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The Flagstaff War – also known as Hone Heke's Rebellion, the Northern War and erroneously as the First Māori War – was fought between 11 March 1845 and 11 January 1846 in and around the Bay of Islandsmarker, New Zealandmarker.

The conflict is best remembered for the actions of Hone Heke who challenged the authority of the British by cutting down the flagstaff on Flagstaff Hillmarker at Kororareka (now Russellmarker), but there were many major actions, including:

  • The burning of Kororareka (Russellmarker) March 11, 1845
  • Burning of Pomare's , April 30, 1845
  • Attack on Puketutu Pa, May 8, 1845
  • Burning of Kapotai Pa, May 15, 1845
  • Battle of Te Ahuahu, June 12, 1845
  • Attack on Ohaeawai Pāmarker, June 23, 1845, burnt July 10, 1845
  • Siege of Ruapekapeka Pa, December 27, 1845 to January 11, 1846


Hone Heke fells the flag pole at Kororareka.
Painting by Arthur David McCormick
Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on February 6, 1840 and conflict between the British Crown and Māori tribes was to some extent inevitable after that. Ostensibly the Treaty established the legal basis for the British presence in New Zealand. It is still seen today as the document that established New Zealand. However, both parties, and indeed most of the signatories, had different understandings of its meaning. The Māori 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 following year the capital moved to Aucklandmarker, some 200 km south of Waitangimarker.

Meanwhile at the southern end of the North Island 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 Māoris were killed. This became known as the Wairau Affray.

In the Bay of Islandsmarker, 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 Americanmarker and Frenchmarker traders that the British flag flying on Flagstaff Hillmarker over the town of Kororarekamarker signified slavery for the Māori. What made this intolerable was that the flag pole had itself been a gift from Hone Heke to the first British Resident.
Memorial at Russell for Royal Navy personnel killed when Kororareka was burned to the ground
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.

In August 1844 Governor FitzRoy arrived in the bay backed by the navy and 170 men of the 96th Regiment. He summoned the Māori 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 Māori and the British. Kawiti, one of the leaders of local tribe, the Ngā Puhi, had spent his whole life in inter-tribal warfare in which Ngā Puhi 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 Walesmarker for reinforcements.

The next attack on the flagstaff was a much more serious affair. At dawn on 11 March 1845 the Māori 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 Kororareka. The garrison, of about 100 men, managed to hold the perimeter while the town was evacuated to the ships moored in the bay. Most buildings in the town were burned, but the missionaries' homes and the church were not touched.

The next morning, all surviving inhabitants of Russell set sail for Auckland in (whose sailors had taken part in the fighting ashore), the 21-gun United States corvette , the Government brigantine Victoria and the schooner Dolphin. Nineteen Europeans had been killed and 27 wounded. Hone Heke and Kawiti were victorious and the Pākehā (Europeans), symbolised by their flag pole, had been humbled.

Progress of the war

H M S North Star destroying Pomare's pā, 1845.
Painting by John Williams
British did not fight alone but had Māori allies, particularly Tāmati Wāka Nene and his men. He had given the government assurances of the good behaviour of the Māori 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 to attack a nearby Māori settlement, Pomare's Pa. A is a fortified village or community. Because of the almost constant inter-tribal warfare the art of defensive fortifications had reached a very high level among the Māori. A pā was usually situated on top of a hill, surrounded by a formidable palisade and backed up by trenches. Since the introduction of muskets they had learnt to cover the outside of the palisades with layers of flax (Phormium tenax) leaves, making them bullet proof. They also began to raise the palisades 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 pā was a difficult fortification to defeat.

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 pā the British also burnt two pubs or grog shops which Pomare had established within his pā to encourage the Pākehā settlers, sailors, whalers etc to visit and trade with him.

Encouraged by this success their next target was Heke's Pā at Puketutu on the shores of Lake Omaperemarker, some 30 kilometres inland from the Bay of Islandsmarker. It was also close to Wāka Nene's Pā at Okaihaumarker where they could expect shelter and logistical support.

After a difficult cross country march they arrived at Okaihau on 7 May 1845. Col Hulme and his second in command Major Cyprian Bridge made an inspection of Heke's Pā 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 Māori had never seen rockets used and were anticipating a formidable display. Unfortunately the first two missed their target completely. the third hit the palisade; duly exploded and was seen to have done no damage. This display gave considerable encouragement to the enemy Māori. Soon all the rockets had been expended leaving the palisade 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 palisade and from the surrounding scrub. It became apparent that there were as many enemy warriors outside the pā 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 Māori 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 Māori losses were 47 killed and about 80 wounded. The return to the Bay was accomplished without incident.

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

Until the 1980s, histories of the First Māori War tend to ignore the poorly documented Battle of Te Ahuahu 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 Māori, Hone Heke and his tribe against Wāka Nene and his tribe. As there was no British involvement in the action there is no mention of the event in contemporary British accounts.After the successful defence of Puketutu Pā Hone Heke returned to his pā at Te Ahuahu, a major residential settlement. Some days later he went on to Kaikohe to gather food supplies. During his absence one of Wāka Nene's allies, the Hokianga chief, Makoare Te Taonui, attacked and captured Te Ahuahu. 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 Māori conflict, taking place in the open with the preliminary challenges and responses. By Māori standards, the battle was considerably large. Heke mustered somewhere between 400 and 500 warriors while Wāka Nene had about 300 men. 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. Wāka Nene later described it as a "most complete victory over Heke".

Contemporary European accounts suggest that there were only a few dozen casualties but this is almost certainly wrong.

Battle of Ohaeawaimarker

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 Kerikeri Rivermarker and began to march inland to Ohaeawaimarker where Heke had built formidable defences around Pene Taui's pā. 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 Wāka 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 Pā 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 palisade. The next day the guns were brought to within 200 yards of the pā. 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 palisade but the main fault was a failure to concentrate the cannon fire on one area of the defences.

