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First Maori War

The First Maori War, also known as the Flagstaff War was fought between 11 March 1845 and 11 January 1846, in and around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

Major actions included:

Table of contents
1 Causes
2 Progress of the War
3 The Battle of Te Ahu Ahu
4 Battle of Ohaeawai Pa
5 The final battle of the war, Ruapekapeka Pa
6 So who won the war?
7 Further Reading
8 See also


To some extent conflict was inevitable. When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6 1840 between the British Crown and the Maori tribes, both parties; and indeed most of the signatories; had different understandings of its meaning. The Maori believed that it guaranteed them the continued possession of their land and the preservation of their customs. Many of the British thought that it had opened up the country to mass immigration and settlement. On May 21 1840 New Zealand was formally annexed by the British Crown and the capital moved to Auckland, some 200 km south of Waitangi.

Meanwhile the New Zealand Company was aggressively purchasing land and bringing settlers to New Zealand. It maintained that the Treaty was not legally binding upon them and continued their activities in defiance of the new government.

In June 1843 the company attempted to survey some land that was still subject to dispute about its ownership. In the ensuing melee 23 Englishmen and four Maoris were killed. This became known as the Wairau Massacre.

In the Bay of Islands, Hone Heke, one of the original signatories to the Treaty, was becoming increasingly unhappy with the outcome. Among other things, the relocation of the capital had resulted in a decline of the European population of the bay, a reduction in the number of visiting ships and a serious loss of revenue. Furthermore he was told by American and French traders that the British flag flying over the town of Kororareka signified slavery for the Maori. What made this intolerable was that the flag pole had itself been a gift from Hone Heke to the first British Resident.

Then in June 1844 a girl from his tribe went to live with an English butcher in Kororareka and defied his orders to return to the tribe. Heke and his men went into the town, looted the butcher's shop and recovered the girl. Almost as an afterthought they cut down the flag pole. This is depicted in a painting by Arthur David McCormick, Hone Heke fells the flag pole at Kororareka

In August 1844 Governor FitzRoy arrived in the bay backed by the navy and 170 men of the 96th Regiment. He summoned the Maori chiefs to a conference which apparently defused the situation. Hone Heke did not himself attend but sent a conciliatory letter and offered to replace the flag pole.

The new accord did not last. Rumours that their land was going to be confiscated were given credence by the large number of European settlers pouring into the country. More to the point, there had not been a trial of strength between the Maori and the British. Kawiti, one of the leaders of local tribe, the Ngapuhi, had spent his whole life in inter-tribal warfare in which Ngapuhi were usually the winners. Encouraged by Heke's defiance he decided to test his strength against the white tribe. Meanwhile Hone Heke cut down the flag pole a second time.

Once again troops of the 96th Regiment were sent to replace it, and almost immediately it was cut down again.

Reinforcements were called in. A new and stronger pole sheathed in iron was erected and a guard post built around it. Meanwhile Governor FitzRoy sent over to New South Wales for reinforcements.

The next attack on the flag pole was a much more serious affair. At dawn on 11 March 1845 the Maori attacked the guard post, killing all the defenders and cutting down the flag pole for the fourth (?) time. At the same time, possibly as a diversion, Kawiti and his men attacked the town of Korarareka. The garrison, of about 100 men, managed to hold the perimeter while the town was evacuated to the ships moored in the bay.

The next morning the ships sailed for Auckland leaving the burning, looted town to the Maori. Nineteen Europeans had been killed and 27 wounded. Hone Heke and Kawiti were victorious and the Pakeha (Europeans), symbolised by their flag pole, had been humbled.

Progress of the War

It is important to understand that the British did not fight alone but had large numbers of Maori allies, particularly Tamati Waka Nene and his men. He had given the government assurances of the good behaviour of the Maori people and he felt that Hone Heke had betrayed his trust.

British authority was re-established in the Bay of Islands on 28 March 1845 with the arrival of troops under the command of Lt Col William Hulme of the 96th Regiment.

