Ruapekapeka Reconstructed

In 1846, Ruapekapeka Pā was a remarkable fortification. With its double-row of massive timber palisades, rifle trenches, flanking angles and bomb-proof bunkers, Ruapekapeka was a masterpiece of military engineering. Ruapekapeka represented a transition from traditional Māori pa, to defences especially designed to counter the long distance projectile and explosive weaponry of the British. The site is remarkable to this day with its highly visible and well-preserved defences carved into the landscape.

The British soldiers, sailors, and allied Māori set up three defended positions when they arrived to launch their offensive against the pā. Their main camp, northwest of the pā and lower down the ridge, bore some resemblance to a Māori village, with grass huts and a timber stockade. Several pieces of artillery were sited at the main camp, and gun batteries were located in two forward positions only 200 – 300 m from the defences of the pā.

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Pieces of the Puzzle

Reconstructing Ruapekapeka Pā and battlefield is not exactly easy, but there is some excellent source material to draw upon. When the soldiers went inside the pā they were very impressed – they wrote descriptions in their diaries, they sketched diagrams and drew plans of the defences. One of the skills expected of officers was to make pictorial records of battles. John Williams, Cyprian Bridge and George Hyde Park had considerable artistic talent, and their paintings provide vivid impressions and details, which would otherwise be forgotten. The officers prepared official military despatches to send to their superiors in England. In fact, the British authorities were so impressed that a plan and scale model of Ruapekapeka Pā was tabled at the House of Commons in London.

Various parties recorded the pā, as they saw it, leaving us with a legacy of impressions of this marvel of engineering.

Sketch of the pā. Sketch of the pā
Sketch of the pā. Sketch of the pā


We are not limited to first-hand evidence from people who were actually there. Plenty of people have written about the pā in subsequent years. An early work by James Cowan is particularly useful – he visited the pā site in 1919 and provides a colourful description. Stories passed down by Māori also have something to add. That knowledge is vested in the descendants of the warriors who fought in the battle. These oral histories are more about the people and less about the physical structure of the pā, but nevertheless, they can provide some valuable insights.

As well as the paper records and spoken histories, there is also the site itself. The discipline of archaeology has a lot to offer when it comes to reconstructing Ruapekapeka, translating the humps and hollows in the landscape, and offering a peak at what is hidden below the surface of the ground. Archaeological excavations are by nature destructive – whatever you dig up is destroyed forever. Luckily, modern technology provides a non-destructive alternative. Parts of the Ruapekapeka Pā and battlefield have been surveyed using geophysical techniques, with machines that can detect archaeological features that cannot be seen from the surface.

By weaving together the strands of evidence from different sources, we can begin to rebuild Ruapekapeka in the virtual world. The results will not be perfect. Some of the details are lost forever, the gaps paved over with educated guesses and speculation. Other details have yet to be revealed, and this will provide work for future archaeologists, historians and Māori holders of knowledge.

Ruapekapeka Pā

Ruapekapeka is located at the low northern end of the Tapuaeharuru ridge, about 15 kilometres from the sea as the crow flies. From the perspective of a British soldier in the 1840s, it was not an easy place to get too. There was no road or track. The soldiers had to cut their way south from the Kawakawa inlet though more than 20km of dense forest, building a road to transport the heavy artillery, ammunition and supplies. Of course, the difficult access was not an accident. Te Ruki Kawiti did not intend to make life easy for his enemies.

Kawiti chose a broad knoll surrounded by thick puriri forest as a building site for Ruapekapeka Pā. The land falls away to the north, east and west into low undulating terrain. The pā is about 90 metres long by 65 metres wide, extending across the relatively flat area on top of the knoll. In plan view Ruapekapeaka is shaped like a skewed rectangle, with wide rectangular extensions projecting from two sides. Flanking gun pits extended from the north-western and north-eastern corners, and there was a triangular bastion projecting from the southern side. The pā was designed so that the defenders could direct flanking fire at an enemy attacking from almost any angle.

Around the perimeter of the pā were two closely placed rows of timber palisades, forming a double wall about three metres in height. Designed to resist the heavy guns, many of the posts were entire tree trunks with their limbs hacked off, approaching half a metre in diameter. The posts were sunk deep into the ground, and the spaces between them were filled with saplings and split timbers firmly held together with cross rails and torotoro (vines). The outer wall was padded with bundles of green flax, which deadened the impact of musket fire and masked any damage to the palisades behind. At the very base of the palisades were gaps and loopholes, so a warrior crouching in the ditch behind could fire his musket at the enemy without exposing himself at all. Some of the palisades were still standing in 1919 when James Cowan visited the site, and he noted that the outer defences “must have presented a formidable face to the attacking force1.

