Ngāpuhi had enjoyed many economic benefits from their early contact with Europeans. Key leaders such as Tāmati Wāka Nene and Hōne Heke were keen to preserve this relationship. Both had converted to Christianity and supported the Treaty of Waitangi. Heke, the first to sign, had invited Lieutenant-Governor Hobson to ‘stay with us and be like a father’.
The Treaty of Waitangi was expected to cement the relationship with the British Crown and make Ngāpuhi prosperous. But optimism quickly turned to frustration. Hobson’s decision to move the capital from the Bay of Islands to Auckland in 1841 was a serious blow to Ngāpuhi.
When the flagstaff was re-erected after the third attack on 18 January 1845, FitzRoy had it clad in iron and protected by a blockhouse. Nene also provided guards for the flagstaff.
As tension mounted Kororāreka (Russell) was placed on a war footing. FitzRoy appealed for military aid. A detachment of the 96th Regiment and the sloop HMS Hazard, which had been sent from New South Wales after the first incident in July 1844, were instructed to return to the Bay. One hundred and forty soldiers, sailors and marines were available to defend the town. Two hundred residents and crew of visiting ships were also armed.
Shortly before dawn on 11 March 1845, Heke and several hundred warriors moved on Kororāreka. One group, led by Te Ruki Kawiti, created a diversion at the southern end of the town, enabling Heke to seize the blockhouse defending the flagstaff. The offending pole was cut down for the fourth and final time.
Desultory fighting continued for the rest of the morning. Women and children were evacuated in the early afternoon. Soon afterwards the powder magazine at Polack’s Stockade exploded and surrounding buildings caught fire. The troops were now also evacuated to ships anchored in the bay.
Lieutenant G. Philpotts of the Hazard now ordered the bombardment of Kororāreka. This was the signal for the sacking of the town. Māori forces helped themselves to whatever they could lay their hands on. Heke ordered that the southern end of the town remain untouched. As a result, the Anglican and Catholic churches were spared from destruction.
The sacking of Kororāreka shook the settler population. Over £50,000 worth of property was lost. In Auckland panic set in when news arrived with the refugees. Some settlers sold their land for whatever price they could obtain, and left the colony as quickly as possible.
Why was Kororāreka lost?
Settlers and officials demanded an explanation of how professional soldiers and sailors had allowed Kororāreka to fall. Some pointed to divine retribution. As a ‘Gomorrah, the scourge of the Pacific’, Kororāreka had finally got what it deserved.
The size of the Māori force was inflated to between 1000 and 1200. In what was to become a feature of the New Zealand Wars, Māori casualty figures were similarly inflated, from 13 dead and 28 wounded to 34 and 68 respectively. The British lost 19 or 20 dead and 23 wounded.
Lieutenant Philpotts pointed a finger of suspicion at missionary Henry Williams, whose close relationship with Heke saw him accused of somehow betraying the town. Though FitzRoy dismissed the allegation as ‘utterly absurd’, rumours persisted throughout the Northern War that the missionaries were in some way to blame.
The officers in charge also came in for their share of criticism. FitzRoy lambasted ‘the shameful conduct of those officers whose uselessness caused the loss and destruction of Kororareka’. The decision to abandon the town was also criticised as too hasty.
The conflict widens
Nene and his supporters took no part in the fighting in Kororāreka. Nene continued to talk to Heke in a bid to stop the conflict escalating. But fighting between the two main Ngāpuhi factions broke out in April. Historian James Belich has described this as ‘restrained feuding’ — no ambushes, no fighting at night — but conflict intensified when Heke insulted Nene’s mana by accusing him of ‘fighting for blankets’.