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Flagstaff Hill is nearly 100 metres above sea level and commands 360 degree views of the Bay of Islands.
From the northern end of the Strand in Russell you can walk over the rocks at mid-low tide to Watering Bay (5 minutes). The start of the track is signposted through Kororareka Scenic Reserve.
At high tide, continue 500 metres up Wellington Street to a signpost on the left. After 5 minutes the even track joins the low tide track in the Kororareka Scenic Reserve.
The metalled, even track climbs gently through regenerating forest for 10 minutes, exiting at Titore Way.
Bear right and after 5 minutes the final 5 minutes to Flagstaff hill is signposted.
To return you can descend to the carpark between Flagstaff Hill and the lookout, from where a return to Russell is signposted along Wellington Street (15 minutes).
Hone Heke was one of the first chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, but quickly became disillusioned with the new laws of the colony. He decided to target the symbol of British power and in July 1844, with his followers, cut down the flagstaff. After re-erection in January 1845 he cut it down himself.
The threats of the guarding warriors of Chief Tamati Waka Nene were brushed off by Hone as he cut the pole down for a third time. The men didn’t want to be held responsible for killing a chief, so chose not to interfere.
After the construction of a blockhouse, Hone enlisted the help of Kawiti, who created a diversion while Hone cut the pole for a fourth time. This action led to Kororareka (Russell) being sacked and the defeat of Kawiti at Ruapekapeka. Both chiefs later surrendered to the British Forces.
When the flagpole was re-erected, the lower section was enclosed with iron.
A Symbol of British mana
Late 1830s New Zealand was literally at the frontier. Isolated by distance from the centres of global power, in the nascent stages of interaction between a rapidly-industrialising culture and one which was coming to terms with the new invaders, the problems of the colony were barely on the British Government’s radar. In the words of historian W.P Morrell, New Zealand was little more than a ‘nuisance’.
The British Colonial Office finally realised some form of workable policy had to be implemented and sent Governor William Hobson out in 1839 to formalise a working document. British Foreign Secretary Lord Normanby dispatched Hobson with the intent of securing a treaty of cession, whereby the sovereignty of the natives of New Zealand would come under the Crown. Furthermore, as Hobson stated, Maori would enjoy “.. a fortress for them against any foreign power which might desire to take possession of their country” – a veiled jibe at the French. The first Maori signature to embellish the Treaty of Waitangi was that of Hone Heke.
The manifestations of the Treaty were however, quickly realised as inconsistent with the understandings explained beforehand. As land was appropriated by Europeans, many hapu and iwi felt dispossessed, with a commensurate loss of power for chiefs to guide their people.
Hobson reacted in April 1840 by appointing George Clarke as first Protector of Aborigines. By 1841 over 800 claims were in the cogs of the Land Commission, however lack of formal documentation in the exchanges made the agency a lame duck. Furthermore, as Paul Moon writes in his biography of Hone Heke, “The New Zealand Company, which craved land to sell to settlers, denounced the very right of Maori to claim full ownership of their ancestral territories.” The treaty’s ineffectiveness began to embitter Maori such as Hone Heke, who resolved that where diplomacy failed, the next logical step was force.
The British had already tried military means to quell uprisings, by stationing troops around the colony. The Wairau Massacre of 1843 had unequivocally shown the incompetence of armed conflict in the face of ruthless chiefs such as Te Rauparaha and Rangihaeta. This lack of mechanism to impose authority sent fear into the European settlers, whose faith in their protectors verged on non-existent. For Heke, these insecurities were all-to evident, as he planned his own campaign to redress the imbalances. It was never his intention to harm the settlers, his issues lay with the Government and their imposition of power, interfering in Maori spheres of influence.
Heke was a descendant of Hongi Hika, also tracing his whakapapa back to Rahiri. Marrying Hongi’s daughter had also increased his mana within Nga Puhi. Prowess on the battlefield only massaged his enigmatic spectre over peoples, both Maori and European. However, as Moon notes, “In the great abyss of late nineteenth-century settler mediocrity, Heke came to personify all that had been feared about Maori…Yet, as Heke’s actions established, he was a complex man whose personality is impossible of reduction to the simplistic caricatures that was bestowed on him….
