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No. 16 (October 1956)
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Hone Heke. (Turnbull Library Photograph)


Some four years after the signing of the Treaty at Waitangi in 1840, Hone Heke of the Ngatitautahi of Kaikohe journeyed to Wahapu to meet Kawiti. The object of this visit was the conveying of ‘te ngakau’ to the Ngatihine chief. This was an old custom observed by those who sought help to settle a tribal grievance.

Various methods were used by different tribes to show that serious action was necessary.

For instance, after a certain murder, a female relative of the victim conveyed ‘te ngakau’ by travelling from Hokianga to the Bay of Islands to enlist suport.

In another case, the chief, driving a pig before him as an offering, travelled some considerable distance. The mission completed, the pig was killed and the carcase distributed throughout the district. This meat was a “ngakau”—a signal for the mobilization of all fighting men.

Another was announced through a specially composed chant, and needless to say these appeals seldom fell on deaf ears.

So it was with Heke, a distant relative of Kawiti. He brought with him a mere smeared with human dung. No explanation was needed, the meaning was obvious. Someone had defiled

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the mana of Ngapuhi and such a challenge must be met!1

There was an all night gathering of leaders. Once more the ‘tatai’ or line of descent from Rahiri and Hineamaru was traced and described by the tohungas. The genealogical net when completed would cover the whole of the tribal district. Rahiri and Nineamaru, Ngapuhi ancestors, would bring a number of subtribes together: Ngatihine, Ngatitautahi, Te Kapotai, Ngatimaru, Te Waiariki and many others. Once these knew that the cause was right, the choice of partnership was backed by tradition.

Heke had come to ask Kawiti to join forces with him to fight the pakeha.

Kawiti belonged to an earlier generation, older and more experienced in warfare. With Mataroria, Ruatara, Paraoa, Motiti, Hewa, Mahanga and other warriors he had been an ally of Hongi Hika in many battles.

His reply to Heke was ‘Poroporoa i nga ringa-ringa me nga waewae’ meaning ‘Cut off the hands and legs’. Their plan was that Heke should fell the flagstaff above the settlement of Kororareka while Kawiti with Kapotai warriors attacked the town. The outcome of these encounters has been recorded before and there is little to add. From the point of view of the Maoris, both offensives were carried out successfully. Heke succeeded in his task, the felling of the flagstaff. Kawiti sacked Kororareka, losing Pumuku, one of his warriors.

A story is told of an encounter with an officer during the battle. Pumuku had fallen and the

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Kawiti (after a painting in Buick, New Zealand's First War).

(1) Heke's grievances have been well set out in the excellent history of this war told to Maning by an old chief of the Ngapuhi tribe and published together with “Old New Zealand”. Speaking of the situation in the North in 1844, Maning records: “We had less tobacco and fewer blankets and other European goods than formerly and we saw that the first Governor had not spoken the truth, for he told us that we should have a great deal more. The hearts of the Maoris were sad and our old pakeha friends looked melancholy, because so few ships came to bring them goods to trade with. At last we began to think the (new) flagstaff (at Kororareka) must have something to do with it, so Heke went and cut it down…” When the flagstaff had been cut down twice and soldiers had been posted to defend it, Heke, according to Maning's narrative, sent runners to all the divisions of Ngapuhi to enlist their aid. Finally, Kawiti, Heke's elder relation, was appealed to and joined him. Tawai Kawiti gives his own account of the causes of the war on page 45. (Editor.)

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Dominion Museum

officer, seeing Kawiti with some of his followers near the Church, advanced towards him, sword in hand. The old chief called out to his men ‘E te whanau, tukua mai ki ahau’. Well past middle age he would be then, but still able to give the foe their play. The taiaha too would be severely tested against the sword.

‘My people, leave him to come to me’ was the

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Patuone (Turnbull Library Photograph)

order he gave as he knelt down to the ready position. Had the soldier known how invulnerable a Maori warrior is in this position, he would have changed his method of attack. However, according to an eyewitness—Mikaera Rini of Panguru who told the story to Hone Wi Mutu, also of Panguru—the officer failed in the attempt, was thrown to the ground and despatched with Kawiti's mere.

The European residents boarded the ships, leaving the town in the Maoris' hands.

Orders given by the two leaders on this occasion are still remembered. Heke was quoted to have called out ‘E te iwi ee wiwirautia!’ Kawiti however shouted ‘E te whanau ee takirautia!’ According to my informants, the first of these sayings meant ‘a clean sweep’ but the second ‘spare the women and children’.


