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The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)

Chapter 4: The Fall of Kororareka

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Chapter 4: The Fall of Kororareka

MIDNIGHT ON MAIKI HILL. A rattle of arms at the blockhouse gateway came sharply through the tenebrous stillness; the guard was relieved—the soldier whose tedious duty was ended retired to his blankets, and the only half-awake relief, with musket and fixed bayonet, began his watch. Here, 300 feet above the sleeping town, the silence was intense; it was a windless night, with raw fog obscuring the gullies and floating upwards in thin wafts. Not a sound but the footfall of the sentry and the “Kou-kou” of the ruru, or night-owl. Those owl-calls were unusually frequent was the thought, perhaps, that crossed the mind of the solitary soldier. Had he possessed the scout instinct he might have noticed that the bird-calls all came from the brushwood on the east and south-east slopes of the range, the aspect towards Oneroa Bay and the lower blockhouse. Owl called to owl, and the regularly repeated cries grew nearer until they formed a semi-cordon of melancholy notes about the flagstaff hill. Then, too, was heard the screech call, plain as spoken words to the Maori; it sounded to him like “Kia toa!” (“Be brave!”)

It was a fatal cordon, for the rurus were the pickets of Heke's war-party announcing their positions to each other and keeping in touch as they crept towards the little fort that guarded their objective, the flagstaff. Two hundred Ngapuhi warriors, under Heke and Pokai, had landed in their canoes at Oneroa, in rear of Kororareka, late at night, and were now working their way up to surprise the hill post at the first streak of dawn. Some of them crept up until they crouched in the scrub a few yards from where the sentry stood. Most of them lay in a wooded gully close to the hilltop. They carried gun and tomahawk, and belts with heavy leather or wooden cartouche-boxes were strapped about them. The tomahawk was the weapon most favoured for such tasks as this: short-handled with wood or whalebone, thrust through the girdle at the hip or at the small of the back, as the olden Scots and the Borderers carried the “lyttel batayle axe” mentioned in Froissart's story of the Battle of Otterburne.

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Grey dawn; a damp fog-laden break of day. The ruru calls have ceased; the dark hills are steeped in utter silence. The hidden warriors, gripping their loaded flint-lock and percussion-cap guns, are ready to spring from their cramped couches in the brushwood at the chief's first call. Some of them have cut manuka bushes with their tomahawks; these are to provide a moving cover for themselves as they creep up on the pakehas.

Now the door of the little blockhouse on Maiki hilltop opens; the plank bridge is thrown across the trench, and half a dozen men, all armed, and five of them carrying spades, come out into the misty morning. The youthful officer in charge of the post, Ensign Campbell, takes his men along the hill-slopes to the edge of the range overlooking Oneroa Bay; here they set to work to dig a trench, intended as a protection against any attack from that direction.

Scarcely have the soldiers commenced their spade-work in the dim light than the morning silence is shattered by sudden shots, then rolling volleys. The firing comes from the south end of the town below, apparently from the direction of Mata-uhi Bay. Campbell orders his men back to the blockhouse; and the issue of the morning's work might be very different had he the prudence to remain there with them and make secure his post. But in his curiosity to learn what is going on below he leads eight or nine men out to the brow of the hill overlooking Kororareka, nearly 200 yards from the blockhouse. The rest of the garrison, twenty men, are aroused, and, taking their arms, are putting on their belts outside the ditch facing the town.

Now is Heke's and Pokai's opportunity. Little by little the war-party creeps up, some daring fellows crawling across the open with manuka bushes and branches held in front of them. With a yell from their leaders, they are up and charging into the blockhouse; it is nearly empty of its garrison.

Ensign Campbell is for charging back to the stockade, but the Ngapuhi are too quick for him. They are already in the stockaded enclosure and its trench, and, while some open fire on the soldiers outside, others dash into the blockhouse, killing the four soldiers who remain to defend it. They shoot, too, but unintentionally, a little half-caste girl, the daughter of Tapper the signalman.

