The Northern War

The Battle of Ruapekapeka was the last of a series of clashes collectively known as The Northern War (1845-6). The conflict involved the British, Ngāpuhi and other Māori iwi (tribes) of the northern North Island. The Māori warriors were fighting for their rights guaranteed under Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi). The British were attempting to suppress the “natives” rebelling against the Crown.

Map showing Northland and the location of Ruapekapeka.  

However, the Northern War was not a straightforward case of Māori fighting the Crown; it was also a war between factions of Ngāpuhi. A faction under Tāmati Wāka Nene fought alongside the British, against their political opponents.

During the Northern War, the British, assisted by Ngāpuhi allies, conducted five campaigns against Māori pā. Twice they destroyed pā that were not actively defended (Pōmare’s Pā and the Te Kapotai pā at Waikare). Te Kahika, Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka Pā were different. These were not lightly fortified villages. They were “gunfighter” pā of ingenious and effective design, manned by warriors ready to fight. The British failed in their attempt to take Te Kahika, cleverly out manoeuvred by Heke’s forces within the pā and Kawiti’s without. At Ōhaeawai, the British hopelessly underestimated the strength of the defences, which cost them very dearly.

The outcome at Ruapekapeka – indeed for the entire war – barely qualifies as a victory for the British. At the time, the British certainly claimed a great victory. They did capture Ruapekapeka Pā (albeit in a not-very-glorious manner). However, they did not achieve their primary objectives: to kill or capture Heke and Kawiti and to annihilate the “rebel” forces.

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11 March 1845: Kororāreka destroyed
Map of the Bay of Islands showing the location of Kororāreka and Pomare's Pā.  

In 1844, the town of Kororāreka was a lively trading post and port, still the fifth largest town in the colony despite a recent decline. The cottages of the pākehā settlers sat next to thatched Māori whare, nestled below steep hills covered in mānuka and fern. Whale ships frequented the bay, and their crews frequented the public houses ashore. The flagstaff – the symbol of British sovereignty, which attracted Heke’s wrath – stood high above the village on Maiki Hill.

Kororāreka before it was destroyed.

Kororāreka on 10 March 1845, the day before it was destroyed. The ships are the Hazard, the Victoria and the Matilda.

By G. T. Clayton. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. C-010-022


At sunset on 11 March 1845, the town was a smouldering ruin. The destruction of the town was a consequence of Heke’s fourth and final attack on the flagstaff atop Maiki Hill. A well-organised force of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine warriors attacked in three groups. The overall objective was simple: to cut down the flagstaff again. The intention wasn’t to harm the township itself, nor the civilians who lived there.

The action began before dawn when Kawiti’s taua (war party) attacked the armed marines and sailors of the HMS Hazard who were stationed ashore. The attack was a diversion, and it worked perfectly. Heke captured the flagstaff and blockhouse while the soldiers were distracted by the action below. Heke and his men killed the few soldiers who remained within the blockhouse, and set to work upon the flagstaff.

The remaining soldiers in the village gathered hastily at the barracks, but they were engaged by another group of warriors from Ngāti Manu and Te Kapotai. Historian Ralph Johnson explains: “... the three divisions of Ngāpuhi attackers were deployed in such a way as to first surprise the flagstaff defences, and then to engage each of the three British military positions (the blockhouse, the lower blockhouse, and the single gun battery). There was no attempt made at this or any later stage to attack the town or residents.”1

It took hours to cut down the flagstaff because the lower section was sheathed in iron. Meanwhile, Captain Robertson and his men were fighting Kawiti and his Ngāti Hine warriors at the southern end of the bay. It was a brutal hand-to-hand engagement with many casualties on both sides. The attack lasted just long enough for Heke achieve his objective. Once the flagstaff fell at about 10 am, all three groups withdrew. At lunchtime, Heke and his supports flew white flags to declare a truce.

Despite the ceasefire, the British officers feared that Heke and Kawiti intended to attack the town itself. They ordered the evacuation of pākehā civilians to the ships anchored in the bay. The Ngāpuhi warriors watched from the hills without attempting to intervene. When most of the civilians were safely aboard the ships, the town’s powder magazine exploded. Historians have debated whether it was a careless accident or a deliberate detonation to prevent the enemy gaining possession. Whatever the case, the remaining troops withdrew from the town shortly after the explosion. In the aftermath, the commanding officers were to face criticism for abandoning the town too early and too easily.

