Heke Pōkai was born at Pākaraka, near the Bay of Islands, probably after the death of his mother's brother Pōkaia, after whom he was named, at the battle of Moremonui (also known as Te Kai-a-te-karoro and Te Haenga-o-te-one), at Maunganui Bluff, in 1807 or 1808. His parents were Te Kona and Tūpanapana; he was the third of their children. His brothers, Tuhirangi and Peia, were considerably older. His sister, Taingarui, died at an early age. His major tribal affiliation was with Ngāpuhi, and also with the hapū Ngāti Rāhiri, Ngāi Tāwake, Ngāti Tautahi, Te Matarahurahu and Te Uri-o-Hua. Although as a third son he did not have the authority of the first born, his mana as a descendant of Rāhiri was beyond dispute, and it was further enhanced by the reputation he gained through his own energy and prowess.
Heke was of high standing in the district extending from Kaikohe to Waimate North, Pākaraka, Waitangi, Paihia and Rāwhiti. As one belonging to a senior line of descent, he had rights of use, control and trusteeship in these places. He was mainly associated with Kaikohe, where he spent his early years, living first at Pā Te Oro, one of Pōkaia's pā, on what is now known as Kaikohe hill.
He was still a babe in arms when pā Te Oro was attacked and sacked by a Ngāti Whātua war party. Heke and his mother, Te Kona, were taken captive and tied to a puriri tree, which is still standing at the place known as Te Herenga, in Kaikohe. Hongi Hika's father, Te Hotete, crept up to Rewharewha and held a mere to his head. For his life to be spared, Rewharewha had to give Te Hotete a favour; this was to release Te Kona and Heke. Some of the survivors from pā Te Oro, including Te Kona with her young son, sought refuge in Pakinga pā. In those early years Heke also spent time on the coast, the territory of his paternal great-grandfather, Kauteāwhā, of Ngāti Rāhiri. In adult life he built his own village, Raihara, where the Kaikohe Borough Council's offices now stand.
As a youth Heke was quick and intelligent, and a diligent pupil in the Kerikeri Church Missionary Society mission school, which he attended in 1824 and 1825. The missionaries found him mischievous, and even troublesome and surly. He was well built, and about six feet tall. Of the missionaries, Henry Williams had the greatest influence on him and was something of a father figure while Heke lived at Paihia. After Heke returned to Kaikohe in 1837, Williams continued to advise and counsel him.
Heke's marriage to Ono, daughter of Ngāpuhi leader Te Pahi, occurred during the years of calm spent with the missionaries. They had two children, a son, Hoani (Hōne), and a daughter, Marianne. Heke and Ono were baptised on 9 August 1835, Ono taking the name Riria (Lydia), and Heke the names Hoani (usually rendered as Hōne) and Wiremu, although he continued to use his birth name, Pōkai. The baptismal record described their 'Quality, Trade or Profession' as 'Lady – native chief' and 'Gentleman – native chief'. Marianne's baptism followed on 23 August. These baptismal names all came from the family of Henry Williams. Heke acquired a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, and often referred to them in later years. His powers of oratory led him to become a lay reader of the Church of England.
Riria died soon after her baptism, and their two children did not survive infancy. Heke then married Hāriata (Harriet) Rongo, Hongi Hika's daughter, in the Kerikeri chapel on 30 March 1837. She was a forceful character, inheriting much of her father's drive and self-confidence; she brought her own mana to the relationship. She too had been influenced by close contact with early settlers and missionaries, and had lived for some years with the family of James Kemp, a CMS missionary.
Heke remained a warrior, despite his conversion to Christianity. He had distinguished himself in his first battle at Kororāreka (Russell) in 1830. In 1833 he took part in Titore's expedition against Ōtūmoetai, at Tauranga, where he was wounded and returned home. Later, in 1837, he fought against Pōmare II and Te Mauparāoa at Ōtūihu, where he narrowly escaped capture. His skill, bravery and qualities of leadership were by then firmly established.
