Ruapekapeka - roadside stories

During the Northern War of the mid-1840s Ngāpuhi leader Te Ruki Kawiti built a complex defensive pā at Ruapekapeka, with underground shelters protected by fortifications. After a heavy bombardment by British artillery, Kawiti and his men abandoned the pā in January 1846. Its remains can still be seen today.


Hōne Heke (actor’s voice): Uncle, you are foolish to remain in this pā to be pounded by cannonballs. Let us leave it. Let the government soldiers have it and we will retire into the forest and draw them after us, where they cannot bring the big guns.  The soldiers cannot fight amongst the supplejack. They will be as easily killed amongst the canes as if they were wood pigeons.

Narrator: In January 1846, the famous Ngāpuhi chief, Hōne Heke, persuaded his uncle, Te Ruki Kawiti, to abandon the pā, or fortified settlement, at Ruapekapeka, which means ‘The bat’s nest’ in Māori. Their escape frustrated Governor Grey, who hoped for a decisive victory to end the Northern War with local Māori.

Today, the remains of Kawiti’s complex hilltop fortress can still be seen 14 kilometres southeast of the small Northland town of Kawakawa.

Ruapekapeka, with its intricate series of underground shelters, which were linked by tunnels and encircled by fortifications, demonstrates the sophistication of Māori military techniques.

Following the signing of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, tension grew between Māori and the colonial settlers, especially in Northland. Māori became frustrated by the loss of their land, resources and autonomy.

During 1844 and 1845, Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke, the first Māori chief to sign the Treaty, cut down the flagpole flying the British flag at Kororāreka, now known as Russell, four times. This sparked a conflict known as the Northern War. Heke and his uncle Kawiti inflicted a severe defeat on the British at Ōhaeawai. Colonial troops attempted to storm the pā, but were caught between two encircling palisades and suffered severe casualties. 

For five months after Ōhaeawai, there was no fighting, and British settlers became increasingly anxious. 

Victorian voice: The former halo of European superiority is completely dispelled.

Narrator: Kawiti prepared for the government’s inevitable revenge by building a major defensive pā at Ruapekapeka. If Governor Grey wanted to fight, his troops would have to transport their supplies, including heavy artillery, over 20 kilometres inland from the Bay of Islands.

It took three weeks for the Imperial troops to crawl through the rugged bush, with their heavy artillery in tow. Once in position at Ruapekapeka, the British continually bombarded the Māori fortifications for two weeks.

Despite being outnumbered about three to one, Ruapekapeka’s defenders suffered few casualties. They were able to maintain their fortifications, mainly because the government artillery fired only one shell at a time. This enabled Kawiti and his men to make repairs.

When a breach in the fortifications was finally made, Imperial troops wanted to storm the pā. But Governor Grey remembered Ōhaeawai and ordered his men to stay put. In the meantime, Heke urged his uncle to abandon the pā.

The following day, the pā appeared to be empty. Government troops entered the pā and found a small rearguard force, including Kawiti. After a brief skirmish, they too disappeared into the surrounding forest.

The casualty count suggests that neither side won. Nevertheless, Governor Grey claimed a brilliant success.

Victorian voice: The Māori rebels, beaten and dispersed, have met with other Māori chiefs, with the intention of making their complete submission to the Government. They have been so severely punished, it is not the intention of the government to take any further proceedings against them.

Narrator: In reality, the defenders simply chose to abandon Ruapekapeka after having enticed the Imperial troops into a massive military campaign to take a hilltop of no strategic value in the middle of nowhere.

Victorian voice: Eleven-hundred men were occupied 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. 

Victorian newspaper voice: It is as great a folly to say Kawiti is defeated as to say that the British were at Waterloo.

Narrator: Soon afterwards, Grey and Kawiti agreed not to continue fighting. However, as conflict broke out in other parts of the country, Māori employed similar guerrilla tactics to those used so successfully by Kawiti.

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