It is easy to misjudge the scale and significance of the Northern War. Compared to the world wars of the twentieth century, the Northern War may seem insignificant and perhaps even quaint. It wasn’t. The Northern War was important, brutal, and costly. Overall, Ngāpuhi paid a much higher price.

Ngāpuhi went to war because the British were not honouring the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi. Today, the Treaty is recognised as New Zealand’s founding document, a powerful symbol and the basis of important legal principles1. The Treaty is the thread, which connects the Battle of Ruapekapeka to the present day.

Today, many pākehā New Zealanders are a little smug about their country’s race relations history. There is a belief that Māori fared better than, for instance, indigenous Australians and Native Americans. They probably did. However, exceeding these dreadfully low benchmarks is hardly something to be proud of. The remarkable earthworks of Ruapekapeka Pā and Battlefield are a stark reminder of our own history of conflict and broken promises.

1 The Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

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For New Zealand at that time, the scale of the conflict was not small. The army of 1300 troops and volunteers sent to Ruapekapeka in 1845 was the largest the British had deployed in New Zealand to that date. For comparison, the force was equivalent in size to one-tenth of the pākehā population of New Zealand at the time2. The campaigns against Heke and Kawiti were gruelling and expensive. However, the British had the might of an empire behind them, in stark contrast to their opponents.

Ngāpuhi paid a very high price for their partial victory3. By Māori standards, the Northern War lasted a long time, which placed considerable strain upon Ngāpuhi resources. Māori warriors were not professional soldiers. They were fishermen, traders, farmers, husbands and fathers. Channelling the available man-power into the war effort caused huge disruptions to everyday life. Old people and small children were left behind in their home villages to fend for themselves. Gardens went untended and there wasn’t time for the usual fishing and gathering food. Trading with pākehā settlers – by then integral to the Ngāpuhi economy – was disrupted.

On top of all this, Northern Māori lost a number of pā and villages which were not actively defended. The British soldiers destroyed perhaps eight4 of these settlements, to punish those they believed to be associated with the “rebellion”. Gardens, food stores and valuable possessions such as waka (canoes) were lost. The losses drove Ngāpuhi into a state of “extreme deprivation”, as people were forced from their homes to find refuge elsewhere5. Māori in the North continued to suffer these economic and social effects long after the fighting drew to a close.

2 Based upon a population of 13 000 pākehā colonists in New Zealand in 1845 ‘Overview of New Zealand History in the 19th Century’ nzhistory.net.nz accessed 1 July 2013

3 Belich, J. 1986:70

4 R. Johnson (1996:413) lists nine villages/pā, which were destroyed by the British during the war; most were not actively defended.

5 R. Johnson 1996:413

Ngāpuhi Divided

To Northland Māori the Battle of Ruapekapeka isn’t relegated to a distant past. From a Māori point-of-view 1846 was not very long ago. Great great grandchildren of those who fought in the battle are still alive, only four generations removed from the action. The histories are well remembered, and many Ngāpuhi today can recount stories of their own ancestors during the Northern War.

The Northern War exacerbated existing divisions within Ngāpuhi. Tāmiti Wāka Nene and his associates were rewarded for supporting the British. Nene himself received a cottage in Russell and an annuity of £100. He became a prominent advisor to Governor Grey and was held in high esteem in pākehā circles. At the same time, supporters of the “rebels” were suffering in the aftermath of the fighting. To this day, Ngāpuhi remember who provided assistance to the British. Among those whose ancestors fought with Heke and Kawiti, a shadow of resentment persists towards those who supported the Crown. 

However, ill-feelings have been diluted by marriages and children. Many Northland Māori have some ancestors who supported the Crown and others who fought against it. Intermarriage was not limited to opposing Māori factions. There are several known cases of a pākehā soldier marrying a Māori woman affiliated with those who fought against the British.

The Northern War and the Treaty of Waitangi

When the Treaty was signed in 1840, Māori expectations were very different to those of the British. The administrators and missionaries who facilitated the deal genuinely believed that Māori would benefit from British rule. However, these men must have known that the concept of “sovereignty” had not been properly explained. Very soon after 1840, it became apparent to Northern Māori that British sovereignty undermined Māori mana. The missionary Richard Taylor recorded the view of Chief Pana-kareao of Te Rarawa:

“He thought the shadow of the land would go to the Queen and the substance remain with them but now he fears the substance of it will go to them and the shadow only be [the Māori] portion.”

The Northern War wasn’t really a “rebellion”. It began as a protest, when Hone Heke demanded that the British address legitimate Ngāpuhi grievances. He didn’t want the settlers and their government to leave New Zealand – he wanted them to listen and to behave in accordance with the Treaty. This view was commonly held among Northern Māori at the time, even if they did not support Heke himself. In fact, the underlying sentiment is strongly held by many Māori to this day.

The Strife Continues

The Northern War foreshadowed Māori protest movements, which collectively spanned at least 140 years. As Māori continued to loose their lands and their rights, protest movements were born in the central North Island. In the 1860s, the British were again at war, this time against powerful chiefs of the Māori King (kingitanga) and Pai Maraie movements.

Ngāpuhi were not directly involved in these later stages of the New Zealand Wars. However, there was a connection, valuable lessons had been learned during the fighting in the north. Kawiti and his allies had refined the art of building “gun-fighter” defences, and the knowledge filtered through to Māori of the central North Island.

The British also adapted their strategy and tactics, to involve larger armies and more firepower. Having studied the defences of Ngāpuhi gunfighter pā, the British started to employ sapping6 as a method of gaining entry to Māori fortifications. The events of the 1840s (and the remarkable strength of Ruapekapeka Pā) had taught the British to respect Māori skills in warfare. However, they still did not respect the Treaty of Waitangi. In the aftermath of the fighting millions of acres of Māori land was confiscated as “punishment”. The confiscations have since been judged a breach of the Treaty7.

Over the decades, breaches of the Treaty continued8. Six decades of manipulative land purchases saw Māori across the country loose a very large proportion of their lands. Rangatiratanga was eroded, and Māori were denied opportunities to participate in the governance of the colony.

“Māori protested early, and continually, about their exclusion from the processes of government, where decisions were made about their property and their lives, usually without even the courtesy of consultation.”

Professor Alan Ward9

It took well over a century, but eventually the government had to listen. In 1975, an Act of Parliament established the Waitangi Tribunal, a commission of inquiry to hear Māori grievances against the Crown regarding Treaty breaches.

One hundred and seventy years after Hone Heke first chopped down the flagstaff at Kororāreka, Northern Māori are presenting their cases to the Waitangi Tribunal. Getting to this point was a long and painful struggle across multiple generations. The Battle of Ruapekapeka was an early stage of this struggle, which at last may be resolved.

6 Sapping is a method of advancing towards an enemy fortification by digging a trench to shield the attackers from defensive musket or artillery fire.

7 Ward, A. 1997. National Overview, Vol. 1. Waitangi Tribunal Rangahaua Whanui Series, p. 35.

8 Ward, A. 1997.

9 Ward, A. 1997:28.

Extra resource material

Orange, C. 1980. The Covenant of Kohimarama: A Ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi. New Zealand Journal of History 14:61-82.

Walker, J. 1984. The Genesis of Maori Activism. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 93:267-282

Ward, A. 1997. National Overview, Vol. 1. Waitangi Tribunal Rangahaua Whanui Series.

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