The Northern War


The Northern War was in part a reaction to the colonial government's increasing control over Māori affairs. New rules and regulations cost Māori in the Bay of Islands trade and other economic opportunities. The imposition of customs duties and shipping levies increased prices and deprived Māori of sources of revenue. A ban on the felling of kauri and Crown control of land sales added to fears that Māori authority was being undermined.

The murder trial and public execution of Maketū in 1842 was confirmation for Hōne Heke Pōkai that chiefly authority was now subservient to that of the British Crown. Tāmati Wāka Nene shared this concern. But by 1844, as tensions grew, Nene had accepted the reassurances of men like Governor Robert FitzRoy and the missionary Henry Williams. Heke had not.

The war that was to follow was no simple matter of Māori versus British. Two factions of Ngāpuhi fought against each other. One, led by Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti, fought both the Crown and another Ngāpuhi faction led by Tāmati Wāka Nene, Eruera Maihi Patuone, Mohi Tawhai and Makoare Te Taonui.

There were three major engagements involving the British army and Māori: Puketutu, Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka. But there were also battles in which the British took no part, such as Te Ahuahu in June 1845. Nene and his men scouted for the British and skirmished vigorously but played no significant role in the other three major battles.

A symbol of 'Māori despair'

The British flag flying above Kororāreka (Russell) became the focus of Heke's protest. After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi the Union Jack had replaced the flag of the United Tribes as New Zealand's official flag. Hobson had the United Tribes flag removed from the flagstaff at Kororāreka (the New Zealand Company's version of the flag was also hauled down at Port Nicholson). Heke saw this as denying Māori equal status with the government. He had gifted the flagstaff to Kororāreka so that the Māori flag could be flown there. Attacking the flag would emphasise that his grievance was with the government. He had no desire to hurt or alarm settlers.

The flagstaff was cut down for the first time on 8 July 1844. Heke himself had it re-erected, but then chopped it down again on 10 and 19 January and 11 March 1845. Governor FitzRoy referred to the flagstaff as 'a mere stick', but argued that as it was 'connected with the British flag it [was] of very great importance'. 

Kororāreka in 1845

Ngāpuhi had enjoyed economic benefits from their early contact with Europeans, and leaders such as Tāmati Wāka Nene and Hōne Heke Pōkai were keen to preserve this relationship. Both had converted to Christianity and supported the Treaty of Waitangi. Heke, the first signatory, had invited Lieutenant-Governor Hobson to 'stay with us and be like a father'.

The Treaty of Waitangi was expected to cement the relationship with the British Crown and make Ngāpuhi prosperous. But optimism quickly turned to frustration. Hobson's decision to move the capital from the Bay of Islands to Auckland in 1841 was a serious blow.

When the flagstaff was re-erected after the third attack on 19 January 1845, FitzRoy had it clad in iron and protected by a blockhouse. Nene also provided guards for the flagstaff.

As tension mounted Kororāreka (Russell) was placed on a war footing. FitzRoy appealed to New South Wales for military aid. The sloop HMS Hazard, which had been sent from New South Wales after the first incident in July 1844, was instructed to return to the Bay. One hundred and forty soldiers, sailors and marines were now available to defend the town. Two hundred residents and crewmen of visiting ships were also armed.

Shortly before dawn on 11 March 1845, Heke and several hundred fighters moved on Kororāreka. One group, led by Te Ruki Kawiti, created a diversion at the southern end of the town, enabling Heke to seize the blockhouse defending the flagstaff. The offending pole was cut down for a fourth time.

Desultory fighting continued for the rest of the morning. Women and children were evacuated in the early afternoon. Soon afterwards the powder magazine at Polack's stockade exploded and surrounding buildings caught fire. The troops were now also evacuated to ships anchored in the bay.

When Lieutenant G. Philpotts of the Hazard ordered the bombardment of Kororāreka, Māori began looting the town. The Anglican and Catholic churches were spared from destruction on Heke's orders.

