Ruapekapeka Pa Track

Ruapekapeka Pa Track

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Time: 30 min return | Distance: 1.5 km loop

Ruapekapeka Pa was the site of the last battle between Government Forces and Maori in the Battle of the North from December 1845 to January 1846. The Pa has been thoughtfully preserved and lavishly interpreted with a series of explanatory panels, intricately detailing the mechanics of the battle. The pa site and battle field are jointly managed by the Department of Conservation and Ruapekapeka Pa Management Trust. Together they have expended a great deal of effort in constructing tracks and interpretation around the site.

Timing

The site is tapu, so you are asked not to bring food or drink past the gate.

Access

To reach Ruapekapeka from the south, turn right into Akerama Road, just north of Hukerenui. After 4.5 km this merges into Monument Road – keep left and after 2.5 km Ruapekapeka Pa carpark is signposted 300 metres further on. From the north, Ruapekapeka Road is signposted 1km north of Towai on SH1, 16km south of Kawakawa. It is a further 5km along the unsealed road to the parking area.

Track

The track follows a wide grass strip to the grassed area around the remains of the pa.
Entering the pa site proper, a mock palisade and carving lead to the remains of the earthworks. Hillocks and mounds mottle the hilltop with holes and ditches. Some are over a metre deep and you’d do yourself an injury falling in. One decaying cannon on a concrete plinth points in the direction of the attackers. It has turned the tables.

The extensive remains of excavations are labyrinthine and boggle the mind with the efforts of their construction. The double defensive ditch is decipherable on the northern side of the pa.

There is a 5-minute return walk to a large puriri, signposted from the top of the pa. This track is narrow and uneven.

Polynesian History

Maori and the British Government disagreed on the term ‘sovereignty’ in the Treaty of Waitangi. Maori believed they could still live as they wished, while the British assumed they had control over all facets of life. The Ngapuhu chiefs, Kawiti and Hone Heke, were the principal opponents to the British contingent. The battle effectively started when Hone Heke cut down the flagpole in Kororareka (Russell).

Under the leadership of Governor George Grey, troops were transported by boat and on foot to positions nearby. Guns were hauled through swamps and over bush tracks.

On 27th December around 700 troops marched from Taumarere and came up against the pa’s formidable defences. The pa was not only perched on a high point, but protective trenches, high walls and underground tunnels, to shelter warriors from mortar fire, were also constructed. Many remains of the former defences are still evident today.

By 11th January over 1500 troops were assembled and substantial artillery helped the pa to be seized. On the second day of the battle, Sunday, most Maori warriors retreated to the forest behind the pa to hold Christian services. They had wrongly assumed the Government Forces would cease fighting on the Sabbath.

European History

Maori and the British Government disagreed on the term ‘sovereignty’ in the Treaty of Waitangi. Maori believed they could still live as they wished, while the British assumed they had control over all facets of life. The Ngapuhu chiefs, Kawiti and Hone Heke, were the principal opponents to the British contingent. The battle effectively started when Hone Heke cut down the flagpole in Kororareka (Russell).

Under the leadership of Governor George Grey, troops were transported by boat and on foot to positions nearby. Guns were hauled through swamps and over bush tracks.

On 27th December around 700 troops marched from Taumarere and came up against the pa’s formidable defences. The pa was not only perched on a high point, but protective trenches, high walls and underground tunnels, to shelter warriors from mortar fire, were also constructed. Many remains of the former defences are still evident today.

By 11th January over 1500 troops were assembled and substantial artillery helped the pa to be seized. On the second day of the battle, Sunday, most Maori warriors retreated to the forest behind the pa to hold Christian services. They had wrongly assumed the Government Forces would cease fighting on the Sabbath.

Feature

Governor FitzRoy was severely rattled after Kororareka’s sacking. “Throughout the country great anxiety prevailed among the white population immediately, and for some time after the fall of Kororareka, - owing to the indefinite dread of the native population uniting against the white, under the excitement of the time, and plundering indiscriminately…” After the arrival of three refugee ships, bearing the landless, property-less and penniless escapees, Auckland residents feared they would be Heke’s next target. Even Reverend Williams harboured deep-rooted insecurities. “New Zealand is overturned from end to end!” The attack had even shaken the religious hegemony to the core, with Bishop Pompallier being accused of making Maori the children of the Devil.