“…Physically, Heke had grown into a man who had the appearance of a leader. Solidly built and sharp-featured, his stern face was occasionally softened by a sly smile. His dark eyes, penetrating, keen and appraising, also contained a warmth that made him endearing even to some of his opponents. In addition he was seemingly fearless, and relished the struggle against opponents – both actual and anticipated.”
Being born at a pivotal time in Maori and European contact ensured Heke was well-versed in the ways of new emigrants. Moon concludes, “Heke emerged from the confusing cultural milieu, and the complex inter-hapu and iwi political framework, only gradually, but he was developing a defined political agenda…”
James Belich sums up Heke’s motives with aplomb. “He fought less to overturn the Treaty of Waitangi than to ensure the application of its Maori version. He wished to safeguard order, stability, and peace, through the energetic application of traditional law. He wished to preserve Maori local independence and the chiefly authority which protected it. He wished to regulate, not reject, European contact and settlement.”
Compounding the British inability to deliver on promises, establish coherent law and order, or resolve land claims, was Hobson’s decision in June 1840 to move the capital to Auckland. Mana had been transferred to traditional enemies Ngati Whatua. The rapid loss of trade to the Bay of Island brought on economic hardship to local Maori, who had only ever enjoyed an abundance of passing vessels. Imposition of customs duties diminished revenue and Maori found fewer jobs and markets for their produce. By 1844, the Bay of Islands was almost a backwater.
New Zealand Company lobbying in London had also succeeded in swaying official policy away from Maori land rights. Land under Maori ownership was seen as worthless until some evidence of European labour and capital had been applied to it. More drastically, any land not occupied by Maori was to be seen as under the dominion of the Crown. Although in reality this never fully eventuated, the seeds of discontent were firmly planted.
In November 1841 Hobson delivered a proclamation forbidding the cutting of kauri. In his view this was to save the forests. Maori argued it contravened their rights stated in the treaty and curbed their income. Maketu, a minor Nga Puhi chief was also hanged for murder on Robertson Island, the first imposition of British law to a Maori offender.
American traders were interfering in the already smouldering melee, by educating Heke of the American struggle for independence. Some reports even suggested more coercive elements were encouraging Heke to cut down the flagstaff. FitzRoy immediately reacted by issuing a proclamation to Police Magistrates, that “You will immediately prohibit the hoisting of any National flag, on shore, except that of Great Britain,” a measure he quickly U-turned, as the following day he received orders from London to ensure a multi-national tolerance on New Zealand shores.
Heke maintained he had a right to the pole used as the flagstaff. Claudia Orange in The Treaty of Waitangi continues: “it had originally been provided by him to fly the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, the Confederation of 1835…The New Zealand flag certainly flew on the Waitangi side of the Bay and Te Kemara, the major Waitangi chief, recollected his sense of personal loss when it was moved to Maiki Hill. According to Nene and other Bay of Islands chiefs, the flag had been forcibly taken down upon Hobson’s arrival and the staff later removed to Kororareka. Officials found it hard to persuade local Maori to re-erect the staff.” Heke had strong affirmations that the mana of the land was now embodied in the flag and its mono-focal government. This he felt should be re-dressed to include Maori. To Heke, if the Union Jack was to be flown, it should be alongside the New Zealand flag. Maori rangatiratanga was represented by the 1835 flag.
On 8th July 1844, Heke and his men entered Kororareka. As the Auckland Chronicle reported in a typically sensationalist and biased fashion, “they took everything out of [Lord’s] house, and then proceeded to the flag staff, which they deliberately cut down, purposely with the intention of insulting the government, and of expressing their contempt of British authority.” The old mizzenmast now lay toppled on the ground. Heke knew, as Belich states, “If the British could not protect the flagstaff of their largest settlement north of Auckland, what could they protect? And how much credibility could their claims to substantive sovereignty retain?”
Heke returned to his base in Kaikohe to watch the inevitable waves of repercussion. The missionaries advised Governor FitzRoy to refrain from re-erecting the pole, but his naval background was imbued with greater militaristic pride and the flag staff was once again instated. 250 British troops landed at the Bay of Islands, bent on subduing the rebels, but the soldier confidence was balanced by greater pragmatism on the part of their commanders.