After this battle the Maori forces retired to Okaihau, inland and between forty and fifty miles to the north-west. This pa may have been Heke's choice. It was centrally situated and on the boundary between Ngapuhi and the northern and western tribes.2

It should be remembered that so soon after Honga Hika's battles against Ngatiwhatua in the south-west, Rarawa in the north-west and Nga

(2) Sentiment played a part in Hone Heke's choice of battleground, for at Okaihau his father Hongi Hika was buried. Another important factor was the distance and rough country that separated Okaihau from the coast and made the transport of British artillery to the battle-almost impossible. The Maori chiefs were vividly aware of the destruction cannon might cause to their pallisades and no doubt looked for a place where they were unlikely to face heavy bombardment. (Editor.)

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tipou in the east, Ngapuhi could not expect any assistance from these quarters. On the contrary they might be found on the opposite side to settle old grievances. This is what actually happened. Here was the best opportunity to defeat Heke. However, there were one or two compensating factors limiting the war effort of the Maoris who joined the pakeha.

First of all Waaka Nene, and Patuone, their leaders, were already Christians and really did not enjoy their part in the fighting. Secondly, Ngapuhi themselves, they were fighting against their own kith and kin. Furthermore, their allies were ‘tauiwi’ or foreigners whose methods of warfare were totally different. There was no tapu on the person of the pakeha. The Maori on the other hand had to wear the tapu armour or he met disaster. The breaking of tapu on the battlefield was believed to bring misfortune to the person or to the whole army.

The battle of Okaihau therefore was the first test of strength between Maori and pakeha on the one hand and between Heke and Waaka Nene on the other. Of the losses Kawiti suffered three warriors are remembered, Taura, Tara and Ruku, but there were others.

One fact that deserves note was the absence of hatred in either camp. There were no cannibalistic practices such as had occurred in the past in battles between Maori and Maori. Instead, the utmost courtesy was shown to the foe. The pakeha had not eaten those who were slain so that there was no call for retribution. The ‘hoariri’ enemy belonged to the same tribe as the missionaries and must be treated with respect.

Experience in the art of war, the fullest knowledge of the country and permission to choose their battlefield was a distinct advantage to the Maori. The British troops, though unaccustomed to the land they had to pass through, were better equipped in guns and ammunition which made their chances even.

Success or defeat in battle is measured by the Maori not by the number slain but by the number of chiefs that were captured or killed. For instance, the death or capture of Kawiti or Heke would have meant the end of the battle. Kawiti lost his eldest son, Taura, here. It is said that he failed to give ready help at Korokareka and was rebuked by his father. Here he walked right into the battle and was slain.


We still remember some words spoken by the Ngatirangi chief Pene Taui: ‘He aha tenei e toia nei i runga i au?’ (What is this thing dragged over my head?). They commemorate a slight difference in the Maori camp regarding the place for the next battle. Kawiti, it seems, asked for a stand to be made in his territory, but Pene Taui's reply decided the issue, and the choice of battleground was Ohaeawai, Pene's own pa, just a few miles south of Okaihau.

Here new methods of warfare were adopted by the Maoris. In addition to the usual pallisades of heavy timber, flax-leaves were also used to protect the defenders, and this flax actually succeeded in deflecting bullets.

Rockets were used by the British, but met with little success.

Women, too, played their part in the trenches behind the pallisades by loading the guns for the men. When the soldiers charged the pa, they were met by an uninterrupted volley of lead from the defenders, causing the loss of many brave men.

It is said that the Maoris had managed to obtain a Union Jack by creeping through the bush and stealing it. The Officer seeing it in the pa, flying below the Maori flag, lost his head and ordered his men to charge. That was exactly what the Maoris in the pa wanted to happen. Pene Taui's pa had withstood the heavy bombardment of the British artillery and the defenders had repelled the soldiers' onslaughts, striking back with devastating result. Thus Pene's choice of battlefield was justified.

Hone Heke was wounded at this engagement. Some say he had broken the tapu laws of the field of battle. He had taken some object from a dead soldier's person and so become ‘noa’. Be it as it may, Heke after this began to lose heart for the fight. Now a wounded man, taken away to the ancestral ‘tuaahu’ shrine at Hikurangi, he began seriously to think of peace.

He even made an appeal to Kawiti, who replied in words that have become proverbial ‘I mea au i tu ai koe ki te riri kia taea teika o te kopua, kahore i te patihitihi nei ano, kua karanga koe kaati’. (I expected when you took up arms that you would go out to catch the fish of the deep; now, only in the shallows, you are calling out for peace). Kawiti was determined to continue the war.3

Up to now Kawiti's forces had fought outside the pa defences in every battle. A master of flanktactics, he had taken on the task of forcing the pakeha to fight on two fronts. He now retired to his own pa, where he could face the foe from behind his own defences. He would show that he could build a pa like Pene Taui's, if not a better one.