After two days of bombardment 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, 1 July. However an unexpected sortie from the pā caused great alarm and further infuriated Despard. He ordered an attack the same day. This caused consternation among the Māori allies and indeed among the Māori defenders of the pā who tried to persuade the British soldiery to retreat and not persist in such a suicidal attack.

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

Shaken by his losses, Despard decided to abandon the siege. However, his Māori allies contested this. Waka persuaded Despard to wait for a few more days. More ammunition and supplies were brought in and the shelling continued. On the morning of 8 July the pā was found to have been abandoned, the enemy having 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 pā was being built. Meanwhile many men had been killed.

Battle of Ruapekapeka Pa

A shattered cannon in the central pa points towards the British advanced position, (the grassed area in mid distance)
A few months slipped by and a new governor, Sir George Grey was appointed. He tried to make peace, but the Māori rebels wished to test the strength of their new Ruapekapeka Pa against the British, and were not interested. A considerable force was assembled in the Bay of Islands. Between 7th and 11 December 1845, it moved up to the head of the Kawakawa Rivermarker, one of the streams flowing into 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 27 December. The siege continued for some days with enough patrols and probes from the pā to keep everyone alert.

Then, early in the morning of Sunday, 11 January 1846, some of the British troops were attempting to capture or steal the Māori's potato crop when they realised that the pā was very quiet. A large group of them managed to push over the palisade and entered the pā discovering that it was almost empty. They were quickly reinforced just as the Māori tried to re-enter the pā 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 Māori 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. However, fighting did continue on Sunday at the battle of Ohaeawai. Heke and Kawiti were not foolish, therefore, another suggestion is that Heke deliberately abondoned the pa to lay a trap in the surrounding bush as this would provide cover and give Heke a considerable advantage. Not all the Māori were at church however; Kawiti and a few of his followers remained behind, and were caught unaware by the British assault. After a four hour struggle, the Māori rebels withdrew.

Surviving earthworks at Ruapekapeka
Plans of the pa, in front of its remains
Later examination of the pā showed that it had been very well designed and very strongly built. In different circumstances it could have been a long and costly siege. The earthworks can still be seen just south of Kawakawamarker.

This marked the end of the Flagstaff War. Kawiti and Heke both sued for peace and Tāmati Wāka 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. This prompted Wāka to say to Grey, "you have saved us all."

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 Māori hurt during the conflict.


Although the war was widely lauded as a British victory, it is clear that the outcome was somewhat more complex, even contentious.

To some extent, British objectives had been achieved: the war brought Kawiti and Heke's rebellion to an end, and they found themselves shunned by other Ngapuhi chiefs who wished to stay out of the conflict.

The capture of Ruapekapeka Pā can be considered a British tactical victory, but it was purpose-built as a target for the British, and its loss was not damaging; Heke and Kawiti managed to escape with their forces intact.

After the capture of Ruapekapeka, Kawiti and Heke approached Tāmati Wāka Nene about a ceasefire. This does not necessarily suggest they wished to acquiesce to British demands, but it does reflect the economic strain imposed on them. The war was, by Māori standards, unusually prolonged, and their casualties, whilst not crippling, were indeed serious. Arguably, the British army, which was hardened to prolonged campaigns, may have had the resources to continue, had it not been for trouble brewing in the South.

After the conclusion of the war, whilst the British maintained their authority, control over the North was somewhat limited and exercised mainly through Tāmati Wāka Nene.

In addition, the flagstaff which had proved so controversial was not re-erected. Whilst the region was still nominally under British influence, the fact that the Government's flag was not re-erected was symbolically very significant. Such significance was not lost on Henry Williams, who, writing to E.G. Marsh on 28 May 1846, stated that "the flag-staff in the Bay is still prostrate, and the natives here rule."

It is clear that Heke made considerable gains from the war, despite the British victory at Ruapekapeka. After the war's conclusion, Heke enjoyed a considerable surge in prestige and authority. The missionary Richard Davis, writing in August 1848, stated that Heke had "raised himself to the very pinnacle of honour," and that "the whole of the tribes around pay him profound homage."

The question of the ultimate result of the Northern War is contentious as the British, Heke and Kawiti had all gained from its conclusion. For the British, their authority was preserved and the rebellion crushed, and their settlement of the area continued. Heke and Kawiti both enjoyed increased prestige and authority amongst their peers.

It is clear that both the British and their allies, and Heke and Kawiti, found the prospect of peace attractive, as the war was a considerable toll on both sides. Far from being a one-sided victory, the Flagstaff War can be considered an inconclusive stalemate, as both sides wished the war to end, both gained somewhat from the fighting, and the situation more or less remained the same as it was before the outbreak of hostilities.


  1. Tom Brooking, Milestones- Turning Points in New Zealand History, p.69
  2. Tim Ryan & Bill Parham, The Colonial New Zealand Wars, p.27
  3. Tim Ryan & Bill Parham, The Colonial New Zealand Wars, p.28
  4. Ian McGibbon, The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History, p.373
  5. James Belich, The New Zealand Wars, p.67
  6. James Belich, The New Zealand Wars, p.66
  7. James Belich, The New Zealand Wars, p.70
  8. Tim Ryan and Bill Parham, The Colonial New Zealand Wars, p.28


  • Barthorp, Michael (1979). To face the daring Māori. Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Belich, James (1988). The New Zealand wars. Penguin.
  • Lee, Jack (1983). I have named it the Bay of Islands. Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Lee, Jack (1987). Hokianga. Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Ryan, Tim & Parham, Bill (1986). The Colonial New Zealand Wars. Grantham House.
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