Story: New Zealand wars

Page 2. Northern war, 1845–1846

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Origins of the wars

The New Zealand wars began with fighting between Ngāpuhi and government troops at Kororāreka (Russell) in the Bay of Islands. The major causes were the concern of some Ngāpuhi that the moving of the capital from the Bay to Auckland had hurt them economically, and that the Crown was exceeding its authority in the area. Hōne Heke Pōkai and his supporters cut down the flagstaff at Kororāreka four times to make this point. Other Ngāpuhi hapū led by Tāmati Wāka Nene sided with the British.

On 11 March 1845 Heke, Te Ruki Kawiti and Pūmuka led an attack on Kororāreka, which was defended by English settlers and British naval forces led by Acting Commander David Robertson of HMS Hazard. Pākehā were evacuated from the town after a powder magazine blew up.

Increased presence

Following the attack on Kororāreka, British forces in the colony were reinforced. In late March 162 officers and men of the 58th Regiment arrived in Auckland. By mid-April a further 300 men had arrived and an Auckland volunteer militia had been established. On 27 April 470 officers and men, with 50 volunteers, left Auckland under Lieutenant-Colonel William Hulme to reclaim the ‘Queen’s sovereignty at Kororareka’.1

The northern campaign

After arriving at Kororāreka on 30 April 1845, the British ships shelled nearby Māori settlements, including Ōtuihu , which was mistakenly thought to be harbouring Heke sympathisers. Most of Heke’s supporters had long since moved inland.


The first major engagement of this campaign was fought at Heke’s new pā at Puketutu, near Lake Ōmāpere, 3 kilometres from his old pā of Te Kahika. Four hundred soldiers, seamen and marines disembarked at Onewhero on 3 May 1845 and took four days to march to Lake Ōmāpere. On arrival, Hulme ordered a barrage using Congreve rockets, which his marines believed capable of demolishing any Māori stockades. When the rockets had little effect, Hulme ordered 200 men to attack Puketutu. After making little progress in four hours of fighting, Hulme ordered his men to retreat, leaving 13 dead soldiers on the battlefield. Māori dead were about twice that number.

Te Ahuahu

Heke withdrew to nearby Te Ahuahu. When he left the pā temporarily in search of provisions, it was occupied by Ngāpuhi forces allied with the British, led by Tāmati Wāka Nene and Makoare Te Taonui. Heke returned with up to 500 fighters, but could not dislodge Wāka Nene from Te Ahuahu. Heke was badly wounded in this battle.


A pā was built near Ōhaeawai under Kawiti. On 1 July 1845 a 600-strong force of soldiers, seamen and militia commanded by Colonel Henry Despard attacked it. Kawiti’s men repelled the assault and Despard ordered a retreat, having lost 41 men.

Sabbath victory?

There has long been controversy about the end of the Ruapekapeka battle. 11 January was a Sunday, and for many years it was believed that Ngāpuhi had been at prayer outside the pā when the less pious British took advantage and captured it. However, there were few provisions left inside, so it is likely that the occupants had intended to withdraw. The pā had served its purpose by forcing the British to carry supplies uphill to attack a position with no intrinsic strategic value.


In January 1846 the British began shelling a new Māori fortification at Ruapekapeka. On 11 January, when Māori scouts signalled that it was empty, troops rushed the pā. Fighting continued in the bush behind the pā for several hours as Kawiti tried to lure the British into an ambush. About 12 British and up to 20 Māori were killed.

After the battle of Ruapekapeka, the northern war ended when Kawiti and Heke agreed peace terms with Wāka Nene. The flagstaff was not put back up in Heke’s lifetime and no Ngāpuhi land was confiscated.

  1. Quoted in James Cowan, The New Zealand wars: a history of the Māori campaigns and the pioneering period. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1922, p. 35. Back
How to cite this page:

Danny Keenan, 'New Zealand wars - Northern war, 1845–1846', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 October 2022)

Story by Danny Keenan, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 8 Feb 2017