent from Nukutawhiti, commander of the legendary Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua canoe, and Rahiri, the founding ancestor of Ngāpuhi. Kawiti was destined to be a great rangātira, and from birth, he was trained in the arts of warfare and leadership. His first wife was Kawa, and she was the mother of his three sons. With his second wife, Te Tiwha, he fathered a daughter.

Kawiti was born only five years after Captain Cook circumnavigated New Zealand. The world of his birth was profoundly different from the world of the Northern War. Kawiti lived through the period of upheaval bought about by early contact, settlement, and colonisation. By 1845, Kawiti was a wise and experienced man past 70 years of age.

Fighting Experience

Kawiti honed his military skills during the so-called Musket Wars of the early 1800s. He took part in notable battles alongside the great Hongi Hika, including Battle of Moremonui where Ngapuhi were defeated by Ngati Whatua. Nearly 20 years later (in 1824) Kawiti joined with other Ngapuhi chiefs and again faced Ngati Whatua in battle, this time emerging victorious. During the Northern War the British were facing a seasoned veteran with a thorough understanding of musket warfare.

Although he was a fierce warrior, Kawiti was not hot-headed. He was a man of integrity and restraint, and over the years, he developed a reputation as a peace-maker. For example, his diplomatic efforts prevented the “Girls’ War” of 1830 from becoming a full-scale confrontation between Ngapuhi and the people of Kororāreka.

Kawiti and the Te Tiriti

At Waitangi in February 1840 Kawiti argued against a treaty with the English. He spoke of wanting to retain his lands, and his concerns about British soldiers arriving to enforce the Governor's words. He finally did sign the Māori version in May that year after his people persuaded him to do so. Kawiti added his name at the top of the document above all of the other signatures, as befitted his rank.

Kawiti’s initial reservations about Te Tiriti proved to be correct. In 1845, he received a message from Hone Heke (the son-in-law of the late Hongi Hika). 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.

The War in the North

On 11 March 1845, Kawiti and his men attacked the group of British sailors guarding the town of Kororāreka. Their intention was to create a diversion, to allow Heke to cut down the Maiki Hill flagstaff for the fourth time. Heke and Kawiti, together with a Te Kapotai contingent, successfully engaged all three British military positions.

A few months after Kororāreka, Kawiti went to reinforce Hone Heke at his pā on the shores of Lake Omapere. When the British attacked the pā, they faced a co-ordinated response. Kawiti’s role was to engage the British from outside the pā while Heke provided support from within. The tactic was successful in that the British were eventually forced to withdraw, but it came at a very high cost. Kawiti lost too many men, and he never again engaged the British in open combat.

After the battle at Lake Omapere, Kawiti and Heke went to a pā at Ohaeawai belonging to their friend Pene Taui. The chiefs worked together to strengthen the pā in anticipation of another attack. In mid-June Heke was defeated and badly injured by Tāmiti Wāka Nene, so the defence of Ohaeawai was left in the capable hands of Kawiti and Taui. The British suffered a terrible defeat, displaying their arrogance and their failure to appreciate Kawiti’s military prowess. Despite this victory, Heke’s resolve began to waver and he started to think about making peace with the British. Kawiti encouraged him with these words:

“I warned you that the water was too deep for you alone to net the big fish, but you would not listen. Now the water just barely reaches your knees and you cry, enough!”7

At the end of 1845, Kawiti stood up against the British once again. Ruapekapeka was his masterpiece, a culmination of his wisdom and expertise. The outcome of the battle was inconclusive, although the British were quick to claim a great victory. Kawiti himself was inside the pā when the soldiers entered but most of his warriors were not. They may have been setting up defences at the rear. Once the fighting began Kawit’s men were quick to escort him away from the pā – they couldn’t risk their rangatira falling into the hands of the British.

After the Battle of Ruapekapeka Kawiti and Heke arranged to meet with Tāmati Wāka Nene, the leader of the Ngapuhi who had supported the British. They talked of peace, and afterwards Nene met with Governor Grey to propose an end to the fighting. Grey released a formal proclamation of peace on 23 January 1846.

Later Years

Kawiti lived out his later years in peace and died at Waimio an old man. His remains were placed with those of his ancestors in Te Pouaka-a-Hineamaru. His tangi, period of mourning, lasted a year. His son Maihi succeeded him as the leader of Ngati Hine, and it was Maihi who arranged for the Kororāreka flagstaff to be re-erected.

7 Cited in K. Martin.

Tāmiti Wāka Nene

Early Background

Tāmiti Wāka Nene was born around 1780 into an illustrious family. He was the second son of Tapua, leader and tohunga of the Ngahi Hao hapu. Wāka Nene traced his descent from Rahiri, the founding ancestor of Ngāpuhi. Hone Hene (his enemy during the Northern War) was related to him through the ancestor Kamamu. Nene was from an older generation.