The surviving soldiers, confused by the surprise attack, contrive to give the Maoris a volley, but before another round can be fired it is seen that a second party of warriors is doubling up from a gully to cut off the soldiers from the lower blockhouse. Campbell, therefore, in order to escape being nipped between the two bodies, must fall back on the lower blockhouse, having lost his own. This he and his men do, and at their utmost speed; page 27 while the triumphant Ngapuhi, not without much labour—because of the iron sheathing, which necessitates digging as well as chopping—fell the flagstaff for the fourth time.*

Meanwhile a battle, attended with more credit for the whites than the inglorious affair on the flagstaff hill, was waged in the town below.

At 4 o'clock that morning (11th March, 1845) a force of forty-five small-arms men, composed of bluejackets and marines from H.M.S. “Hazard,” under the Acting-Commander, David Robertson (who had succeeded Commander Bell, recently drowned), marched from the beach to the heights overlooking Mata-uhi Bay for the purpose of throwing up a breastwork on the face of the hill. They had just reached the spot when the sentry at the one-gun battery on the hill on the opposite or southern side of the little valley which led to Mata-uhi Bay challenged and fired; he had spied a party of Maoris creeping up on his position. This was old Kawiti's division, comprising Ngati-Hine and Roroa men; a leading brave was Pumuka. Kawiti's share of the day's work was to make an attack on the town in order to divert attention from the main task, Heke's assault on the flagstaff.

In the half-light of that hazy morning a hand-to-hand combat was fought around the enclosure of the English church as Robertson and his men fell back towards the town. The Maoris numbered about two hundred. These the forty-five “Hazards” charged. Musket and tupara blazed; British cutlass clashed on Maori long-handled tomahawk. The frigate's men cut their way into Kawiti's party, and steadily forced them back towards Mata-uhi. The gun, served by the sailors, was used at point-blank range against the dark warriors. Captain Robertson, wielding his sword like some hero of old romance, killed Pumuka with page 28
From a photo, 1903] The Flagstaff, Russell, Bay of Islands

From a photo, 1903]
The Flagstaff, Russell, Bay of Islands

The signal-mast occupied the site of that cut down by Hone Heke. The remains of the olden trench which surrounded the small blockhouse of 1845 are seen at the foot of the flagstaff.

one blow, and felled several others of his foes in the combat at the churchyard fence. He fell at last severely wounded; he was shot through both legs, his right thigh-bone was smashed, his right arm was shot through close to the elbow, and his temple was grazed by a pistol-shot. The “Hazards” pursued the retreating Maoris, who took to the scrub on the hills and joined in the firing on the town at long range. Four seamen and a sergeant and private of Royal Marines were killed in the half-hour skirmish; page 29 besides Captain Robertson, dangerously wounded, and Acting-Lieutenant E. Morgan, slightly, six men were wounded. The command of the naval party devolved upon Acting-Lieutenant Morgan. After charging the Maoris and completing their repulse in the Mata-uhi gully, he engaged in a musketry battle with Kawiti, who from the hills opened a steady fire.

Now the detachment of the 96th Regiment, under Lieutenant E. Barclay, whose quarters were in the barracks between the beach and the lower blockhouse, entered the battle. Barclay had seen the naval force march out towards Mata-uhi, and turned out his men. Their first shots were directed on parties of Maoris who appeared on the hills to the left of the barracks, towards Oneroa Bay. They checked the advance of these musketeers. Then enemy bullets began to drop around the soldiers from the steep hills behind; and, on facing about, it was for the first time seen that the Maoris had captured the flagstaff hill.

A message now arrived from Acting-Lieutenant Morgan informing the 96th officer that a party of the enemy held the ground at the back of the English church, nearly half a mile from the barracks. The military detachment, numbering about thirty, thereupon quickly advanced in skirmishing order, firing as they advanced. Another messenger came from Morgan; the “Hazard's” little force had nearly expended its ammunition, and Lieutenant Barclay turned back towards the beach to join the sailors. The one-gun battery had been abandoned, but not before the gun had been spiked by a gallant seaman, William Lovell, who next moment was shot dead. The sailors retired along the waterfront to Polack's stockade. After engaging scattered parties of natives from the flat, who drew off in the direction of Mata-uhi, the Maoris carrying away their dead and wounded as they retired, the soldiers turned about and marched to the lower blockhouse in rear of the stockade. Ensign Campbell and his dispossessed flagstaff-party were already there checking the advance of the enemy who swarmed along the heights and in the gullies in rear of the town.