The looting and subsequent burning of Kororāreka shook the settler population. Some £50,000 worth of property (more than $6 million in 2017 values) was lost. There was panic in Auckland when the refugees arrived. Some settlers sold their land for whatever price they could get and fled the colony. 

Why was Kororāreka lost?

Settlers and officials demanded an explanation of how professional soldiers and sailors had allowed Kororāreka to fall. Some pointed to divine retribution. As a 'Gomorrah, the scourge of the Pacific', the ungodly settlement had finally got what it deserved.

The size of the Māori force was inflated to at least 1000. In what was to become a feature of reporting on the New Zealand Wars, Māori casualty figures were similarly inflated, from 13 dead and 28 wounded to 34 and 68 respectively. The British lost 19 or 20 dead and 23 wounded.

Lieutenant Philpotts pointed a finger of suspicion at missionary Henry Williams, whose close relationship with Heke saw him accused of somehow betraying the town. Though FitzRoy dismissed this allegation as 'utterly absurd', rumours persisted throughout the Northern War that the missionaries were in some way to blame.

The military also came in for criticism. FitzRoy lambasted 'the shameful conduct of those officers whose uselessness caused the loss and destruction of Kororareka'. The decision to abandon the town had been too hasty. 

The conflict widens

Nene and his supporters took no part in the fighting at Kororāreka, and Nene continued to talk to Heke in a bid to stop the conflict escalating. But fighting between the two main Ngāpuhi factions broke out in April. Historian James Belich has described this as 'restrained feuding' — no ambushes, no fighting at night — but the conflict intensified when Heke insulted Nene by accusing him of 'fighting for blankets'.

'The sacking of Kororāreka', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Apr-2019

In response to Governor Robert Fitzroy's January plea, Lieutenant-Colonel William Hulme arrived at the Bay of Islands at the end of April 1845 with 460 soldiers, marines and volunteers. The British destroyed Ōtuihu, the coastal pā of the neutral chief Pōmare, who was suspected of secretly supporting Hōne Heke. Hulme and his force then moved inland to confront Heke at his new pa at Puketutu, beside Lake Ōmāpere.

Skirmishing between Māori forces had delayed the completion of this pā. Strong defenses consisting of double or triple palisading were in place on three sides, but the rear of the pā was vulnerable.

A British assault party of more than 200 men attacked Puketutu on 8 May. They were surprised by 140 fighters led by Te Ruki Kawiti who had been hiding in the bush. Turning to deal with Kawiti, the British appeared to be gaining the upper hand when Heke led a group from the pā. Fierce fighting ensued. Heke's party returned to the pā with the British in hot pursuit, then Kawiti's men regrouped and attacked again. After forcing Kawiti back a second time, Hulme called off the attack. Lacking artillery, he may have felt that a frontal assault would be unwise.

Puketutu had been built away from civilians and crops and had no long-term strategic value for Heke. After the battle it was simply abandoned. FitzRoy reacted to Hulme's occupation of an empty pā by reporting to his superiors that the rebels had been 'beaten and dispersed'. Maori casualties were higher than British – 28 killed compared with 15 – but some reports claimed that up to 200 Māori had been killed.

Māori learnt an important lesson at Puketutu: the British were a formidable foe in open battle. This would influence Maōri tactics in future clashes.

Te Ahuahu

The knockout blow against Heke that the settlers and British military personnel desired very nearly came in a battle in which no British forces were involved. At Te Ahuahu on 12 June 1845 Heke suffered his most serious setback of the Northern War.

Hōne Heke, Kawiti and Hariata Rongo

The 'war within a war' had continued in the aftermath of Puketutu. Skirmishing between the forces of Nene and Heke culminated in a substantial battle near Heke's home pā, Te Ahuahu, which was captured after he left it to gather food. Heke tried in vain to retake the pā, and was seriously wounded when shot in the thigh. At least 30 of his men were killed or wounded, including one of his key lieutenants.

While recovering in Kaikohe Heke was visited by the missionaries Henry Williams and Robert Burrows, who hoped to persuade him to stop fighting. Heke was unmoved. Some British officers saw this as further evidence that the missionaries were colluding with a rebel. 