(3) If Hone Heke desired unconditional peace after the battle of Ohaeawai, as Kawiti's story asserts, this desire did not last long. He certainly refused the offers made to him shortly afterwards to conclude a separate peace with Governor Fitzroy. That Kawiti was adamant on continuing the war is also not surprising, for the peace offers made by Governor Fitzroy included a demand for all of Kawiti's land. Heke took part in the battle of Ruapekapeka. When peace was finally established after this battle, Kawiti received a free pardon from Sir George Grey, Fitzroy's successor. (Editor.)

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So Kawiti with his warriors returned from Ohaeawai to prepare a new pa at Ruapekapeka. Tools and implements from Korokareka were brought to the spot for the construction of this fortress. Actually it was one of the most up-to-date pas ever built in Maoriland.

Two cannons were brought up the Kawakawa River on canoes and hauled overland. The distance from Kororareka being approximately 25 to 30 miles to the south-west. One of these guns, a deck-cannon, about four feet long, is still to be found at the pa. The other, possibly a field gun, was longer, being about six feet long but with a narrower barrel. The former weapon was rendered useless by a direct hit during the bombardment which followed. It is said that a marine-gunner scored a direct hit after three shots. From a distance of about 300 yards this was no mean feat. Whether the gun was in action or served any useful purpose to the Maori at all is not known, but it is certain that its loss had a cooling effect on the enthusiasm of the Maoris. Even if the fragments did not hit anything, the noise alone would lead the Maoris to expect a great calamity. For this was the first time the Maoris had ever owned a cannon.

To keep such a weapon supplied with gun-powder would be an important problem for the Maoris to consider. Therefore, its loss, apart from its possible effect on their morale, may have been an advantage in that it led to a reduction in the consumption of gun-powder.

The other weapon, the field cannon lying near the Waiomio meeting house is still being used at funerals.

Kawiti, Mataroria, Motiti and others tried warriors of a hundred battles, were at Ruapekapeka during the planning and preparing of this new pa. Large puriri trees were felled, and the trunks were used to form the pallisades.

These logs were erected high enough to prevent scaling by the enemy. Sunk deeply into the ground they formed a line outside the inner trenches so that they could not be pulled down with ropes. A front line of trenches (‘parepare’) was dug outside the pallisades and connected to the inner trenches by alley ways at intervals through which men could retire. Their primary use was to give protection to the men who were awaiting attack by the enemy. They were also used when launching an attack. Under pressure Maori warriors would retire through these to the inner defences behind the pallisades. A frontal attack on this pa would have been very costly in lives, as the defenders under cover and in comparative safety, could thrust their guns and fire between bullet proof pallisades.

Deep pihareinga, or dugouts with narrow circular entrances at top, gave access to shelters. These caves looked like calabashes buried underground, the narrow end uppermost. The bowl, spacious enough to accommodate 15 to 20 men, provided shelter from the weather. The occupants could sleep in comparative safety from the firing which went on overhead.

In the event of a surprise attack however, these ruas, or as they have been aptly called, ruapekapeka (bats' nests) could become veritable mantraps.4

Well back on higher ground an observation post was erected. A deep well was also dug near the rear of the pa. Intended to ensure adequate water-supply in case of a seige the well was sunk some 15ft deep into a sandstone formation.

The rifle and bayonet had not appeared on the battlefield at this period. But there was the Tupara—the double-barrel muzzle loader, and the ngutuparera—flint-lock musket, so called because the hammer holding the flint looked like a duck's beak. There was the Snider-gun too, as well as some rather long and heavy revolving pistols.

Until 1910 a number of these weapons were stored in the wharehui at Waiomio. Owing to the Maori tapu laws or the passing of the arms act, the writer saw these gathered up and taken away to be thrown into the limestone caves.

For close fighting the taiaha, the patiti and the mere were still the main weapons of the Maori.

Now that the tribe was at war, great reliance was again placed on the tohunga who needed to be of Ariki descent. His was the office of foretelling the future, of expounding the tapu laws and seeing that they were kept, breaking down enemy resistance by incantations, curing the sick and giving succour to the wounded. Before battle he had to render fighting men immune to the evil effect of the opposite priest's incantations.

