Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by J. A. B. Crawford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in August, 2020.
Henry Despard, who commanded British forces in the northern war in New Zealand in the 1840s, was born probably in 1784 or 1785. His military family had Huguenot and Irish connections. His father was Captain Philip Despard; his mother's name is unknown. One of his uncles, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, was the last man sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for treason in 1803 after he led an Irish uprising in London. Another uncle, General John Despard, was Henry's sponsor when he married Anne Rushworth at Chelsea, London, on 1 June 1824.
In 1799 Despard was commissioned as an ensign in the 17th Regiment of Foot. He saw active service in several campaigns in India between 1808 and 1818, became a brigade major in 1817 and a lieutenant colonel in 1829, and was inspecting officer of the Bristol recruiting district from 1838 to 1842; in 1842 he took command of the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot, stationed in Sydney.
On 1 June 1845 Despard and two companies of his regiment arrived in Auckland in response to an appeal for assistance by Governor Robert FitzRoy after Hōne Heke's attack on Kororāreka (Russell). Despard, who had been given the temporary rank of colonel on the governor's staff, took command of all British troops in New Zealand. On 8 June he sailed for the Bay of Islands with more than 600 men, the largest British force yet seen in New Zealand. They disembarked on 16 June and established a base at the Waimate mission station; there they were joined by the forces of the government's main Māori ally, Tāmati Wāka Nene, before advancing on Hōne Heke and Kawiti's pā at Ōhaeawai.
On 24 June Despard's forces began to bombard Ōhaeawai, the first pā designed to resist artillery fire. Ōhaeawai had two lines of stockade, which incorporated a number of salients, and its 100-strong garrison was protected by a complex of bunkers and trenches.
On 1 July the pā's garrison made a daring sortie which prompted Despard to order an attack on Ōhaeawai that afternoon. Although no real breach had appeared in Ōhaeawai's stockades, Despard believed that they had been so weakened by the bombardment that his attacking force would be able to pull them down or climb over them using ladders. The British force attacked courageously in the face of heavy fire, but could make no impression on the virtually undamaged main stockade, and Despard was forced to order a recall. More than 100 of Despard's men were killed or wounded in this action, which he attributed to the attackers' failure to carry axes and other tools as he had ordered. However, he later conceded that the pā's stockades were so strong that his plan had had little chance of success. The despondent Despard ordered a retreat to Waimate, but, persuaded that this would be unwise, he resumed the bombardment of Ōhaeawai. Early on 11 July the pā was found to be empty and after destroying it Despard's force retired to Waimate.
Between July and November 1845 active military operations virtually ceased. During this period Despard was involved in attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement. After the final breakdown of these negotiations in early December, the new governor, George Grey, ordered Despard to begin operations against Kawiti's new and formidable pā at Ruapekapeka. Despard had a force of around thirteen hundred British troops and several hundred Māori; substantial artillery support was available for the expedition, which began with an advance from the Kawakawa River in early December. Despard's force reached Ruapekapeka in late December, after a gruelling advance over rough country. A heavy bombardment of the pā began on 10 January 1846, but the next day it was found to have been all but abandoned. Despard's forces rushed into Ruapekapeka and were briefly resisted by Kawiti and a few of his warriors, who then withdrew behind the pā, where Hōne Heke and most of the garrison were concealed. After some hours of fighting around the pā, Heke and Kawiti's force withdrew. Initially Despard falsely claimed that the pā had been taken by assault; however, Heke and Kawiti were probably deliberately attempting to draw the British forces into an ambush.
The northern war ended later in January and Despard left New Zealand for New South Wales. On 2 July 1846 he was created CB for his services, and in 1854 he was promoted to major general; he then retired from the army. He died at Heavitree, Devon, England, on 30 April 1859.
While in New Zealand Despard exhibited a determined and combative spirit, and his conduct of operations retained the support of his superiors. Nevertheless, his performance during the campaigns of 1845–46 was seriously flawed. In part this resulted from his own character. He could be kindly and considerate, but in New Zealand painful bouts of neuralgia and the pressures of active service exacerbated his tendency towards bad temper, impatience and obstinacy. He also had a contempt for Māori, which led him to underestimate his opponents, although he later developed more respect for them.
At Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka Despard's lack of patience led him to plan ill-advised assaults, which he only abandoned after protests from his officers and Māori allies. During the operations at Ōhaeawai Despard employed his artillery incompetently, failing to concentrate fire on one section of the stockades and wasting ammunition through intermittent fire which gave the garrison time to repair damage. His decision to attack Ōhaeawai was prompted more by a fit of temper brought on by the garrison's sortie, than by strictly military considerations. The soundness of Despard's plan of attack is also open to serious question. It has been suggested that Despard had no way of knowing how strong Ōhaeawai's defences were, but the missionary Robert Burrows, who often spoke with Despard, had a good knowledge of the pā's construction. During the Ruapekapeka expedition Despard exercised more care and caution, although his poor judgement was again evident.
The position of commander of British troops during the northern war was demanding, and it is not surprising that Henry Despard, a man of about 59 or 60 who had not seen active service for nearly 30 years, was unequal to the task.