The following day they set off the attack a nearby Maori settlement, Pomare's Pa. This is depicted in John Williams painting The Destruction of Pomare's Pa

A Pa is a fortfied village or community. Because of the almost constant inter-tribal warfare the art of defensive fortifications had reached a very high level among the Maori. A Pa was usually situated on top of a hill, surrounded by a formidable pallisade and backed up by trenches. Since the introduction of muskets they had learnt to cover the outside of the pallisade with layers of flax, Phorium tenax leaves making them bullet proof. They also began to raise the pallisades a few centimetres above the ground so that muskets could be fired from beneath them rather than over the top. The British were to discover, to their considerable cost, that a defended Pa was a very hard nut to crack.

In this respect they were lucky in their first endeavour. When they arrived at Pomare's Pa the chief himself came down to see what all the fuss was about and was promptly made prisoner. He then ordered his men not to resist the British and they escaped into the surrounding bush. This left the British a free hand to loot and burn the Pa. This action caused considerable puzzlement since up until that time Pomare had been considered neutral, by himself and almost every one else. When they burnt the Pa the British also burnt two pubs or grog shops which Pomare had established within his Pa to encourage the Pakeha settlers, sailors, whalers etc to visit and trade with him.

Encouraged by this success their next target was Heke's Pa at Puketutu on the shores of Lake Omapere, some 30 kilometres inland from the Bay of Islands. It was also close to Waka Nene's Pa at Okaihau where they could expect shelter and logisitical support.

After a difficult cross country march they arrived at Okaihau on [May 7], [1845]. Col Hulme and his second in command Major Cyprian Bridge made an inspection of Heke's Pa and found it to be quite formidable. Lacking any better plan they decided on a frontal assault the following day.

The British troops had no heavy guns but they had brought with them a dozen rockets. The Maori had never seen rockets used and were anticipating a formidable display. Unfortunately the first two missed their target completely. the third hit the pallisade; duly exploded and was seen to have done no damage. This display gave considerable encouragement to the enemy Maori. Soon all the rockets had been expended leaving the pallisade intact.

The storming parties began to advance, first crossing a narrow gulley between the lake and the Pa. Here they came under heavy fire both from the pallisade and from the surrounding scrub. It became apparent that there were as many enemy warriors outside the Pa as there were inside. There followed a savage and confused battle. Eventually the discipline and cohesiveness of the British troops began to prevail and the Maori were driven back inside their fortress. But they were by no means beaten, far from it. Without artillery the British had no way to overcome the defences of the Pa. Hulme decided to disengage and retreat back to the Bay of Islands.

In this engagement, the Battle of Puketutu Pa, the British suffered 14 killed and 38 wounded. The Maori losses were 47 killed and about 80 wounded. The return to the Bay was accomplished without incident.

A week later, on May 15th, Major Bridges and three companies of troops attacked another Pa, Kapotai's, on the Waikare Inlet which they could reach easily by sea. The Maori chose not to defend this Pa and fled as soon as the shooting started. The Pa was soon burnt and destroyed.

Col Hulme returned to Auckland and was replaced by Col Despard, a soldier who did very little to inspire any confidence in his troops.

The Battle of Te Ahu Ahu

Histories of the First Maori War tend to ignore the Battle of Te Ahu Ahu yet it was in some ways the most desperate fight of the entire war. However there are no detailed accounts of the action. It was fought entirely between the Maori, Hone Heke and his tribe against Waka Nene and his tribe. The British were not invited. There was no glory to be milked from it by the politicians or the military so they saw no need to mention it in contemporary accounts and this trend has continued.

After the successful defence of Puketutu Pa Hone Heke returned to his Pa at Te Ahu Ahu, a major residential settlement. Some days later he went on to Kaikohe to gather food supplies. During his absence one of Waka Nene's allies, the Hokianga chief, Makoare Te Taonui, attacked and captured Te Ahu Ahu. This was a tremendous blow to Heke's mana or prestige, obviously it had to be recaptured as soon as possible.