At Ruapekapeka a garment, thrown over each man to make him “tapu”, kua oti te whakauu, and ready for the fray, was used. Before departure to a distant land such a ceremony took place at the ariki's latrine where the participants were required to bite the seating-bar. On more peaceful missions however, a branch of the kawa-kawa tree was deposited on a ceremonial shrine to appease the gods.

Preparations and ceremonies over, the pa awaited the hour of battle.


When the British troops arrived, they encamped some distance away to the north. Scouts from both camps spied out the strength and dispositions of the enemy. Clashes occurred during this reconnaissance. A negro, spying for the British side, was shot near the well in the pa.

(4) This is how the pa was called Ruapekapeka. It was not the original name of the locality. An ancient burial ground nearby was known as Tepapakurau, meaning “a hundred corpses”.

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The bombardment of the fortress by the British, and its effect on the defences as has been described by historians, must be accepted as correct, heaviest and most powerful cannons were brought against this pa. A woman was decapitated by being struck by a cannon ball. Otherwise nothing of real interest hapepned till one Sunday, feeling the need for rest after the pounding that had been going on for some time, and thinking that no attack would be made by the British, the Maoris left the defences in order to hold a church service behind the pa. Fortunately for them they did so, for had they retired into the dug-outs they would have been trapped like rats. Instead, they retired to a position nearly 100 yards from the front line trenches. Prepared for immediate action they were able to take up the attack from outside the pa when the alarm was given.

Kawiti and his slave were the only ones in the

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Cannon used in the war against Hone Heke and Kawiti, not at Ruapekapeka Pa. (Dominion Museum Photograph)

pa when it was entered. It is said that he was asleep in his own dugout near the look-out position and close to the rear of the pa. This probably saved him as it would have taken a while for the soldiers to reach this area which was close to Kawiti's fighting men encamped outside.

Maori warriors, using their muskets, taiahas, patitis and other weapons quickly returned to join in the fighting outside the pa. Toughened by experience, Mataroria, Ruatara and Motiti would equal many men. A fierce but brief encounter took place, and before long the soldiers and friendlies took to flight. Casualties were suffered by both sides.

Ruatara was fast and it is stated that he alone slew a number of men. An incident or rather a series of incidents is described regarding the escape of Pukututu from possible death by Ruatara's tomahawk. Pukututu was a local chief, a relative of Kawiti, but owing to tribal differences, found it convenient to be on the opposite side.


Ruatara found him in the general retreat. Being fast Ruatara was rapidly gaining on the more powerful but slower warrior. Pukututu realised only too well the seriousness of his position. Ruatara close behind him making the most hideous yell imaginable, added speed to the pursued. Pukututu, realising that he had to do something however, stopped. There was no time to call out to Ruatara for mercy. He might not hear anyhow because of the noise that he himself was making. Time was running out, when a soldier suddenly appeared right in front of him. Pukututu thrust him back with the barrel of his gun and thereby propelled himself ahead of Ruatara. The last words the soldier uttered were, “Kapai Maori, Kapai Maori,” but there was no mercy. Ruatara, temporarily distracted from his main objective, of slaying the Maori chief, gave Pukututu the much needed respite. He had reached a position of safety, and was kneeling in the ready position. Ruatara though a tried warrior, dared not attack.

So Pukututu together with Ruatara escaped, to relate the above story some years afterwards. In a friendly rivalry Pukututu was said to have challenged Ruatara to a wrestling bout, so sure was he that he could beat him, but at the same time admitting that speed was the only advantage to Ruatara.


Blood has been spilt in the pa, so to the Maori it had become tapu, and no longer a fit place in which to live. Some of the men would therefore return to their own homes, and some, according to the custom, would stand by in the event of a further call to arms. The dead and slain would be taken to the kainga's, where tangis or mourning ceremonies would take place, before the remains were taken to the Toreres or ancestral burial caves.

During the night that followed, Kawiti and his followers with their dead left the pa for Waiomio, some four miles north-west. This is the ancestral home of the Ngatihine tribe, where, for seven generations the remains of Hineamaru and her descendants lie buried in the Pauaka-a-Hineamaru.

Because the Maori forces were fighting always in separate groups and never under the one command, no complete count of casualties was ever kept. Neither was the loss of slaves included in the “wananga” (recitals by tohungas relating tribal history) which refer only to those of some consequence. The “tangis” or funeral dirges, usually composed by the widow or some female relative, are the only records handed down. For it must be remembered that at this period, there would be a very limited number of Maoris able to write.

To Kawiti, there was in relation to this battle nothing of importance to relate, for no pakeha chief was killed here. Had there been one, this would have been some “utu” at least. To show his disappointment he composed a chant and it is here recorded.