Story: Ngāpuhi

Page 5. Early European contact

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The Bay of Islands was a centre of trade and commerce with European ships. Kororāreka (present-day Russell) gained a reputation as a centre of drunkenness, prostitution and debauchery. When the Reverend Samuel Marsden landed at Rangihoua Bay in 1814, he gave the first sermon and established the first Christian mission there.

Muskets and war

Ngāpuhi played a prominent role during early contact with Europeans. Because more European ships visited the Bay of Islands than anywhere else, Ngāpuhi acquired more muskets than other tribes. The supply was increased when northern chief Hongi Hika returned from an overseas trip with several hundred muskets.

Between 1818 and 1823 Ngāpuhi and other northern tribes launched a series of expeditions across a wide area of the North Island. The Āmiowhenua expedition of 1821 was the largest, going southward from the Kaipara, through Auckland and the Waikato River area to the regions of Hawke’s Bay and Wellington. They returned northward along the west coast. Because they had muskets, Ngāpuhi were able to inflict several devastating defeats against other tribes. These included:

  • Ngāti Porou at Whetūmatarau near East Cape in 1820
  • Ngāti Whātua at Te Ika-a-Ranganui near Whāngārei
  • Ngāti Pāoa at Mauinaina in Auckland in 1821
  • the Marutūahu tribes at Te Tōtara in the Coromandel
  • the Waikato tribes at Mātakitaki in 1822
  • Te Arawa at Mokoia Island on Lake Rotorua in 1823.

The Treaty of Waitangi

Ngāpuhi were also at the forefront of political developments with Europeans. In 1835, 35 Northern chiefs signed the Declaration of Independence, which asserted Māori sovereignty over New Zealand. In February 1840, the chiefs of Ngāpuhi met with Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson, official British Resident James Busby and the missionary Henry Williams to consider signing what would become known as the Treaty of Waitangi.

Led by the Bay of Islands chiefs, the group initially rejected the treaty, although a minority spoke in favour of signing. Eventually Hōne Heke and Tāmati Wāka Nene, from the Hokianga, persuaded the remaining chiefs to sign, drawing on assurances from Hobson and Williams that the treaty was intended primarily to protect Māori land and interests from the French and unscrupulous settlers. On 6 February 1840, 43 Ngāpuhi chiefs, led by Hōne Heke, signed the treaty. Over the following months a further 100 or more Ngāpuhi chiefs signed.

The northern war

In 1845 and 1846 Ngāpuhi fought against the British Crown after dissatisfaction about the Treaty of Waitangi, the encroachment of European settlers, and increasing British control over their affairs.

Hōne Heke, who had been the first chief to sign the treaty in 1840, expressed his discontent by chopping down the flagstaff at Kororāreka three times in 1844 and 1845. Open warfare broke out when Hōne Heke, Pūmuka and Kawiti led three columns of Māori into Kororāreka on 11 March 1845, sacking and taking possession of the town.

More battles were fought at Puketutu, Ahuahu, Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka. At Puketutu 200 Māori defeated a force of 400 British army regulars, seamen, marines and European volunteers, when Heke and Kawiti out-manoeuvred a large British storming party.

Heke, in turn, was defeated at Ahuahu by pro-government Hokianga Māori led by Taonui and Tāmati Wāka Nene. This battle was fought exclusively between Māori. Hokianga Māori probably chose to fight Heke and Kawiti because they had not experienced the negative impact of colonisation to the same degree as those in the Bay of Islands. Indeed, the Hokianga was just beginning to open up and reap the initial benefits of trade.

Despite being outnumbered six to one, the Bay of Islands Māori were able to recover sufficiently to defeat the British a second time at Ōhaeawai. Under bombardment they dug themselves into safe underground bunkers before emerging to repel and inflict heavy casualties on the British storming party.

The last battle at Ruapekapeka in January 1846 was something of an anti-climax. A British force of 1,300 men laid siege to about 600–800 Māori, only for the Māori to abandon the without a serious fight.

The northern war set a pattern for other wars iaround the North Island. Despite the success of their fortifications and battle strategies, the Māori were unable to sustain long campaigns against the British, who had superior numbers and armaments. The British were also able to keep their regularly supplied armies in the field for long periods, while Māori fighters often had to return to their homes to tend cultivations and look after their families.

Land loss

The promises of the treaty were one thing; the reality of colonisation was quite another, especially when it came to land. By 1865 Ngāpuhi had lost in excess of 72,000 hectares of land in Hokianga and the Bay of Islands through pre-treaty claims by Europeans, so-called surplus land passed to the Crown, and other dubious Crown purchases.

After 1865 over 201,000 hectares of Ngāpuhi land went through the Native Land Court. Land that was traditionally owned by the community was given to individuals. This made it easier for the Crown and European settlers to buy Māori land. By 1908 only 61,000 hectares remained in Māori hands.

In 1975 Whina Cooper, a descendant of Waimirirangi, brought the issue to prominence when she led a march from Te Tai Tokerau to Parliament to protest against the loss of Māori land. In later life, she was often called ‘Te Whāea-o-te-motu’ (the mother of the nation) for her contribution to Māori land rights.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Ngāpuhi - Early European contact', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 October 2021)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 3 Mar 2017