There were (we think) five gateways in the perimeter defences formed by narrow gaps in the palisades. The gateways were cleverly designed, so that the gap in the outer row of palisades was off-set from the gap in the inner row. This meant that the palisades presented an unbroken line of defence, while allowing the defenders to enter and exit the pā quite easily. There were additional defences to the rear of the pā, shown on a beautiful map drawn by Mister Nops. He shows breastworks and a maze of felled trees – defences at the rear which were probably intended to cover a withdrawal.

Behind the walls there were inter-connected ditches all the way around the perimeter for the musketeers. At the front of the pā the double-palisade was external to the ditches. Spoil from the excavations was heaped up along the interior edge to form an earthen wall, shown clearly in the photo below. The ditches at the rear were in the gap between the palisades, or else there was a third row of palisades on the interior. The photo also shows that the trenches were broken up with alternating earthen projections. This meant that the defenders could easily move around within the trench, but they were protected against deadly enfilade fire. In other words, an enemy who gained access could not fire lengthwise down the entire trench.

The interior of Ruapekapeka Pā was designed to protect the inhabitants from artillery fire, and to provide successive lines of defence within the pā should the enemy gain entry. Artillery fire was a real problem because the pā sloped downwards to the west and the north. This meant that the interior was exposed to British artillery from that angle. Kawiti addressed this issue by going underground. He built “bomb-proof” bunkers, with narrow entrance tunnels roofed with logs and earth. Below the surface the tunnel expanded into wide chambers, large enough to accommodate several people in safety if not in comfort. The bunkers were connected to each other and to the perimeter trenches by way of tunnels, so the defenders could safely more around within the pā. Cyprian Bridge wrote and entry in his diary about the strength of the interior defences:

I found the pa much stronger in its interior defences than the one at Ohaeawai, but the outer fences and ditches were very similar, and all the fences were flanked. There were also deep holes underground all over the pa, which were so constructed as to be bomb-proof, in which the men screened themselves from the shot and shell – and cross fences and breastworks inside, so that a fire could have been kept up on us even had we succeeded in forcing the outer fences by storm, as we advanced in to the interior of the pa, which must have proved destructive had we not taken them so much by surprise2.

There were houses inside the pā as well, some without underground bunkers. They were built low to the ground, with earth piled up against the exterior walls to provide at least some protection. The pā had two wells to ensure a constant water supply, one inside the defences and another just outside. One of the wells (the outside one) is still open today. The interior well has since caved in, although a recent geophysical survey of the pā offers some evidence as to its location3. The warriors (and the women and children who accompanied them) did not necessarily live inside the pā during the whole of the bombardment. There was a little village a safe distance behind the pa, shown clearly on the plan drawn by Mr Nops.

There is no question that Ruapekapeka Pā was a masterful example of military engineering. For days, the defences withstood a heavy bombardment, but even the strongest timber posts cannot stand up against 32-pounder cannon balls forever. Even after the palisades were breached, the pā remained a formidable fortification. The anticlimactic end to the battle begs some interesting questions. Why was the pā nearly empty at the time of the British attack? What would have happened if the soldiers had tried to storm the pā a day earlier, as Colonel Despard had wanted to do? What if the defences had been properly manned when the soldiers finally did gain access?

Ruapekapeka Pā is a site of significant engineering innovation. At a time when British military technology led the world, this Māori reaction to the threat of artillery bombardment represents an ingenious indigenous response to European firepower.

Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand
Written on a plaque unveiled at Ruapekapeka in 2008

1 Cowan, James. 1955:78

2 Major Cyprian Bridge, diary entry, 11 January 1846

3 Geometria, J. 2006:10

British Positions

The soldiers set up three positions north-west of the pa: their living camp and two specialist gun batteries. The larger of these housed mortars and 32-pounder cannon, while the smaller battery further forward contained a smaller cannon and a howitzer. There is less written evidence available about the British positions than there is about the pā – detailed descriptions were not written down at the time, and nobody felt the need to draw plans of the British setup. Furthermore, the traces left in the ground are less distinct. The outline of the main gun battery is visible from the surface, but main camp looks like any other paddock. As for the forward battery, no surface evidence remains and we cannot even be sure of the exact location. Fortunately, soldiers of the 58th regiment spent time painting the British positions, and some details can be gleaned from contemporary written sources. Archaeology can help, despite the relative lack of surface evidence. In 2006 the camp and the main gun battery were scanned using a fluxgate gradiometer – a machine, which can detect underground features by measuring magnetic anomalies. From these results we can add a few more details to our models.

Painting of the British positions.

Painting of the British positions.