In 1840 Lieutenant Governor William Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands to negotiate an agreement with Māori chiefs so that British sovereignty could be extended to New Zealand. He presented to the assembled chiefs the document since known as the Treaty of Waitangi. There were two versions, one in Māori and the other in English. Those who signed the Māori version did so after considerable explanation and discussion, and in the belief that they understood the nature of the transaction. They believed that the treaty protected their rights, recognised their trusteeship of the land and gave them the rights and privileges of British subjects, in exchange for their allegiance to the Crown. Their rangatiratanga, they believed, was guaranteed. On 6 February 1840, after much debate, Heke became the first of the 45 influential northern chiefs to sign.
After the signing of the treaty, discontent grew among many Māori. When the capital was shifted from the Bay of Islands to Auckland many economic benefits were lost. The introduction of customs duties forced up prices, and revenue from shipping levies now went to the government. The felling of kauri trees was banned for a time and under government control land sales tapered off. Heke was incensed to see his people suffer in the ensuing depression, and to see Māori methods of enforcing law and order displaced by British practices. The trial and hanging of Maketū, son of the northern chief Ruhe, in 1842 for the murder of a European family highlighted the change. It became evident to Heke that chiefly authority was becoming subservient to that of the British Crown. The British flag became a symbol of Māori despair. Accordingly, at daybreak on 8 July 1844, Te Haratua, Heke's second in command, led his men to cut down the flagstaff at Kororāreka, which Heke had previously given to fly a Māori flag. Although there was a common cause for concern among Ngāpuhi, some chiefs were opposed to his actions. Foremost among them was Tāmati Wāka Nene. In Auckland Governor Robert FitzRoy asked for military aid from New South Wales.
Heke wrote a cryptic letter to FitzRoy; he said that he meant to improve his behaviour and replace the flagstaff. The flagstaff was replaced, but again cut down by Heke, on 9–10 January 1845; this happened a third time on 19 January. In early February a military presence was established in Kororāreka, with one blockhouse guarding the fortified flagpole and a second, with a battery, placed further down the hill. In March fighting began between the British and Heke, who had combined with Kawiti. Kawiti created a diversion, as did a section of Te Kapotai hapū, and Heke cut down the offending pole for the fourth and final time, on 11 March 1845. Fighting with the soldiers was fierce, yet the town remained untouched.
After the inhabitants had been evacuated, the naval vessel Hazard bombarded the town. Although John Bedggood, one of 'Heke's pākehā', was able to enter the town with an escort provided by Heke and collect the life savings of a trader, the town was sacked and looted by British and Māori forces supporting the government, and by those resisting it. Heke drew an imaginary line to the south of the town and ordered that nothing should be destroyed beyond it. The Anglican church and house, the Roman Catholic bishop's house and printing press, and various other buildings and cottages were saved.
After the sack of Kororāreka Heke moved inland to his pā Te Ahuahu, also known as Pukenui, near Lake Ōmāpere. He knew that government forces would soon act against him, and ordered the construction of a new fortified pā, which he called Puketutu, near the hill Te Māwhe. In the meantime Nene and his men had also moved inland to a pā at Ōkaihau. There was frequent skirmishing between the two forces, but not of an extreme kind. They fought only during the day and sometimes stopped by agreement.
By the end of April 1845 Colonel William Hulme had arrived at the Bay of Islands with some 460 soldiers, marines and volunteers. They trekked to Ōkaihau, two miles from Heke's pā, in appalling weather. Heke waited for an attack behind the impenetrable defences of his pā. He received the Reverend Robert Burrows on at least two occasions. Burrows hoped to make peace, but knowing that only surrender would satisfy the British commander, Heke declined.
On 8 May 1845 an attack was mounted, with rockets firing somewhat erratically over Heke's position. Kawiti's men engaged a storming party outside the pā. After fierce fighting, including a bayonet charge, and continual heavy firing from the pā, it became evident that Heke's plan would succeed. Hulme retreated, his men cold, hungry and demoralised. The next day Heke called for Burrows to give the British dead a Christian burial.