'Puketutu and Te Ahuahu', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Apr-2019

The veteran officer Henry Despard had now arrived to command all the British troops in New Zealand. Keen to cash in on Hōne Heke's setback at Te Ahuahu, he assembled the largest British force yet seen in the colony and moved to attack Te Ruki Kawiti's new pā at Ōhaeawai.

Despard had 615 men and five cannon available for an assault on little more than 100 fighters. The pā was bombarded for a week from 24 June 1845. Despard hoped to both break down the defences and demoralise the defenders.

On 1 July Kawiti launched a 'dangerous and provocative' raid against one of the artillery batteries. Despard interpreted this as an act of desperation and decided the time was right to launch an assault. Nene disagreed but was ignored. When the assault party – 250 of Despard's best men – was within 20 m of the pā it was met with a withering fire. In a matter of minutes, 40 British troops lay dead and another 70 were wounded. 

Ōhaeawai, the prototype of the 'modern pa', was a major advance in the Māori response to new weaponry. Firing and communication trenches protected the occupants while allowing rapid movement within the pā. Anti-artillery bunkers (rua) had been dug into the ground and covered with logs, stones and matted flax. Each could house 15–20 men in relative safety.

An outer fence (pekerangi) concealed the pā's real strength. While it appeared flimsy, the pekerangi's flax matting easily absorbed musket shot and concealed the more substantial inner fence made of heavy logs. It also slowed down the assault party. The function of the pekerangi has been compared with that of barbed wire in 20th-century battles.

Despard considered withdrawing until he heard from his Māori allies that Kawiti planned to abandon the pā. Sensing an opportunity to salvage something from the situation, he ordered shelling to recommence on 10 July. When Kawiti withdrew next day, Despard argued that the prospect of another British assault had been too much for the defenders. The British occupied an empty pā and proclaimed victory. Few saw the outcome as anything other than a victory for Kawiti. 

'Ōhaeawai', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 9-Apr-2019

After Ōhaeawai, Governor FitzRoy declared that the 'rebels' had 'suffered severely'. Behind the scenes, he authorised Colonel Despard to conduct peace negotiations. FitzRoy also began talks with Hōne Heke through the missionaries Robert Burrows and Henry Williams.

George Grey

Though Heke declared he would 'never to submit to the flag', FitzRoy accepted most of his terms. The sticking point was the governor's insistence that land to which Te Ruki Kawiti shared rights with a number of neutral and pro-government Māori must be ceded to the Crown. Though Kawiti objected, Heke began to waver – but in October, FitzRoy was relieved of his commission.

George Grey replaced FitzRoy as governor on 18 November 1845. Grey believed FitzRoy's negotiations had been 'inconsistent with the interests of the British Government'. He was particularly incensed by a letter from Heke which asserted:

"God made this country for us. It cannot be sliced … Do you return to your own country, which was made by God for you. God made this land for us; it is not for any stranger or foreign nation to meddle with this sacred country".

When negotiations broke down in early December, Grey ordered Despard to attack Ruapekapeka, a pā that was being constructed by Kawiti nearly 30 km south-east of Ōhaeawai.

Photo - Ruapekapeka scene

Governor George Grey had convinced his superiors of the need for more men. A force of around 1300 British troops and 400 Māori began to advance on Ruapekapeka in early December 1845.

After hauling 30 tonnes of artillery and supplies over nearly 30 km of rugged country, the British force assembled before Ruapekapeka – 'the bat's nest'. The highly intricate pā with tunnels, rifle pits and trenches was surrounded by a strong palisade, but its garrison was outnumbered four to one. The British had three naval 32-pounder cannon, an 18-pounder, two howitzers and a number of mortar and rocket tubes. Te Ruki Kawiti had an ancient 12-pounder (which was destroyed shortly after the British began shelling the pā) and a 4-pounder.

Hōne Heke, who had recovered from his wounds, joined Kawiti inside Ruapekapeka with 60 reinforcements during the night of 9 January 1846. He and Kawiti now had a combined force of perhaps 500.