Bishop Selwyn, who was present at the time, said, “there is no evidence of any general or indiscriminate hatred of the natives towards the English settlers, or any disposition to bloodthirsty or savage acts of violence.”2 However, the property within the abandoned township was considered fair game. Some of the warriors started to plunder, but Heke and Kawiti agreed to allow the settlers back ashore to gather some of their belongings. At this inopportune moment, the HMS Hazard began to fire shots into the town for reasons, which are not entirely clear. The apparent act of aggression infuriated the Ngāpuhi warriors. Andrew Bliss, master of the whale ship Matilda summed up the situation:

“ is my decided opinion, that had those shots not been fired, the Town might have been saved from plunder and destruction ... shortly after our arrival back on board, they commenced plundering in every direction, and fired the town.”3

By the end of it, Kororāreka lay in ruin and around thirty men were dead. Each side probably suffered about the same number of casualties, many of which occurred at the beginning when flagstaff was taken. Heke arranged for the British dead to be given to the missionary Henry Williams for a decent burial. The loss of the town was a serious blow, and the colonial government attributed all of the blame to Heke, Kawiti and company. The government ordered a full-scale military offensive, thus beginning the Northern War.

Monument in Russell cemetery.

The monument in Russell cemetery to the British sailors killed during the destruction of Kororāreka. 

From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. PUBL-0163-1891-001

1 Johnson, R. 2006:189

2 cited in Johnson 2006: 197

3 cited in Johnson 2006: 198-9

Preparing for War

After Kororāreka the pākehā population of Auckland panicked, imagining an imminent Ngāpuhi invasion. Governor Fitzroy urgently called in reinforcements from Australia. The HMS Northstar, a 26-gun frigate, arrived in Auckland on 22 March. Aboard were 162 officers and men of the 58th regiment. The schooner Velocity arrived shortly after with more men, followed by the barque Slains Castle.

Meanwhile, internal political divisions within Ngāpuhi widened. The Ngāpuhi chiefs generally agreed that the Crown was not honouring Te Tiriti, but not all agreed with Heke’s forceful reaction. To some, the cutting down of the flagstaff breached the tapu which surrounded Te Tiriti. Certain chiefs believed that the best course of action was to discuss and negotiate with the colonial government, to maintain peace in the Bay of Islands.

After Kororāreka, peace was no longer an option. The Northern War (or wars) had begun. The Colonial Government was at war with Heke and Kawiti, who were also at war with opposing factions of Ngāpuhi. To some extent, the division within Ngāpuhi was a continuation of the internal strife of early 1800s. Tāmati Wāka Nene led the Ngāpuhi forces who fought alongside the British. Although they were labelled “loyalists”, Nene and his men were not really fighting for the Crown. Instead, they were fighting against Heke and Kawiti. Nene was personally offended by Heke’s final attack on the flagstaff. He explained himself thus:

“This man [Heke] had … laughed at all our persuasions and threats [we] who are older than himself … I had told the Governor when the flagstaff was cut down that I would oppose Heke if he persisted in his folly and I am now come to do it.”4

4 Cited in A. Ballara

30 April 1845: Pōmare's Pā (Otuihu) burned
Map showing details of the battle of Puketutu (Te Kahika Pā).  

At the end of April, 470 officers and men of the 58th and 96th regiment were dispatched to the Bay of Islands by ship. The officers decided that their first strike would against Otuihu Pā, the long established papa kāinga (home village) for the people of Ngāti Manu. Otuihu was also an important trading centre, and boasted a sizable pākehā population. Pōmare II, chief of Ngāti Manu and a rangātira with considerable mana, lived at Otuihu.

Depiction of Pōmare's Pā burning.

Pōmare’s pā burning, with the H.M.S Northstar in the foreground.

By J. Williams. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. A-079-032

The surprising thing about Otuihu is that Pōmare himself was not involved with the attack on Kororāreka. It seems his loyalties were divided, and that he wished to appear neutral in the eyes of the British. However, the governor had received intelligence that Pōmare was stockpiling gunpowder and ammunition for Hōne Heke.

The HMS North Star and several troop ships sailed up the Kawakawa River and anchored off Otuihu. The British persuaded Pōmare to come aboard the North Star. When Pōmare made to leave the ship, he was seized and made prisoner. After an armed standoff the soldiers entered Otuihu, plundered the valuable stores of trade goods, and set the pā ablaze. The soldiers didn't find any gunpowder or ammunition inside the pā, but they did find plenty of ducks, turkeys and pigs.

8 May 1845: British withdraw at Puketutu (Te Kahika Pā)

The instructions from Governor Fitzroy were crystal clear:

“It is my sad duty to state my conviction that till the principal Pahs on the Kawakawa are destroyed, and till the majority of their rebellious inhabitants are killed, there will be no peace at the Bay of Islands, no security for other settlements.”