Heke returned to Te Ahuahu pā and began to build another pā at Ōhaeawai. Skirmishing with Nene continued. On 12 June, when Heke was away replenishing his food supplies, Makoare Te Taonui, a Hokianga chief and an ally of Nene, realised that Te Ahuahu was not defended and took it. Heke was enraged that his pā was under Nene's control and fought bitterly to regain it.
Support for Heke had increased after he had withdrawn from Puketutu. His Ngāti Tautahi kinsman Te Kākaha (Kahakaha), formerly a staunch ally of Hongi Hika, joined him. During a battle Heke heard that Te Kākaha had been mortally wounded and went to his assistance, despite the danger. The dying old man reaffirmed his support for Heke before being carried away. The tohunga Papahurihia with his followers also assisted, but the tohunga saw it as an ill omen when Heke picked up an enemy gun smeared with red. His fears proved correct when Heke fell, severely wounded in the thigh. Those who bore him away believed that the incantation of the tohunga made them invisible. Heke's kinsman by marriage, Wī Pohe, from Whāngārei, was killed in the fighting and Te Haratua suffered serious injury but survived.
Heke was taken to Kaikohe and the healing waters of Ngāwhā, at Ōhaeawai. Both Henry Williams and Robert Burrows visited him. His illness was great and the people of Tautoro took him to their chief and senior tohunga, Kūao, Tāmati Pehikura and others, all of whom had supported Heke. Matter from the wound was buried; so great was Heke's mana that the site became tapu. To this day the tapu has not been lifted. Later a stone wall was built around the spot, which is never used for gardens or domestic purposes.
During his convalescence Heke continued his fight by means of the written word, sending letters to Robert FitzRoy, George Grey, and Henry Williams and other missionaries. He told FitzRoy that his fight was not against Europeans. He also petitioned for peace. FitzRoy made a demand for land as compensation, which Heke rejected. After the dismissal of FitzRoy in late September, a harder line was taken by his successor, Grey. Heke did not take as conciliatory a tone with Grey, but he made the same demands for Māori rights to be respected. 'God made this country for us. It cannot be sliced; if it were a whale it might be sliced. Do you return to your own country, which was made by God for you. God made this land for us; it is not for any stranger or foreign nation to meddle with this sacred country.' Grey found this letter highly offensive. Kawiti meanwhile had gone ahead with the construction of a new fortified pā at Ruapekapeka. He, too, had sought reconciliation without acknowledging blame. But war broke out again, this time with a larger, better organised British force assisted by Nene. Heke was absent from the first part of this last battle in the north; he arrived with his force of 60 men on 10 January 1846. He had, however, been there before the fighting broke out, and had kept in close contact with Kawiti.
The bombardment of Ruapekapeka had been continuous for two weeks when a breach was made in the defences on 10 January. The British commanding officer, Colonel Henry Despard, and Grey put about the story that the pā had been taken by assault on Sunday, 11 January, and that an attempt to regain it had been repulsed. In fact the pā had been deserted save for Kawiti and a handful of others. Earlier accounts have it that Heke had led his followers outside the pā for Christian worship. However, the pā was without provisions or ammunition, and the more likely reason for its being empty was that there had been an organised withdrawal, in the hope that the soldiers would follow and be ambushed by Heke and his men in the dense bush, also fortified, on the other side of the pā.
Claims that Heke left the field of battle a beaten and broken man are groundless. On the contrary, his mana had increased and was maintained throughout the rest of his life. He and Kawiti had carefully chosen their battle sites and made successful strategic plans. They had made no attempt to intensify the war or involve resident Europeans; indeed, Heke took measures to protect them. Damage to property was minimal; the same cannot be said of damage caused by the occupying troops at Waimate North.