On September 2nd, when FitzRoy finally returned to Northland after his pacifying visit to Taranaki, he met a cross-section of Maori chiefs at Waimate. A new-forged alliance was cemented by the chiefs, who agreed to replace the flag pole and prevent Heke from any further transgressions. FitzRoy listened to addresses from several chiefs, including Pakirau and Tamati Waka Nene, accepting a few muskets as a gesture of goodwill and retiring with greater promise of peace. He had agreed to Waka’s demands - that British troops be withdrawn from the region.
FitzRoy attempted to meet Heke with a summons to his residence, an offer Heke flatly refused, suggesting FitzRoy come to meet him. The request was accompanied by a letter. “Friend Governor, this is my speech to you. My disobedience and rudeness is nothing new. I inherited it from my parents, from my ancestors. Do not imagine it is a new feature of my character. But I am thinking of leaving off my rude conduct to Europeans. Now I say I will prepare another plea…and will erect it in its proper place at Kororareka in order to put a stop to our present quarrel. But let your soldiers remain beyond the sea at Auckland. Do not send them here. The pole that was cut down belonged to me. I made it for the native flag, and it was never paid for by the Europeans. From your friend, H.H.”
These remarks however lost their substance following a trifling incident on October 3rd. A member of Kawiti’s (Heke’s ally) tribe was hurt in a fracas with police. After a meeting of concerned parties at Otuihu, the situation was clarified. Peace was a long way off. At Heke’s insistence the 250 British troops stationed in the Bay had returned to Sydney, and Heke now sensed ascendancy. On January 9th 1845, while at Kororareka meeting local chief Tamati Pukututu, he again felled the flag pole. FitzRoy was helpless. Heke evidently felt no threat from British rule or force.
Four days later with the arrival of the Government brig Victoria, the Union Jack was once again hoisted, this time defended by 30 soldiers. These were hastily replaced with natives, the authorities believing Heke would not attack his own men. That evening Heke successfully persuaded the guards they would be killed if they resisted, and the flagstaff lay forlornly on the ground for a third time.
This further insult made FitzRoy aware that his fragile alliance with Maori tribes was an unsuccessful attempt at thwarting Heke’s determination. Many chiefs were related to Heke and would not fight for the sake of another power’s prowess. Furthermore, the principal ally, Tamati Waka Nene would not be able to muster a significant enough force to overcome Heke, nor was this his intention. The balance of power seemed to swing towards Heke, who overtly sent a rallying call to other North Island tribes by his symbolic exploits as a lumberjack.
Missionary, Henry Williams, who probably knew Heke better than any other European, felt able to reverse the situation by convincing potential followers to abstain from allegiances. These measures undoubtedly earned great gratitude from FitzRoy, but did little to diffuse the worsening situation.
Heke meanwhile knew that the governor’s pleas to Sydney and London for reinforcements would fall on deaf ears, so long as his provocations spared European lives. FitzRoy’s letters had requested further troops insisting “…the recent acts of open rebellion demand not only immediate help but permanent assistance.”
More troop did arrive in March, along with a Proclamation from FitzRoy. “Whereas a serious outrage was committed at Russell, on the 10th of January, instant, by the Chief John Heke, and a party of Natives, in defiance of the Queen’s Authority, and in opposition to Her Majesty’s laws.
“Now, I, the Governor, do herby proclaim and declare, that in order that the said John Heke may be dealt with according to Law, I will case the sum of ONE HUNDRED POUNDS to be immediately paid for his apprehension…..”
Heke was infuriated. “Am I a pig that I am thus to be bought and sold?” He offered a similar reward for FitzRoy. Tensions mounted and a musket proof guard house was deployed by the flagstaff along with 50 men of the 96th Regiment. Further minor skirmishes inflamed tempers and FitzRoy wrote to Foreign Secretary Lord Stanley with a grim prognosis. He needed troops – and lots of them.
By March 5th Kororareka was under imminent threat. When Williams met personally with Heke, the Maori chief seemed recalcitrant and attack seemed inevitable. All Heke needed was some form of provocation. This came from the British naval vessel Hazard, anchored off the beach, which fired a shot in the general direction of Heke’s men. The die was cast. Heke had his excuse.