Ruapekapeka, 1846

A full-scale bombardment on 10 January created three small breaches in the palisade. Despard was keen to attack before Kawiti's men could escape but was talked out of this course of action by Wāka Nene and Grey.

The end of the battle is shrouded in controversy. The following day, 11 January, scouts discovered that only Kawiti and around a dozen men were still inside the pā. When troops attacked, this group fled into nearby bush after firing a volley. When the British followed they were fired on from hidden positions. Fighting intensified briefly and Kawiti's men seemed to be trying to retake the pā. The conflict fizzled out when the British refused to be lured into the bush. A dozen British had been killed, and rather more Māori. Some of the British may have been shot by their own side as they scoured the pā for non-existent loot.

Why was Ruapekapeka abandoned?

The fact that no provisions or ammunition were left behind in the pā suggests that this was an organised withdrawal. The pā may have served its purpose and been abandoned. The defenders may also have hoped that the soldiers would be drawn into an ambush by Heke and his men in the dense bush outside the pā. On the other hand, Kawiti and his men may have taken what they saw as their best chance to escape.                                                                                                                                                           Ruapekapeka pā

A contemporary theory was that the Christian Māori had left the pā to hold a Sunday prayer service while Kawiti, a non-believer, had stayed inside with a handful of his men. The garrison was then caught off-guard. But when the same forces had met at Ōhaeawai, there had been no such acknowledgement of the Sabbath.

To the British, the capture of such an intricately designed and well-constructed pā was a significant achievement – a tactical victory. But many consider the battle to have been drawn. Heke and Kawiti had escaped with their forces largely intact, and the terms of the subsequent peace settlement suggest that they may even have won a strategic victory. 

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                                                                                            Peace Break Out 

A few weeks after the battle of Ruapekapeka, the rival Ngāpuhi leaders met at Kawakawa and agreed to stop fighting among themselves. Hōne Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti lacked the resources to continue the war.

Many on the British side also realised how difficult it would be to keep fighting. The inconclusive outcome at Ruapekapeka offered both sides a way out. For Governor George Grey it was important to bring the war to a rapid conclusion to reverse the flight of settlers from Auckland. He chose not to re-erect the flagstaff at Kororāreka. His actions may have been magnanimous, but they also showed that he knew how hard it would be to achieve a total victory. While he spoke publicly of victory, he convinced his superiors of the need to retain troops in New Zealand.

Historian James Belich contends that Grey won the propaganda war while Kawiti and Heke won the war on the battlefield. Others argue that Belich's revisionism goes too far and maintain that Grey's decisive action sent a powerful message to Kawiti and Heke about the nature of their new opponent. Grey showed his diplomatic skills when he pardoned the 'rebels' and did not confiscate any land. Some argue that Ngāpuhi's neutrality during the 1860s can be attributed to Grey's diplomacy in the aftermath of the Northern War.

Grey largely ignored the main reasons for Kawiti and Heke's protest – their wish for partnership in government and control over their lands. While peace was formally made with Kawiti in mid-1846, Grey and Heke did not meet until 1848, when Grey was presented with Heke's greenstone mere. According to Heke's biographer, Freda Kawharu, this was 'a token of acceptance of Grey's right to be in New Zealand and of Heke's expectation that the Queen's representative would honour the treaty.' 

Feature was written by Steve Watters and produced by the team.

  • James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1986
  • James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period, 2 volumes, reprinted by Government Printer, Wellington, 1983 (see also digitised versions of these volumes)
  • David Green, Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: a visitor's guide, Penguin, Auckland, 2010
  • Vincent O'Malley, The New Zealand Wars / Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2019
  • Nigel Prickett, Landscapes of conflict: a field guide to the New Zealand Wars, Random House, Auckland, 2002
  • Tim Ryan and Bill Parham, The colonial New Zealand wars, Grantham House, Wellington, 2002
  • Matthew Wright, Two peoples, one land, Reed, Auckland, 2006
He Tohu - Korero with Anne Salmond
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