Who won the Battle of Ruapekapeka? The question is simple but the answer is not. Until recently, most non-Māori commentators have regarded Ruapekapeka as a British victory. Despard’s overblown version of events was doubted from the beginning, at least by some, but the underlying assumption of a British victory was not called into question.
In the 1980s, James Belich offered a radical re-interpretation. He argued that the Battle of Ruapekapeka was a tactical draw. He emphasises the strategic nature of Ruapekaepka Pā, located far inland, difficult for the British to access and safely distant from villages and crucial food resources. The purpose of Ruapekapeka Pā was to draw the enemy in, to cause them a great deal of trouble, and then to be abandoned “without a qualm”.1
“1000 men were occupied a full month in advancing 15 miles and in getting possession of a pah from which the enemy escaped at the last moment, and escaped with the satisfaction to him of a drawn battle. The question is, was it worthwhile to go through all that laborious march to obtain such a result.”
So, if the British didn’t win the battle, what of the war? Kawiti was never defeated in battle, and the only defeat suffered by Heke occurred during his parallel-but-separate war with Tāmiti Wāka Nene. In terms of strategy and tactics, it can be argued that Heke and Kawiti won the Northern War.2 However, this “victory” came at a very high price. Ngāpuhi were forced to defend their territory against foreign invaders, expending enormous effort to build the pā and to maintain a very long campaign. The yearly economic cycle was disrupted, important resources were consumed, and profitable trade with the pākehā was halted. At least 74 warriors were killed and 90 plus were wounded.3 In the proper context these numbers are not so small – remember Ohaeawai was defended by a mere 100 warriors, Ruapekapeka by about 500 in total.
What of the ultimate cause of the war – the loss of Ngāpuhi chiefly authority in contravention of Te Tiriti? Heke and Kawiti may have delayed the forcible imposition of the Queen’s sovereignty, or at least exposed the weakness of the British position in 1840s Northland. However, as the decades passed, as settlers flooded in and the colonial government extended its powers, Ngāpuhi were overwhelmed. That fight – the fight to retain chiefly authority – was a fight that Ngāpuhi ultimately could not win.