The Kapotai Tribe, from the Waikare, the third division of the assailants, were now into the fray, firing at the blockhouse, the barracks, and the stockade from the half-circle of hills that rimmed the town. The troops replied from the blockhouse windows and loopholes and the sloping ground on each side. The ship's guns, on a platform outside, were worked by the volunteer artillerymen—civilians and one or two old soldiers, under Mr. Hector.

Heke on his hilltop station stood fast, watching the combat below; he had taken the key of Kororareka, which was all, indeed, that he had intended or expected.

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The English Church, Russell, Bay of Islands

The English Church, Russell, Bay of Islands

This church was built prior to the war, and the engagement of the 11th March, 1845, between the sailors of H.M.S. “Hazard” and the Ngapuhi warriors under Kawiti was fought around the churchyard fence in the foreground. On the seaward side of the church there is a weatherboard cut by a round shot from the “Hazard,” fired after the evacuation of Kororareka.

There was no proper co-ordination of operations in the defence; the naval authority, the military, and the Police Magistrate each gave orders and acted as they thought fit, independently of the others. The “Hazard's” captain being out of action, Lieutenant Phillpotts took command of the ship. He directed the abandoned barracks (behind which some of the enemy were in cover) and the captured signal-station to be shelled. Round shot and grape-shot were thrown at the natives on the hills, and for several hours the hills of the Bay echoed and re-echoed the roar of the frigate's artillery.

It was now between 10 and 11 o'clock in the forenoon. There was a brief lull in the fighting; then, about 11 o'clock, skirmishing again commenced. There were a hundred armed civilians in Polack's stockade—a hastily drilled militia; a party of these men was sent to drive off some Maoris who were firing at the defenders of the lower blockhouse from the hill above the barracks. This was done, and the Maoris contented themselves with sniping from their manuka cover on the heights.

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All that Heke wished for had been accomplished; but now a kind of panic seemed to have overtaken some of those in authority. Heke had no intention of attacking the civilian population; he had hoisted a white flag, and sent down under its protection the wife and daughter of the signalman Tapper, who was now employed at the guns of the lower blockhouse. About noon the white women and children, who had all been gathered with their menfolk in Polack's stockade, were sent aboard the ships in harbour—the “Hazard,” the United States warship “St. Louis,” the “Matilda” (English whaleship), the Government brig, and Bishop Selwyn's schooner. This was a rightful measure of prudence as it developed, but there was scarcely adequate reason for the evacuation of the town by the able-bodied men, in spite of an accident which occurred soon after the non-combatants had been removed to the shipping. A careless fellow smoked his pipe as he worked among the kegs of gunpowder in the stockade magazine. Loose powder on the floor; a dropped spark; the next moment a flash, and with a terrifying roar up went the magazine and the greater part of the buildings in fragments. The whole of the reserve ammunition in store was destroyed. That fateful pipe of tobacco decided the fortunes of Kororareka.

Lieutenant Phillpotts, the senior combatant officer, after consultation with Mr Beckham, the Magistrate, now determined upon the complete evacuation of the place. He gave orders that the troops and the civilian population should go aboard the ships. All this time the battery on the mound in the rear of the stockade had been steadily held by Hector's civilian gunners and Barclay's redcoats. The round shot probably inflicted little harm upon the Maoris, who swarmed on the scrub-matted slopes of Titore's Mount and the minor hills around, but the gunnery and the small-arms fire at least prevented the Kapotai and their allies from descending into the town. With Mr. Hector were his two plucky sons, young boys, who gallantly carried up ammunition from the stockade under heavy fire. Tapper, the signalman, was wounded while serving one of the guns.