From the Alexander Turnbull Library

The main British camp was located to the north-west of the pā at a distance of about 800 meters. Here there was a fairly small flat area of ground, surrounded by forest and separated from the pā by a deep gully. A huge 32-pounder cannon was positioned at the eastern side of the camp, facing up towards the pā, with the Union Jack fluttering in the wind above. The 12-pounder was positioned alongside, mounted on a wheeled carriage, and neat pyramids of ammunition were stacked around the place. Nearby, the gun battery was a large grass hut with a low post-and-rail fence, perhaps a command centre storage facility or an ammunition store. Much of the above detail is taken from a well-known painting by Major Cyprian Bridge. This painting shows the infamous Congreave rockets being fired from their launching tubes at Ruapekapeka Pā that is visible in the distance.

To the west of the battery were neat rows of sleeping huts, protected with high wooden fences. The march to Ruapekapeka was so difficult that the tents were left behind. Nene’s men helped the soldiers to build grass huts “5 feet high and 6 feet long” shown in several of the paintings, and they slept in nest of fern4. Living conditions were uncomfortable. The makeshift shelters did were not exactly watertight, and on the night of January 4 a heavy rain pour left the soldiers soaked through and shivering5.

We know very little about the smaller forward battery, which housed an 18-pounder cannon and a 12-pounder howitzer. We do know that it was less than 150 metres away from the pā and to the west of the main battery. From there, the soldiers were able to concentrate their fire upon the south-west angle of the pā.

There is more to be said about the main forward battery, which was located about 200 meters away from the pā. This is where two 32-pounder cannons and four mortars were set up. The archaeological evidence reveals the shape of the structure and some details of the defences. The surface features have been softened and blurred over time, but the remains of a pentagonal stockade with ditch-and-bank defences are apparent. A wonderful painting by Cyprian Bridge shows a sturdy timber wall, more than twice the height of the men standing next to it. The rear of the stockade (facing away from the pā) was open, because the frontal and lateral defences were thought sufficient to protect against fire from the pā.

Major Cyprian Bridge's painting of the Main Advanced Gun Battery.

Major Cyprian Bridge's painting of the Main Advanced Gun Battery

From the Alexander Turnbull Library

The cannons and mortars were mounted within the stockade, facing the pā on the hill across the valley. Geophysical survey results suggest that cannon-balls and other munitions were kept in a pit within the stockade, and more were scattered on the ground around the forward-most of the cannon. At the rear of the stockade there was a building platform, probably for a tent or some kind of shelter for the soldiers manning the position6.

It is certainly possible to over-state the strength of the British forces facing Kawiti and his warriors. The British were better-equipped than Kawiti and his men, but that is not to say that they were well-equipped. They were forced to make do with the resources that were available, and as a result, their camp and the main gun battery had something of a hybrid “colonial” feel. There were no tents, so the soldiers built Māori-style grass huts. The rustic wooden fences protecting the gun battery were not all that different from the fences around and within Ruapekapeka Pā. Adding to the hybrid feel was the strong Māori presence within the British camp, the allied Ngāpuhi warriors mingling freely with the soldiers and sailors7. Nor were the British positions as secure as might be expected. There was genuine concern about Kawiti striking out from the pā, hence the ditch-and-bank defences and strong timber walls.

Ruapekapeka was a very impressive fortification, strong and very well designed. But the fact remains: it was made of timber and earth. No matter how well designed, such a structure cannot stand up indefinitely against cannon, howitzers and mortars. The resources available to the British were somewhat limited, but they had their priorities sorted: get the artillery and the ammunition up to the pā, set up gun batteries, and blast away.

Digital recreation of the British Positions. Digital recreation of the British Positions

4 Bridge, C. Diary entry for 30 December 1845

5 Bridge, C. Diary entry for 5 January 1846

6 Geomertia 2006:15

7 Shown in paintings by John Williams and George Hyde Park.


Bridge, Cyprian. 1845-6. Diary. Original held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, transcript held at the Department of Conservation Whangarei Area Office.

Cowan, J. 1955 [1922]. The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume 1 (1845-64). R. E. Owen, Wellington.

Despard, Henry. 1845-6. Official Despatches. Published in the New Zealander, 21 February 1846. Avaiaible at

Geometria Ltd. 2006. Ruapekapeka Pa Historic Reserve: Report on Geophysical and Topographic Surveys. Unpublished report for the Department of Conservation.

Jones, K. 1994. New Zealand Archaeological in Aerial Photographs. Victoria University Press, Wellington.

New Zealand Archaeological Association. Record for site number Q06/139.

Wright, M. 2006. Two Peoples, One Land: The New Zealand Wars. Reed Publishing, Auckland.

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