Governor Fitzroy

In consultation with Tāmati Wāka Nene, the officers commanding the British forces decided to march inland. They sought to destroy Heke and his supporters, who had built a new pā on the shores of Lake Ōmāpere. The British were ignorant of the strength of Heke’s position. His new pā was cleverly designed, with firing trenches and strong palisades padded with flax to protect against musket balls. There were loopholes at ground level, which allowed Heke’s men fire at the enemy from trenches behind the palisades. However the pā was not finished, and there were weaker points at the rear.

Depiction of the fighting at Puketutu.

The fighting at Puketutu. Te Kahika Pā is in the middle ground.

By G. H. Page. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. B-081-006

The march inland proved arduous for the poorly-equipped British troops. The route was rough, they had no tents, and their biscuit ration was spoilt by the rain. Nene and his men provided much-needed assistance to the British column moving through the bush, although they did not participate in the battle itself.

The British arrived at the pā on 8 May, and realised with some dismay that heavy artillery would have been very useful. They did have some 3-pounder Congreve rockets. Of the 12 rockets fired, only one actually hit the pā and it did very little damage. Having failed to breach the defences, the British attempted a direct infantry assault. The troops advanced towards the pā with bayonets fixed, only to encounter a war party led by Kawiti. After some vicious hand-to-hand fighting, Kawiti and his men were driven back. At that point, a party sallied out from the pā to give Kawiti time to re-group. Ralph Johnson (2006:251) explains the strategy of the defenders:

“The interplay of firepower from the pā and surprise attacks was orchestrated by using pre-arranged signals, in this case flags ... the actions of Heke and Kawiti were orchestrated by the raising and lowering of flags on the two flagpoles inside Te Kahika Pā.”5

The British troops were caught between two enemy lines, and after hours of skirmishing, had no chance of gaining the pā. They had no choice but to withdraw from the battlefield. The following day, lacking food and burdened with 40 wounded, the troops marched back towards the coast.

Both sides suffered a significant number of casualties. About thirteen British soldiers were killed, many of whom were left behind. They were buried by Reverend Burrows assisted by a party of Heke’s men. Māori fatalities seem to have been somewhat higher than the British. Kawiti himself lost one of his sons, Taura, during the fighting6.

Heke wrote to Governor Fitzroy after the Battle of Puketutu, inviting him to come north to talk about making peace. Fitzroy did not reply. He was determined to punish all who “rebelled” against the Crown, to force them to atone for the loss of Kororāreka.

5Johnson 2006:251

6 Kawiti, K. 1953.

12 June 1845: The British attack Te Kapotai
Map of the Bay of Islands showing Te Kapotai Pā.  

In mid-May, the 58th regiment attacked the Te Kapotai tribe. A Te Kapotai contingent had been present when Kororāreka went up in flames, and the British believed they were in possession of “plunder” from the destroyed township. Joining the British troops were 100 or so Ngāpuhi from several different hapu, who were seeking utu (repayment) for their defeat at the hands of Te Kapotai some 30 years prior.

Depiction of the British attack of Te Kapotai Pā.

The British attack Te Kapotai Pā in the Waikare Inlet. 

By G. Bridge. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. A-079-004

The attackers attempted to surprise the Te Kapotai Pā, heading up the river in small boats under the cover of darkness. The intention was to “prevent the escape of the natives"7 and to inflict punishment for the loss of Kororāreka. In summary, Te Kapotai were not in a strong position to defend their pā, so they chose to withdraw. There was fighting in the bush, mostly involving the Ngāpuhi troops allied to the British. Meanwhile, the British troops set about plundering and burning down the Te Kapotai Pā. No goods from Kororāreka were discovered within the Te Kapotai Pā.

Major Cyprian Bridge, diary, 15 May 1845

12 June 1845: Heke defeated and injured at Te Ahuahu

There was plenty of action during the Northern War which did not involve the British at all. Clashes between the factions of Ngāpuhi began almost immediately after Kororāreka. The most notable of these was the Battle of Te Ahuahu, where Heke suffered his only outright defeat during the entire course of the war.

Te Ahuahu was an old pā, which belonged to Heke, and it was there that he went after defence of Te Kahika pā. In early June Heke and most of his men left Te Ahuahu to gather food. While they were away his enemy Te Taonui seized the pā, and was quickly backed up by Tāmati Wāka Nene. Heke wanted his pā back, so he amassed a force of about 500 men. Nene and Te Taonui had fewer men by a long way.

The Battle for Te Ahuahu was fought outside the pā on the lower slopes of the hills adjacent. Although outnumbered, Nene and Te Taonui succeeded in repelling Heke’s forces. Causalities were heavy and at least three chiefs allied to Heke were killed. Heke himself was gravely wounded, and barely managed to elude capture. The injured Heke was transported to safety, unable to participate in the action for the six months that followed.