Heke meanwhile had unshackled latent Maori grievances, although maybe not whole-hearted military support. However, on that front, his meeting with Te Ruki Kawiti was to prove crucial. The older chief’s military cunning and unassuming composure counterpoised Heke’s political prowess perfectly. Kawiti had been a staunch opposer at the Treaty signing ceremony, espousing, “We do not want to be tied up and trodden down...there is no place here for the Governor.” However, apart from this notable outburst, there seemed no reason why he should command any undue attention from the British authorities. This view prevailed until he met Heke.

The two had met on shaky ground. Heke presented the chief with a supremely valuable pounamu mere, which Kawiti unwrapped from its flaxen wrapping, to see smothered in excrement. Pondering his riposte interminably, he understood the metaphor, the club representing Maori and the faeces the British. Heke had assumed an ally, whose bonds strengthened after Kororareka’s sacking.

In contrast, Tamati Waka Nene’s allegiance with the British only sparked a threat of retribution from Heke. Their forces clashed several time after March 1845, both sides overtly strengthening their pas in April. Robert Burrows observed fighting around Te Waimate on numerous occasions. Waka’s views were expressed explicitly to George Clarke junior. “..Tell the Governor that I am fighting only for the Government, because I told Captn. Hobson that we should live with pakehas as brothers, that the Queen should be our mother and we her children, and I also told Captain FitzRoy that if the natives were inclined to do mischief or interfere with Europeans I would use my influence to prevent it.” Heke countered this show of support, purporting Waka was merely forging close ties to increase his stock of weaponry for impending attacks on iwi requiring utu.

FitzRoy meanwhile, keen to display some form of military spectacle to discourage would-be aggressors, lined up chief Pomare’s Pa at Otuihu,. With a show of force amounting to over 450 troops, Pomare was captured and the pa overthrown. Heke was informed of Pomare’s imprisonment during a meeting with Burrows, and threatened retaliation by capturing his guests. The situation was nervously diffused, but Heke was now beginning to feel irate.

Lieutenant Colonel William Hulme next advanced for Heke’s Pa at Lake Omapere. Puketutu Pa was Heke’s stronghold and Hulme reckoned a swift attack, capture of Heke, (alive or dead) would extinguish the rebellion immediately and all would then be happy families. On May 3rd the forces set out, but were delayed by torrential rain and thick scrub, which likened the advance to a rabble of invalids. Heke’s warriors meanwhile were working to strengthen the pa, initiatives which faltered under skirmishes with Waka’s men and several spates of desertion. Williams, commenting on the impending battle, saw inevitable loss of life, but his diplomatic attempts to divert fighting were without substance.

The pa was secured by strong palisades on three sides, leaving the fourth, facing the lake as the obvious route for attack. Kawiti arrived the day before the battle with over 100 troops, who stationed themselves in the surrounding forest. Hulme opened proceedings by launching a rocket, which to one Maori observer resembled a supernatural falling star. It missed its intended target, as did the successive shots. Kawiti’s men then launched their ambush and intense close combat took place. By the end of the day 13 British soldiers were dead and 39 injured. The rebels had lost 28 men, including Kawiti’ son.

Kawiti and Heke’s strategic planning had thwarted the British advance. Heke abandoned the pa, burning it to the ground and left to plot his next move. Fitzroy exulted in a so-called ‘victory’, no doubt churning out the propaganda to allay fears. In fact, as Belich points out on the Maori victory, “…Puketutu was won despite the disadvantages of a month of exhausting skirmishing with pro-government Ngapuhi, inferior numbers, and a weak position.”

Heke’s communication with Europeans died down in the following months, although one interaction with Burrows on May 26th struck a chord. Burrows impressed on Heke the words of Archdeacon Williams that the Treaty was his people’s salvation. Heke replied, “I suppose those rockets and guns fired at our pa at Mawe must be taken as evidence of the truth of what you say.” Heke had made his grievances clear in a letter to FitzRoy. “Friend the Governor - …Where is the correctness of the protection offered by the treaty? Where is the correctness of the good will of England? Is it in her great guns? Is it in her Congreve rockets? Is the good will of England shown in the curses of Englishmen and in their adulteries? Is it shown in their calling us slaves? Or is it shown in their regard for our sacred places?...”

