Battle for Ruapekapeka: How One Hill Changed History

On undulating pastures outside of Whangarei stands a hill. Not just any hill: it's arguably the most prestigious of all in New Zealand.

The signpost to Ruapekapeka (bat’s nest) merely says “Historic Reserve”. And yet, in terms of the country’s colonial history, this site and the battle fought here between Maori and the British had significant consequences.

The Learning Curves

At first glance, there’s not much to see aside from peaceful hills. But walk along two meandering tracks, read noticeboards along the way, and imagine the sounds of battle all around.

One track leads to the Pa (Maori village) site atop the tallest hill. Ruapekapeka Pa was built specifically to resist artillery fire, and to provide defensive firing positions. The fortified Pa site on the higher ground provides the best view: almost 180° coast to coast.

Ngapuhi tribal Chiefs Te Ruki Kawiti and Hone Heke (who had chopped down the flagpole in Russell for the fourth time a few weeks earlier) had a combined force of around 500.

They had flint-lock muskets, muzzle-loaders, one carronade, a four-pounder gun and traditional club weapons (patu). You don’t have to look far to see defensive fox-holes evident today, but Maori were hopelessly out-gunned.

Foxholes dug into the side of the banks and from where Maori defended the pa. Photo credit: Sandy Myhre

The other track leads to the (lower) British position. It had taken the troops three weeks to haul 30 tonnes of artillery and supplies over 18.5mi (30km) of rugged country.  On the 10th January 1846, a full-scale British bombardment created three small breaches in the Pa’s wooden palisades.

The two sites are 400m apart, and standing on either, it’s easy to see how the battle took place. The British with their heavy artillery firing up, Maori dug into fox-holes and behind palisade fortifications firing down. 

The encounter lasted most of the day and, in fact, was the final of three serious skirmishes that became known as the “Northern Wars”. This battle, though, effectively ended further major clashes between colonial forces and Maori.  

The Aftermath

The billboards lining both tracks don’t say so, but the Battle for Ruapekapeka is still surrounded by debate. When British scouts breached the Pa, they found Chief Kawiti and about a dozen warriors inside. The Brits lost around 12 men, Maori even more. Some Brits may have been shot by their own side as they scoured the Pa site for non-existent loot.

Governor George Grey proclaimed the victory as a “brilliant success”. Yet it could have been a strategic withdrawal by Maori when the Pa had served its purpose. No provisions or ammunition were left behind.

So, who won here? Hone Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti escaped with their forces largely intact. Governor Grey had established his British authority, but subsequently pardoned the chiefs and didn’t confiscate their lands. 

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Decide for Yourself

There are two options to contemplate the meaning of Ruapekapeka.  Sit on the grassy slopes and absorb the magnificent vistas.

Or, go back to State Highway 1, head north for 7.5mi (12km), turn left to Kawakawa and stop at 39 Gillies Café. It has the best French toast with coconut bread, bacon, banana, and syrup in Northland. The only battle here is not with canon, but of calories.

Getting There

Follow along State Highway 1, and 28mi (45km) north of Whangarei turn right.  It’s well sign-posted, so you won’t miss it. Travel along a 3mi (5km) loose metal road – it’s dusty in summer, slippery in winter, and in some places fit for just one car. 

No food is allowed past the entrance gate, so be sure to fill up on something to eat before you step beyond the entrance.

Entrance to Ruapekapeka. Photo credit: Sandy Myhre
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