But as Belich notes in The New Zealand Wars, it was never Heke’s intention to disturb settlers, but in fact to protect them. “Missionaries observed that the occupation of their settlements by the anti-government forces did far less damage than the occupation by the troops. Other than those fighting as volunteers beside the soldiers, no civilians were intentionally killed by the Maoris.”
On 11th March the attack began with a planned and co-ordinated three-pronged offensive. 200 Ngati Hine warriors under Kawiti advanced from Matauhi Bay, encountering by chance, a gun from Hazard Commander Robertson had positioned on the road to send an early warning signal to residents. After the first British casualty, Kawiti sent in a party to remove the gun and the battle started in earnest. In the half light of an eerie and misty morning musket fire reverberated around the hills. Robertson was injured and chief Pumuka killed, along with six of his countrymen.
Meanwhile, this diversionary tactic allowed the Kapotai hapu to commence fire, well-concealed by the thick forest around the town. With the British forces now engaged, the third front of 150 men, led by Heke himself, stealthily ascended the hillside, surrounded the block house defending the flagstaff, and flushed out the soldiers stationed there. The potent symbol was bowled a fourth time. Despite Heke raising a flag of truce for two women to be safely escorted from the blockhouse, the British incompetencies negated the offer and fighting continued. Heke’s brother personally escorted the women to town, to join the now-mounting exodus onto the Hazard and other waiting vessels.
Robertson’s injuries left him incapacitated and unable to command, a role taken over by Lieutenant Phillpotts, who inexplicably gave orders for the Hazard to bombard the town. The church was hit several times and the Maori warriors left confused. Why had those they let free now started hostile fire? Heke again raised a truce flag, allowing the dead bodies around the hill to be removed, an operation which also involved Heke’s men (it was customary for the dead to removed from the battlefield immediately). Bishop Selwyn later recalled the Maori behaviour “..was perfectly civil and inoffensive.”
Kororareka smouldered under the fires induced from the fighting and the blowing up of Polack’s powder magazine. A purple haze enveloped the town as the smoke lay languidly in the air. The following day some residents returned to a salvage whatever possessions they could, aided by Kawiti’s men. Then, while Europeans were still in the town, Phillpotts ordered a second volley of fire from the Hazard.
Heke gave his men strict orders. The mission church, Pompallier’s printery and the Catholic church were to be spared. Otherwise the destruction meted out by the Hazard’s guns was completed by the sacking war parties and civilians. As Belich wryly observes, “no general in the world could keep his men from plundering a town full of rum. Neutral Maoris, some of Waka’s allies, and even some Europeans, are also reported to have taken part in the sack. Heke went so far as to allow his desire to protect local Europeans to interfere with his war effort. He revoked his orders to destroy certain bridges when it was represented to him that these were used by civilians as well as troops.”
The 450-strong force of Heke and Kawiti had lost 13 men, with 28 wounded. British had lost around 20 men with 23 wounded. Belich concludes “the fall of Kororareka was neither the result of overwhelming numbers nor of British incompetence, but of precise Maori planning.” And the main agent of this military savvy was Kawiti.
This was the end of the beginning, as Moon points out. Heke left for Pakaraka then Puketutu, while Kawiti returned to Waiomio. For the conflict to be finally resolved would take almost another year. The final stage was Ruapekapeka Pa.
North Island ▷ Northland ▷ Russell
Really nice walk in the bush and beautiful view of Russell and all around. Worth it ! Take the flagstaff bush walk loop.
Quite a bit off the beaten track and well worth a visit. Love to learn the history of the area while taking in most awesome panoramic vistas. The tracks are well maintained.
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The views were good and I learned some New Zealand history.
van Linda Werner
Nice town, great view, travelled with ferry.
Access savings worth hundreds of $$ on Top Ranked NZ Accommodation and Activities for just $1 per day.
Nice view over the Bay of Islands.
Nice, new, easy 20 minute walk.
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Pretty little walk, good for a nice stroll to a good lookout over Russell.
Russell/Bay of Islands. Can be considered as an insider tip as not many travel guides recommend it. Amazing view over the bay and Russell.
Remy van Heugten
On top of the hill, just after Russell, you find a road going up the hill, take left to Flagstaff. There is a great path that takes you all the way down to a great lone beach and through the forest.
Lilja Bjork Hermannsdottir
Tip from a local. Gorgeous little path going to a well hidden beach. Alone in the world feeling.
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