As a young man Wāka Nene developed his skills as a warrior and war leader. During the early 1800s, he fought in battles between factions of Ngāpuhi. He probably took part in the expeditions of the 1820s against iwi to the south, led by the remarkable Hongi Hika who managed to unite the warring factions of Ngāpuhi. However, fighting between Ngāpuhi hapu resumed after Hika died in 1828. The events of these turbulent decades were not forgotten, and deep-seated grievances between certain Ngāpuhi hapu simmered just beneath the surface. In fact, offences caused during the early 1800s may have motivated Wāka Nene to take up arms against Hone Heke in the 1840s.

Attitude towards Europeans

By the late 1820s, Tāmiti Wāka Nene was the highest-ranking chief among his people and one of three leaders in the Hokianga area. With his elevated position came great deal of responsibility. Wāka Nene was quick to recognise the benefits of a European presence. He worked hard to maintain the peace and to protect the Weslyan missionaries and the pakeha traders in his area. The European community came to respect Wāka Nene, and began to rely upon him for advice. In 1839 Wāka Nene was baptised into the Wesleyan faith.

Wāka Nene supported the Treaty of Waitangi, not as a total cession of sovereignty, but as a way of bringing order to the region. Problems associated with European settlement were spiralling out of control, and Wāka Nene could see that something had to be done. During the debate at Waitangi he argued that it was too late for Māori to turn their backs upon the Europeans. His speech must have been persuasive, for Wāka Nene is credited with shifting the mood of the meeting in favour of signing the Treaty8.

Unfortunately, the Treaty did not bring about the positive changes Wāka Nene had predicted. Ngapuhi did not to prosper under British rule and there were many issues which angered the Northern chiefs. Wāka Nene himself was particularly aggravated when the governor attempted to restrict the felling of kauri trees. He threatened to fell a kauri tree in front of the governor to see how he would react. In fact, Nene shared many of the same concerns that drove Heke and Kawiti to take up arms against the Crown.

The Northern War

In July 1844, Hone Heke chopped down the flagstaff at Kororāreka for the fist time. This was a symbolic protest, which reflected Heke’s opinion of the reality of British sovereignty. Although the dissatisfaction was widespread, Ngāpuhi did not unite behind Heke. Plenty of rangatira were angered by Heke’s actions (as of course were the British authorities).

For the remainder of 1844, Wāka Nene worked hard to keep the peace. Wāka Nene assured the Governor that he would keep Heke under control, whilst making it clear that there were legitimate grievances that had to be addressed. Nene’s men guarded the new flagstaff but they did not intervene when Heke chopped it down for a second time in January 1845. However, Wāka Nene was extremely offended by Heke’s fourth attack on the flagstaff and the subsequent destruction of Kororāreka. It was the last straw. Wāka Nene was ready to take up arms against Hone Heke and those who were aligned with him. He explained himself:

"This man [Heke] had … laughed at all our persuasions and threats [we] who are older than himself … I had told the Governor when the first flagstaff was cut down that I would oppose Heke if he persisted in his folly and I am now come to do it.”9

Skirmishing between opposing Ngpāuhi factions started almost immediately and continued on-and-off until peace was declared. These encounters had nothing to do with the British campaigns and did not involve any British troops. By far the most important was the Battle of Te Ahahu in June 1845. Tāmiti Wāka Nene defeated Hone Heke on open ground. Heke was badly injured and was unable to participate in the action for the six months that followed. This was the only outright defeat suffered by “rebel” Ngāpuhi forces during the Northern War.

Wāka Nene and his men did not fully participate in any of the major battles involving the British troops. He provided the British valuable logistical support and plenty of good advice (some of which was ignored). At Ruapekapeka, Nene and his warriors fought off an attack upon the main battery and stockade without assistance from the troops. When the British finally gained entry to the pā, Nene and his men pulled back and left the actual fighting to the British.


A week after Ruapekapeka, Tāmiti Wāka Nene met with Kawiti and Hone Heke, and they arranged a peace deal. Nene then travelled to Auckland to meet with Governor Grey (Fitzroy’s replacement), and peace was confirmed with the British as well.

Wāka Nene’s motives during the peace negotiations are the subject of bitter words. Many believe that he asked the Governor to confiscate the lands of Heke and Kawiti to be given to him as a reward. Whatever the case, Governor Grey sidestepped a possible political minefield by taking no land in reparations.


Tāmiti Wāka Nene was rewarded for supporting the Crown. The British built him a cottage at Kororāreka (Russell) and he received an annuity of £100.00 Governor Grey relied upon him for advice, and when Grey was knighted in 1848, Nene was chosen as one of his esquires.

Towards the end of his life, Wāka Nene’s hapu fell into debt due to the declining Hokianga timber trade. However, Nene himself was held in very high esteem by the British authorities until his death in 1871. When he died, Governor Grey wrote in a dispatch to London the Nene “did more than any other [Māori leader] … to establish the Queen’s authority and promote colonisation”10.

8 R. Johnson, 2006:41.

9 Cited in A. Ballara

10 Cited in A. Ballara

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