Heke subsequently suffered a minor defeat at the hands of Waka’s men, who occupied a temporary pa at Okaihau. A further loss came when Heke’s pa at Te Ahuahu was attacked and taken. This spurred Heke to scout Northland for new supporters, including Te Kahakaha, who then perished during severe fighting in the efforts to re-take Te Ahuahu. Heke also received a musket ball through the thigh and retreated to plan the next move.

FitzRoy’s successful lobbying to Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales, succeeded in swaying his opinion to enlarge the forces, so by June Hulme had over 500 troops. Heke and Kawiti meanwhile commenced work on a pa at Ohaewai, one which they designed so meticulously, it would surely be impregnable. Puriri logs of the inner palisade were reinforced with fence posts, of such diameter it apparently took 30 men to hoist them into position. These were sunk over two metres into the ground and flanked by a ditch so deep, any opposing force would make easy pickings. Furthermore, this trench was not complete, but ‘traversed’ with undug sections linked only by a narrow communications passages, so only one a solitary section could be taken at one time. The fence’s design also incorporated apertures so muskets could be poked through and fired. The whole fortress was also ringed by an outer fence lashed with flax, a measure Kawiti devised that would deflect some power of enemy shot. Belich sums up: “In terms of construction, Ohaewai was the model for all future Maori defensive systems – the prototype of …. the modern pa.”

After a night’s march in the rain the 615 British troops arrived at Te Waimate, forlorn, disorganised and unmotivated. Resident caretaker Reverend Burrows sympathetically noted “The poor fellows had eaten nothing but the few biscuits they brought with them, they were apparently more hungry than sleepy, for at daylight they were looking for food in all directions.” Nevertheless, it must have been heart-wrenching to see his beloved station so pillaged. Burrows continued, “We had a considerable number of fowls, which have been accustomed to wander over the station; these were not made a present of to the soldiers, but it is no marvel that they disappeared, and found their way into the pots etc., named above, which was made apparent by their legs appearing above the tops of the utensils in which they were being cooked. A fair-sized tame pig, which had been accustomed to run about the settlement, was heard to squeak for the last time.” On one occasion Burrows remonstrated with a couple of soldiers who had eyed up a chicken. “They begged my pardon, and said they thought all was fair sport in war time.”

The wound to Heke’s leg forced him to retreat with his men inland, leaving Kawiti with just 100 men to defend the pa. After a week of incessant artillery fire, commencing on 23rd June, the impetuous Colonel Despard wrongly assumed this had weakened Kawiti’s forces. In fact Kawiti had independently invented the anti-artillery bunker, excavating pits roofed with timber supports and earth – a feature to later characterise Ruapekapeka Pa. Sparked by a daring and effective ambush by Kawiti’s men on Waka’s camp, Despard continued with his unpopular decision to attack and met with a willing a strong resistance.

Maori fire was likened to “…the opening of the doors of a monster furnace.” Kawiti had correctly surmised that to correct the number imbalances he would have to unleash fire from a safe position, from many angles and over a long period of time. His pa design had ensured this. One British soldier noted: “Not a single Maori could we see. They were all safely hidden in their trenches and pits, poking the muzzles of their guns under the foot of the outer palisade.” After the battle 41 men lay dead (on both sides) and over 70 injured.

Major Cyprian Bridge later noted the rebels “….assembled and danced one of the most savage and frightful dances I ever heard in exultation of their victory and defiance of the Pakehas.” As was customary, heads were taken, including Phillpotts’, whose respect as a warrior would facilitate the tohunga to predict the outcome of later instalments in the now protracted campaign.

In a final act of desperation, Despard continued bombardment with the 32-pound cannon, attempting to weaken the formidable defences. Kawiti, realising the futility of maintaining position in a weakening pa, slid out under darkness for Kaikohe, later to rejoin Heke at Tautoro.

According to FitzRoy, Heke now threatened the future condition of the colony. This view was substantiated by George Clarke, Protector of Aborigines, who in an official memorandum stated, “Until a complete overthrow is given to Heke, the British possessions in New Zealand are not worth having.” The point they missed was Kawiti’s Pa at Ohaewai represented a new era in Maori warfare. By under-estimating Kawiti’s military genius their attack had been unexpectedly thwarted. Heke had not even been present. Despard occupied the now-vacated pa and claimed a groundless victory.