About a week after the withdrawal from Ruapekapeka, Heke, Kawiti and Nene met at the pā of the neutral chief Pōmare II and agreed to seek peace. Nene was to act as intermediary between the resistance leaders and the government, and went to Auckland to tell the governor that they had made peace. Grey issued what he called a pardon, and did not insist on the confiscation of land. He let it be known that the punishment already meted out to the 'rebels' was sufficient. Within four months peace was made with Kawiti, but Heke refused to go as a suppliant to Grey. More than two years were to pass before the two met at Burrows's mission house at Waimate North in 1848. To mark the occasion Heke presented Grey with his greenstone mere, not so much as a mark of respect and an emblem of peace, but as a token of acceptance of Grey's right to be in New Zealand and of Heke's expectation that the Queen's representative would honour the treaty. Symbolically, in Heke's eyes, by accepting the gift Grey was also accepting the responsibility of trusteeship.
Later, while living with his people at Tautoro and Kaikohe, Heke continued his prolific output of letters. Through his letters he was reconciled with Henry Williams. However, Williams expressed his concern over the influence on Heke of Papahurihia's spiritual teachings; in referring to Heke's illness, which was taking its toll, Williams showed more solicitude for Heke's spiritual well-being than for his physical health. He urged Heke to 'let that song of darkness remain a song of darkness'. That Heke was influenced by Papahurihia is not in question. Whether that influence was contrary to Christian belief is another matter.
In his later years Heke was afflicted with tuberculosis; this was to cause his death. Yet he continued to administer justice and command the respect due to a powerful chief and leader of his people. At Tautoro, shortly before his return to Kaikohe, Heke took another wife, possibly Kahutaha, although still legally married to Hāriata. His adherence to Christianity probably presented him with a moral dilemma, but the death of his two children made him want an heir. This was a hope that remained unfulfilled and the marriage did not last. After his return to Kaikohe, Hāriata's anger erupted in physical assault, to which Heke meekly offered no resistance. Having expressed her anger, she nursed and cared for him until his death.
Even in the latter stages of his illness Heke remained in contact with those about him and continued to write letters. His last letters to Grey have an affectionate tone and suggest that they regarded each other with respect. They express Heke's hope for them both, and affirm his faith. 'Salutation to you – I have received your kind letter to me. This is my letter expressing my love to you. My disease is great, but do not grieve about that. This is not the ever lasting abode of the body. Let God's will be done to us two. I will not say many more words because I am very ill. Give my regards to your wife, Lady Grey.'
The missionary Richard Davis of Kaikohe gave spiritual support in the last months of Heke's life. Heke's people remained close to him. Towards the end people from near and far converged on Kaikohe. Shortly before he died, in answer to his people's questions as to where he would recommend them to live after his death, Heke replied: 'In everlasting life.'
He died on 6 August 1850. Claim and counter-claim were made for his body. Davis's request to commit him in Christian burial was refused, but he was allowed to read parts of the funeral service, before the body was taken away. There has been much speculation about Heke's final resting place. It was said that he had been interred in the volcanic cone Pūtahi, just out of Kaikohe, and on the other hand that he had been taken to Pākaraka because of his reconciliation with Henry Williams. In fact he was buried, in complete secrecy, in the burial ground called Kaungarapa, at Pākaraka. Here Heke joined notable tribal leaders of the past. Ērana Pare, widow of Nareta, a grandson of Heke's brother Peia, explained in her old age that when people were taken to Kaungarapa, the bearers were met by the lizard Papa. So intense was the tapu, that all clothing had first to be removed.
Heke defended those Māori values which he saw being threatened by the colonial government. He considered that the contract entered into between the chiefs and the Queen was not being honoured, and that government policies were injurious to Māori. He saw the British flag as the symbol of Māori subjugation, and defied what it stood for by cutting it down. His actions were not aimed at the European community, whose presence he welcomed, but at the government. He resisted the government in battle and in letters. By the time he retired to Kaikohe, his actions had made a powerful statement about his people's rights to self-determination.