The ensuing battle was a traditional formal Maori conflict, taking place in the open with the preliminary challenges and responses. It was no small affair. Heke mustered somewhere between 400 and 500 warriors while Waka Nene had about 300 men. Contemporary European accounts suggest that there were only a few dozen casualties but this is almost certainly wrong. One of Heke's chiefs was killed while both he and another chief were severely wounded and nearly made prisoner. Heke and his forces were driven from the field leaving Nene in control of his Pa. Waka Nene later described it as a "most complete victory over Heke"

It was the only battle of the entire war that Hone Heke lost.

Battle of Ohaeawai Pa

Although it was now the middle of the southern winter, Despard insisted on resuming the campaign immediately. With a formidable body of men and supported by artillery they sailed across the bay to the mouth of the Keri Keri River and began to march inland to Ohaeawai where Heke had built himself a formidable Pa. The conditions were atrocious: continual rain and wind on wet and sticky mud. It was several days before the entire expedition was gathered at the Waimate Mission by which time Despard was apoplectic; so much so that when Waka Nene arrived with 250 men, Despard said that if he had wanted the assistance of savages he would have asked for it. Fortunately the interpreter delivered a completely different message.

The British troops arrived before the Ohaeawai Pa on June 23 and established a camp about 500 metres away. On the summit of a nearby hill they built a four gun battery. They opened fire next day and continued until dark but did very little damage to the pallisade. The next day the guns were brought to within 200 yards of the Pa. The bombardment continued for another two days but still did very little damage. Partly this was due to the elasticity of the flax covering the pallisade but the main fault was a failure to concentrate the cannon fire on one area of the defences.

After two days of bombardement without effecting a breach, Despard ordered a frontal assault. He was, with difficulty, persuaded to postpone this pending the arrival of a 32 pound naval gun which came the next day, July 1st However an unexpected sortie from the Pa caused great alarm and further infuriated Despard. He ordered an attack the same day. This caused consternation among the Maori allies and indeed among the Maori defenders of the Pa who tried to persuade the British soldiery to retreat and and not persist in such a suicidal attack.

The British persisted in their attempts to storm the unbreached pallisades and five to seven minutes later 33 were dead and 66 injured.

The Maori allies' opinion of the British fell even further when Despard decided to abandon the siege, but he agreed to wait for a few more days. More ammunition and supplies were brought in and the shelling continued. On the morning of July 8th the Pa was found to have been abandoned; the enemy had disappeared in the night. When they had a chance to examine it the British officers found it to be even stronger than they had feared. It was duly destroyed and the British retreated once again to the Bay of Islands. Kawiti and his warriors escaped, Heke recovered from his wounds, and a new and even stronger Pa was being built. Meanwhile many men had been killed.

The final battle of the war, Ruapekapeka Pa

A few months slipped by and a new governor, Sir George Grey was appointed. He tried to make peace. The Maori rebels were not interested, they thought they were winning. A considerable force was assembled in the Bay of Islands. Between 7th and 11th December, 1845, it moved up to the head of the Kawa Kawa River, one of the tributaries of the Bay of Islands. They were then faced with 15 to 20 kilometers of very difficult country before they could reach Kawiti's new Pa, Ruapekapeka or the Bat's Nest. It took two weeks to bring the heavy guns into range of the Pa, they started the bombardment on December 27th. The siege continued for some days with enough patrols and probes from the Pa to keep everyone alert.

Then, early in the morning of Sunday, 11 Jauary 1846, some of the British troops were attempting to capture or steal the Maori's potato crop when they realised that the Pa was very quiet. A large group of them managed to push over the pallisade and entered the Pa discovering that it was almost empty. They were quickly reinforced just as the Maoris tried to re-enter the Pa from the back. A brisk fire fight ensued before they were driven off leaving the British in control. Twelve British were killed and twenty nine injured.

