The Battle of Ruapekapeka

Ruapekapeka was the site of the last battle of the Northern War, where about 400 Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine warriors stood against a combined British force of 1600. The warriors built a pā (fortification), which was cleverly adapted to the methods and armaments of European warfare. However, they were outnumbered four to one and they lacked heavy artillery. The British did not. For days, they blasted the pā with canons, howitzers, mortars, and rockets, eventually breaching the massive timber palisades.

Learn more about the armaments used in the battle

It seems the defenders were caught by surprise when a party of soldiers stormed the breach. Most of the warriors were not actually inside the pā at the time – they were among the trees at the rear, possibly setting up a trap. There was a fierce and bloody fight. A foolhardy group of soldiers rushed out the back of the pā, to be fired upon by warriors perched in the trees and crouching behind strategically fallen logs. This is how the British suffered most of their casualties – 12 killed and 29 wounded.

After engaging the soldiers for several hours, the warriors withdrew into the bush. It was no rout. Ruapekapeka was not a besieged castle, full of terrified women and children to be defended at any cost. Kawiti chose a location that had no strategic value – there was no particular reason to hold that particular ridge. The purpose was simple: draw the enemy in, cause them a great deal of trouble, and leave when necessary. An orderly withdrawal had probably been in progress for several days before the British entered the pā.

It is difficult, then, to talk of victory and defeat. The British had taken (or were given) the enemy position, but what value was an empty pā in the middle of nowhere?

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Fighting Fit - The Battle of Ruapekapeka 1845-46 (PDF, 4,217K)

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The lead up
Map showing Ruapekapeka and the path British took marching inland to attack Kawiti's stronghold.  

Before Ruapekapeka, Hone Heke made a serious attempt to negotiate peace. However, Governor Fitzroy demanded the forfeiture of land to “atone” for the loss of Kororāreka. To Heke and Kawiti, the thought of ceding land to the British was utterly unacceptable. Fitzroy did have a genuine desire for peace, but he simply didn’t understand the extreme significance of land in the Māori world.

“Sir, if you are very desirous to get my land, I shall be equally desirous to retain it for myself.”

Kawiti, October 1845, letter to Fitzroy

“Land? Not by any means, because God mad this country for us; it cannot be sliced, if it were a whale it might be sliced; but as for this, do you return to your own country, to England, which was made by God for you. God has made this land for us, and not for any stranger or foreign nation to touch (or meddle with) this sacred country.”

Heke, December 1845, letter to Grey

Fitzroy’s days of governing were numbered. The Colonial Office, unhappy with his performance, sent George Grey to replace him in November 1845. Grey was a more ruthless man than Fitzroy, and his first thought was to force the “rebels” to submit. He sent Heke and Kawiti an unreasonable ultimatum, still demanding the cessation of land. Of course, Grey’s purported peace negotiations were destined to fail.

Sir George Grey.

Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand during the Battle of Ruapekapeka. This photo was taken in about 1875, three decades after the battle.

From Alexander Turnbull Library ref. 1/1-001345-G

Meanwhile, Kawiti had already started work on Ruapekapeka, his new pā on a rugged ridgeline not far from Kawakawa. Ruapekapeka was an engineering masterpiece, with a double row of massive timber palisades, trenches, and pihareinga (dugouts) connected by a network of tunnels. The defenders were armed with double-barrelled muzzle loaders and flint-lock muskets, along with the traditional taiaha, pātiti and mere. Kawiti was in possession of a field cannon and a 12-pounder carronade, although it is not known whether either of these weapons were fired during the battle.

By now, the British had learned something about the strength of Māori pā. To Ruapekapeka went the largest military force yet seen in New Zealand - a total of 1600 soldiers, sailors, militia, and allied Ngāpuhi. They also realised the need for heavy artillery, bringing three 32-pounder cannons, an 18-pounder cannon, howitzers, Coehorn mortars and several lighter cannon. However, actually getting everything overland to Ruapekapeka took twenty days. As on previous occasions, Kawiti choose not to ambush the cumbersome British columns travelling through the bush.

Map showing routes taken by British forces to Ruapekapeka in 1845.

Map showing routes taken by British forces to Ruapekapeka in 1845.

By J. G. Nops. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. MapCol-832.11hk/1846/Acc.35844

“Had the natives been so disposed, a small party might have proved very troublesome to our people going back and forwards.”

Henry McKillop, soldier

Around Christmas time in 1845, the British forces began to arrive at Ruapekapeka. The troops were set to work building the main camp and setting up firing positions, of which there were three. The main battery and stockade was located about 400 yards from the pā, housing the mortars and two of the 32-pounder cannons. The bombardment began in earnest on December 31, although it was not until January 10 that all 13 pieces of artillery were in place.