Hector's disgust was extreme when he was informed of the decision arrived at by the senior naval officer and the Magistrate. He went down to the beach and offered to retake the flagstaff hill if he were given fifty volunteers. The request was refused. Lieutenant Barclay also went down for ammunition; when he returned he found that the guns had been spiked—by whose orders was not clear. Nothing could have been finer than Mr. Hector's work as battery commander, and it certainly was not his fault that the post had to be abandoned. A review of the day's fighting and the day's blunders after the brave Robertson's fall at the head of his men prompts the conclusion that had the page 32
Memorial to the Fallen Sailors, Russell Churchyard

Memorial to the Fallen Sailors, Russell Churchyard

conduct of operations been in this amateur gunner's hands instead of those of the too-impulsive Phillpotts and the over-cautious Beckham, the town, in spite of the destruction of the stockade, need not have been abandoned to Ngapuhi.

Riwhitete Pokai, of Kaikohe, recounting half a century after the war his share in the fall of Kororareka, described the annoyance of the Ngapuhi at Phillpotts' indiscriminate shelling. “We treated the women and children kindly,” the veteran said, “and took those of them who remained late off to the ships in our canoes. But as soon as all the refugees were on board—and even before that—the man-of-war set to and opened fire on our people on the beach. It was an act of treachery to shell us after the town had been given up to us by the whites. When the firing began some of us were sorry we had not tomahawked all the pakehas we could find.” Such was the Maori viewpoint.

The heavy day closed with occasional shots from the frigate, little regarded by the Maoris, who were now absorbed in the joy of looting, drinking the grog in the publichouses, seizing blankets, clothes, tobacco, preserved foods, and all the varied stock of the stores. Some employed themselves loading their canoes that had been hastily paddled round from the bay in the rear of the town. The Hectors and a number of other families were in Bishop Selwyn's schooner, the “Flying Fish”; the English whaleship received over a hundred, the American frigate “St. Louis” took page 33 125 on board, and the rest found quarters in the “Hazard” with the troops. Captain McKeever, the commander of the “St. Louis,” won praise from the British for his courage and humanity. Considerations of neutrality debarred him from a share in the fighting, but he sent his unarmed boats ashore, and himself frequently went under fire, like Bishop Selwyn, to bring off the women and children.

The Maori casualties of the day were heavier than those of the British, but they weighed lightly against the completeness of the victory. The British lost ten seamen and marines and privates of the 96th killed; in addition two people died from injuries received in the explosion of the magazine. The wounded numbered twenty-three. The Maori division which suffered most was Kawiti's, which in the fight near the church and on the Mata-uhi track lost at least twenty killed, and more than twice as many wounded. The total native losses in the day were reported to Governor Fitzroy as thirty-four killed and sixty-eight wounded. The united forces of the attackers numbered about six hundred. Lieutenant Phillpotts reported them at double that figure.

Some of the more determined spirits went ashore next morning intent on salvage, but the “Hazard” again opened fire on the town. The Maoris continued the work of looting, filling their canoes with goods from the stores; then they set fire to one after another of the buildings. The English and Roman Catholic churches and mission-houses, including Bishop Pompallier's home, were scrupulously protected from harm. By the afternoon all the rest of the town was burning. Fifty thousand pounds' worth of property went up in flames and smoke. Early on the following day (13th March) the fleet of five sailed for Auckland, and as the sorrowful refugees looked back they saw, long after they had rounded Tapeka Point, the black mass of smoke that lay high and unmoving above the bay, the funeral cloud of Kororareka.

* A story of the fourth flagstaff imparts an element of comedy to the history of blunders and tragedy associated with the Maiki signal-hill. It is said that after the mast had been cut down for the third time and another pole had been procured from the forest the new stick vanished mysteriously one night, to the consternation of the military detachment sent to set it in position. It was discovered that it had been hauled away by an old chief of a neighbouring village, who declared that he had been born underneath it when it was a living tree; he was afraid that trouble or death would befall him if Heke carried out his customary threat and felled the mast. It would be an aitua, or forerunner of disaster, in Maori eyes. The staff having disappeared there was nothing for it but to obtain one to which the exasperating Maori was not likely to lay claim. The Government went to the shipping for its next spar; the officials bought the mizzenmast of a foreign vessel in the harbour, “being morally certain,” says the New Zealand Spectator's narrative (22nd March, 1845), “that no Maori could have been born under it.” This mast, the fifth, stood for nearly two months before Heke's axe laid it low and bereaved Kororareka of a signal-station for eight years.