It was later suggested and is now believed that most of the Maoris had been at church. Many of them were devout Christians. Knowing that their enemy, the British were also Christians they had not expected an attack on a Sunday. It would seem ironic that they lost their stronghold by showing more respect for the religion their enemies had brought to the country. This however may not be true. It seems possible that the Maori had actually abandoned the Pa and laid an elaborate trap in the bush behind it. They expected the British to rush through the Pa in pursuit of the rear guard straight into an ambush. To some extent this is what happened, most of the British losses happened at this stage and overall they lost more men than the defenders.

Later examination of the Pa showed that it had been very well designed and very strongly built. In different circumstances it could have been a long a costly siege. The earthworks can still be seen just south of Kawa Kawa.

This marked the end of the Flagstaff War. Kawiti and Heke both sued for peace and Tamati Waka Nene argued on their behalf suggesting that clemency was the best way to ensure peace in the North. Grey agreed to this, Heke and Kawiti were granted free pardons and none of their land was confiscated.

Just in time as a new war was about to break out at the bottom end of the North Island, around Wellington.

During the course of the whole war the British Casualties were 82 killed and 164 wounded. Heke and Kawiti assessed their losses at 60 killed and 80 wounded although the British estimated 94 killed and 148 wounded. There is no record of the numbers of allied Maori hurt during the conflict.

So who won the war?

To answer this question it is necessary to examine the objectives of the various combatants. The British objectives appear fairly straightforward, to re-establish their authority and authority and the rule of law. When the hostilities were over and from the remoteness of Auckland Governor Grey announced a victory and claimed that their objectives had been achieved. This does not now appear so obvious.

The destruction of Ruapekapeka Pa left the Maori forces intact and undefeated. Indeed the British return to Kororareka was almost a fighting retreat Some days later Kawiti and Heke approached Tamati Waka Nene about a cease fire. This was agreed upon without reference to the British who were presented with a fait accompli to which they agreed. This left the British Government with very little influence in the north and what influence they did have was largely exercised through Waka Nene. Contrary to their earler threats no one was arrested and no land was confiscated. In April 1846 Heke still had 600 men under arms. At the end of that year he revisited Kororareka with a large force of men and could have destroyed the town once again. However all he did was remove the bodies of the men killed in the first battle and retired peacefully, having demonstrated that he could come and go wherever he wished.

Also, symbolically but very significantly, the Flagstaff was not re-erected. It was left lying on the ground where it fell until a new one was erected, by the Maoris, in 1858.

So the British did not win the war.

What were Hone Heke and Kawiti's objectives in going to war?

The Treaty of Waitangi confirmed the authority of the Maori chieftains. It also promised them the preservation of their land and their customs. The Maori took these promises seriously. So too did the original British signatories. But time passed, new men came who hadn't signed the Treaty and promises were broken.

Even without the changes wrought by time the potential for conflict lay in the Treaty. For one thing it immediately established two systems of justice, Maori and Pakeha. It also established two centres of authority, that of the chiefs and that of the British Governor and his representatives. The Treaty did not say that one system should apply to the Maori and one to the British, both systems applied to everybody.

Apart from any other implications this was a serious erosion of chiefly authority. Restoring their authority as Maori Chiefs was a major objective for Kawiti and Heke and in this they were successful.

The other major question was land. Before the Treaty the Maori owned the whole of New Zealand. The flood of European settlers after the signing of the Treaty made it obvious that their land was under threat. Subsequent history proved that they were right in their apprehensions. Heke and Kawiti did achieve their objectives in the short term but it was only a temporary postponement.

So for the Maori, a partial victory at least.

Further Reading

To Face the Daring Maori by Michale Barthorp, Hodder and Stoughton, 1979
I have named it the Bay of Islands by Jack Lee, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983
Hokianga by Jack Lee, Hodder and Stoughton 1987
History of New Zealand and Its Inhabitants by Dom Felici Vaggioli. 1896, Translated by John Crockett, University of Otago Press, 2000
Te Riri Pakeha by Tony Simpson, Hodder and Stoughton, 1979
The New Zealand Wars by James Bellich, Penguin, 1988

See also