The Northern Maori Wars

A look at the Northern Maori Wars and the roles of Maori leaders Hone Heke and Kawiti in the resistance against the British.

By the early 1840's tensions between native Maori and the ever increasing number of white "Ėœinvaders' to the northern part of New Zealand were reaching boiling point. The Maori were far from happy to see their lands being taken over and their dominion being replaced by the British flag. The main port of European activity was the west coast town of Kororareko. It was here, on July 8th, 1844, that a Maori chief by the name of Hone Heke staged an act of protest against the British by cutting down the flagstaff - symbol of European power. The New Zealand Governor, Robert Fitzroy responded by appealing to for more troops from New South Wales to back up his slender military resources.

Meanwhile a meeting of chiefs was organized by the local missionary. The majority of chiefs present stated their disapproval of Hone Heke's actions and 20 of them laid down their arms in token submission to the Crown. However, on January, 10th 1845, Heke again cut down the flag at Kororareka. This time a reward was offered for his capture, a blockhouse and guard were placed on Maiki Hill alongside the flagstaff and Fitzroy once again requested additional troops.

Towards the end of January Hone Heke's resistance movement was given a great boost when powerful chief Kawiti and his followers joined forces with him. They immediately made plans for a much larger scale attack on Kororareka. During the night of March 10th, Heke and his followers silently surrounded the blockhouse and before dawn Kawiti's force moved in on the town. The joint Maori forces totaled about 600. The defenders numbered some 250 men. Heke had no trouble in overcoming the blockhouse guard, who had been distracted by the firing coming from Kawiti's men below. Sporadic fighting continued most of the morning in and around the town. At around midday, Kawiti withdrew. Confusion continued after the fighting stopped. A powder magazine was accidentally blown up and the entire white population of the town was evacuated. The town was now left open to plunder by the Maori. The next day the empty houses were burnt.

The senior officer in command at Kororareko, Captain Robertson, had been severely wounded at the siege of Kororareko and his unseasoned troops left with little direction. For the British, the episode was an unmitigated disaster. Fitzroy's predictable response was to call for more troops. But, before these arrived friendly Chief Tamati Waka Nene decided to take matters into his own hands. He declared hostilities against Hone Heke by cutting down the boundary pole which marked Heke's camp area. Heke responded by sending his wife Rongo to seek peace with Nene. But Nene rejected the overture and fighting broke out on April 13, 1845. Though prompted by the attack on the white town, the ensuing war was primarily a tribal conflict, in which old grievances were remembered and sub-tribes fought one another as they had before the arrival of the white man. The most decisive encounter happened near Lake Omapere where Heke was building a substantial pa(fortification) which he called Puketutu, on June 12th. It ended in Heke's being wounded and defeated.

The war with the British was to run simultaneously with the tribal war. It consisted of three main engagements; an assault on Heke's pa, Puketutu a month before Nene's attack, as well as attacks on two pas built by Kawiti, Ohaeawai and Ruapekapeka. The attack on Puketutu began when 400 troops under a Colonel Hulme were transported to the Bay of Islands, there to march the twenty miles to the pa site. The troops, however, were ill-prepared for cross-country marching, the weather was wet and the country difficult. By the time they were ready to attack, their food supplies were low. They found the pa to be impregnable by direct assault. Yet, Heke's men decided to advance outside of the pa and this led to more casualties than necessary. As a result the British got the better of the day. Maori losses were believed to be more than double the 52 British killed and wounded. Yet the pa was not taken. Neither were Heke or Kawiti taken. Hulme was forced to retire.

Kawiti now set about building a pa a few miles from Puketutu, which he called Ohaewai. Meanwhile fresh troops arrived and under a Colonel Despard an expeditionary force of some 600 soldiers , marines and volunteer militia assembled in the Bay, then proceeded to Waimate. By June 23rd, they had reached Ohaewai. This time a battery of guns was intended to breach the stockade. A week's bombardment produced no effect and, on July 1st, Colonel Despard ordered a frontal attack, supported by pioneers with axes, ladders and ropes to cut their way through. The attempt was a suicidal failure. The standoff dragged on for 10 more days, until the defenders slipped away in the night and Despard was left with an empty shell. His casualties were in excess of 100.

The British Government responded to the unsatisfactory news of these two defeats by recalling Governor Fitzroy and replacing him with Captain George Grey. Grey reached the Bay of Islands in November and immediately put in place plans to crush the rebels. On December 8th, Despard began to move towards the pa at Ruapekapeka with 1,100 men and vastly better resources than previously. It took a month to reach the pa and ready the attack. Then, on January 10th, a bombardment was launched. The next day the stockade was breached and the pa entered. Only Kawiti and a handful of supporters were within. Heke and the bulk of his men were in the bushes outside. In the ensuing fighting, the Maori suffered greater losses than the soldiers. The pa was taken and, finally, the rebels had had enough. Both Heke and Kawiti surrendered to the British.

Both Hone Heke and Kawiti were granted free pardons by the British. Four years after his surrender, in 1850, Hone Heke died, with Kawiti dying four years after that. After Heke's death a tribal delegation, led by his son, erected a new flagstaff at Korororeka as a sign of reconciliation.

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