31 December 1845 - 10 January 1845: A heavy bombardment

Kawiti’s men inside the pā numbered between 300 and 400, and logistical support was provided by men and women living in the wider area. The people inside the pā were fairly safe within the underground rua (bunkers), but the constant din and subsequent lack of rest took its toll. There were casualties during the bombardment – on 31 December, a woman was “decapitated by being struck by a cannonball1”.

Depiction of the bombardment of Ruapekapeka Pā in progress.

The bombardment in progress. The Main British Camp is in the foreground. Ruapekapeka Pā is on the hill in the background.  

By Williams, J.; Bridge, C.  From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. A-079-030

The warriors were not content to wait behind the palisades while the British were setting up their firing positions. On January 2, they conducted a sortie against the main battery and stockade, which was fought off by Nene’s warriors. The soldiers did not participate in the skirmish, because they struggled to tell their allies apart from their enemies.

After more than a week of continuous bombardment, Kawiti began to plan a withdrawal from the pā. The British had a seemingly endless supply of ammunition, and he knew the defences would not stand up indefinitely. From 8 January, the soldiers could see parties moving back and forth, carrying food and other equipment out of the pā. At this point, Hone Heke and his men finally arrived at Ruapekapkea, having promised Kawiti support for when the soldiers attacked.

On 10 January when all the guns were in position, Despard changed tactics. A massive co-ordinated bombardment was directed at the north-eastern aspect of the pā. It was too much for even the strongest timber pallisaiding to bear and by afternoon, the defences were breached. As soon as the defences were breached Colonel Despard ordered an armed charge on the pā, and a storming party was formed. However, he was persuaded to postpone the assault by Nene and other allied chiefs. The chiefs told him that “if he waited until tomorrow he would get the pā”.2

1 Kawiti, T. 1956:43

2 Major Cyprian Bridge, diary, 10 January 1846

11 January 1845: The capture of Ruapekapeka

The following day, a Sunday, a reconnaissance party of Nene’s men found the pā to be virtually deserted. Despard ordered his troops to storm the breach. Kawiti himself was inside, but most of the warriors were in the area behind the pā. There are several theories as to what they were actually doing out there.

It is possible that the warriors were simply sheltering from the bombardment. Another explanation has them attending church. After all, it was Sunday and by that stage many Māori had converted to Christianity. The defenders – overestimating the piety of their adversaries – did not expect an attack on the Sabbath.

Historian James Belich highlights the idea of a tactical retreat. He argues that the defenders deliberately allowed the soldiers to enter the pā, intending to lure them into a trap set in the trees out the rear3. There certainly were defences behind the pā, namely hidden firing positions and a breastwork of fallen trees. However the “trap” theory is disputed. Others have argued that the defences behind the pā were for the purpose of covering the withdrawal.

Whatever the case, it seems that the British troop surprised Kawiti and his men. Kawiti himself was whisked away, for Ngāti Hine could not allow their ariki to be captured. He men fought on fiercely, engaging the British from the area behind the pā. A group of about 50 soldiers and sailors rushed out in pursuit of Kawiti and his escorts, straight into a volley of musket fire. The warriors made good use of the ambush positions among the trees, and this is where the British suffered most of their casualties – 12 killed and 29 wounded. Lieutenant Balneavis wrote that “had our men not going out to the back of the pā, exposing themselves without necessity to the enemy, who were in and behind the trees, very little loss would have occurred4”.

Depiction of soldiers storming through the breach in the outer defences of Ruapekapeka Pā.

Depiction of soldiers storming through the breach in the outer defences of Ruapekapeka Pā.

By C. Bridge. From the Alexander Turnbull Library ref. A-079-007

Unable to prevail in the bush, the British pulled back into the pā itself. With the soldiers firmly ensconced inside, the warriors could not have retaken the pā even if they had wanted to (which is doubtful). They melted away into the bush, heading southwards to various destinations.

It is not known how many of the defenders were killed or wounded, as a complete list of causalities was not compiled at the time. Estimates of the number of fatalities have ranged from nine to twenty five. Tradition has it that they took their dead with them, although several British sources mention a grave for some of Kawiti’s men nearby the pā. The soldiers buried their dead in a mass grave with a rough paling fence around it. Unfortunately, the location of the grave has since been forgotten.

3 Belich, J. 1986:61-62

4 Balneavis, 1846, cited in Johnson 2006:372

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