Map showing Lake Omapere, Te Ahuahu Pā, and Ohaeawai.  
24 June 1845 – 11 July 1845: British humiliated at Ōhaeawai

The pā at Ōhaeawai, belonging to Heke’s ally Pene Taui, was even stronger than the pā, which the British had failed to take six weeks prior. Heke and Kawiti had been working to strengthen the defences, expecting another attack. While Heke was engaged at Te Ahuahu, Kawiti and Pene Taui continued the work at Ōhaeawai.

Plan of Ōhaeawai Pā.

Section, elevation and ground plan of Ōhaeawai Pā. 

By H. T. Biddulph from drawing by J. J. Symonds. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. E-137-q-006

The Ōhaeawai pā had many design features in common with Te Kahika. There were double rows of puriri timber palisades, and a well designed system of trenches and bunkers within. The site was carefully chosen, away from important villages and food resources, and far enough inland to cause the British significant logistical difficulties.

In June 600 soldiers, marines, and volunteers returned to the Bay of Islands under Colonel Despard. Much has been written about the character of Colonel Despard, and almost none of it is flattering. Shortly after the troops arrived, Despard received a visit from Tāmati Wāka Nene, who offered his assistance. Despard replied, “When I want the help of savages, I will ask for it”. Luckily, (for Despard) his answer was not translated back to Nene.

The soldiers set up camp at the Waimate mission station, much to the annoyance of the missionaries. The pā was only six miles away from Waimate, but it took some time to transport the artillery, ammunition and supplies first to Waimate and then to Ōhaeawai. Having learned a little from their experience at Te Kahika, the British bought with them four artillery pieces. However, they were greatly hampered by a lack of drays for transportation. Food supplies ran short and there were few tents. Again, the British troops were reliant upon Tāmati Wāka Nene, who provided large quantities of beef, potatoes and flour.

Heke, badly injured, was not at Ōhaeawai. The defence of the pā was in the capable hands of Kawiti and other fighting leaders. There were only about 100 warriors within the pā, preparing to stand against an attacking force many times larger.

It was 24 June by the time Despard and his men arrived at Ōhaeawai. The gun batteries were set up as soon as possible, and Despard opened fire with his brass 6-pounder cannons and 12-pounder carronades. His aims were simple: to breach the palisades and to kill the inhabitants. However, the guns were just not big enough. For seven days the British bombarded the pā without breaching the defences. Things changed on 30 June with the arrival of a massive 32-pounder cannon. Finally, the British possessed sufficient fire-power to smash the defences.

The 32-pounder was positioned in the hilltop gun battery, which was protected by a small group of soldiers. Shortly after firing commenced, the defenders launched a daring attack from the pā. They succeeded in killing the sentry and capturing the position. The soldiers recaptured the position fairly quickly, but the warriors had time enough to take down the Union Jack flying on the gun battery flagstaff. They withdrew to the pā and hoisted the Union Jack on the flagstaff inside, underneath their own flag.

Despard was infuriated and determined to attack at all costs. He instructed the British troops to prepare for a direct assault on the pā, although the defences were still very much intact. The soldiers were ordered to charge the pā across open ground and to pull down the massive palisades with ropes and axes. The assault was disastrous. In just a few minutes 41 men lay dead and 73 more were injured.

The defenders waited until the last moment before opening fire on the mass of British troops hacking desperately at the outer defences. Kawiti’s warriors were only meters away on the other side of the palisades, safely hidden in a covered trench which ran all the way around the perimeter. They fired through carefully-placed holes in the roof of the trench. The soldiers couldn’t even see the people shooting at them, let alone defend themselves.

“The enemy reserved their fire until the leading sections got within 5 paces of their outwork, we were met with such a fusillade, I can only describe it as the opening of the doors of a monster furnace.”

John Mitchell

At Ōhaeawai the British displayed their utter ignorance of the military prowess of Kawiti and the other chiefs. Despard in particular was disdainful and arrogant, incapable of regarding the Māori as worthy foe. Kawiti and his warriors taught Despard a lesson at Ōhaeawai – a lesson reinforced by the death of 41 British soldiers.

Bitter and angry, Despard continued to bombard the pā until 9 July when the defenders, tired of the assault, left the pā under cover of darkness. The bemused British forces destroyed the pā, but could hardly claim a victory. They returned to Waimate to re-supply and plan another advance. Meanwhile, Kawiti was starting work on a new pā high on the slopes of the Tapuaeharuru Range. It would be known as Ruapekapeka – the Bat’s Nest.

Hariata (Heke’s wife), Heke and Kawiti.

Hariata (Heke’s wife), Heke and Kawiti. 

By J. J. Merrett. From the Alexander Turnbull Library. ref. C-012-019 

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