Over the next five months a lull in the fighting allowed both sides to regroup. The British used Kororareka as a base, welcoming reinforcements both European and Maori. Kawiti and Heke moved inland, building on the lessons learned from Ohaewai to construct the most formidable pa British forces had ever encountered. The site for this fortress was Ruapekapeka.

The pa took six hundred men and women two months to build. It was the most formidable and sophisticated pa ever constructed. Historian Ormond Wilson described the defences. “It had double walls of heavy timber closely fitted together leaving spaces large enough only to serve as loopholes for musket fire, and within were trenches where the defenders themselves would be secure from bullets……..angles would also be built to project beyond the outer wall, from which enfilading fire could be directed against attackers at close range…His second innovation….was to sheath the outer palisade with bundles of green flax, to deaden the impact of musket and cannon balls. The third, at Ruapekapeka, was to transform the usual food storage pits into miniature dug-outs, where the defenders would be immune from shell fire.”

Governor FitzRoy’s repeated attempts to quash the rebellion were seen in London as displaying incompetency on his part. Lord Stanley decided the best course of action was to give him the boot, and dispatched a replacement, George Grey. Amassing information soon after his 23rd November arrival, Grey ascertained, “that there were strong grounds for believing Heke, who is an artful, designing young man, anxious for military fame, and of a turbulent disposition, was the chief mover in the rebellion.” Using Burrows as intermediary, he offered a new peace accord. This was flatly rejected.

Grey congregated over 1600 men, well-supplied and motivated, although understandably on edge. Under Lieutenant Colonel Wynard the force moved inexorably inland from the Kawakawa River, a journey of 18 miles which took them 3 weeks. Their baggage included 30 tons of artillery. Over 50 men hauled each of the three 32-pound cannons through the muddy forest tracks, but to gain the full potential of the arms, a position was chosen around 500 metres from the pa. A closer battery lined up the single 18-pound and two 12-pound Howitzers, four mortars, one six pound brass gun and two rocket tubes. By Christmas day they were within firing range. Torrential rain delayed a full onslaught, but sustained fire then continued for over a week, the persistent rain dampening both side’s will. Kawiti and his garrison stayed put while Heke arrived at the pa, slipping in from the rear.

Heke’s advice concurred with what Kawiti had already put into practice. “You are foolish to remain in this pa to be pounded by cannon balls. Let us leave it. Let the 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 kareoa; they will be easily killed amongst the canes as if they were wood-pigeons.”

British commander Maning wrote of the British offensive “We were almost deaf with the noise, and the air was full of cannon balls. The fence of the pa began to disappear like a bank of fog before the morning breeze.” The reality seems rather more subdued. On 11th January one of Waka’s men entered the breached outer palisade to find the pa apparently deserted. In fact Kawiti and 12 men were still resident, but they promptly retreated out of the pa and into the forest. From accounts by Major Bridge, it was clear a Maori exodus had already started, as the pa was empty of provisions. It had been intentionally evacuated rather than lost in the battle. As it guarded no tribal possessions, plantations or populations, had no economic or strategic importance, but was purely a design against a new form of warfare, it was easily abandoned.

James Belich cites Captain Collinson’s conclusion of the battle for Ruapekapeka. “1100 men were occupied a full month 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 of a drawn battle. The question is, was it worthwhile to go through all that laborious march to obtain such as result[?]” By focusing the British attacks away from areas of economic productivity and livelihood, Heke and Kawiti absorbed their energy in ultimately fruitless tasks.

Although the events leading up to the peace accord with Heke and Kawiti had been cemented by FitzRoy, Grey took the reward. Rather than punish the rebels, a measure he was wholly unable to do, he decided clemency was his only option. Kawiti was over 70 by now and Heke had became the most powerful leader in the North. Even at the end of 1846 Heke, accompanied by many of his warriors was able to enter the very British and rebuilt Kororareka. The Europeans were on edge, Heke’s power and mana preceded him. In fact his only task was to recover bodies lost in the previous year’s battle. A period of uneasy peace ensued. Grey and Heke finally met at Waimate in 1848, but by now the Maori chief’s health was waning, as tuberculosis took grip. He died in 1850.

In re-evaluating the significance of the Northern War, Belich is drawn to the fact that if you had to choose a winner “the least inaccurate is that Heke and Kawiti did. The defeat of British troops in a small war, by an inferior number of non-European enemies, was an extremely unusual event. It was a result, not of British blunders, but of the rapid and radical adaptation of the Maori military system.” Kawiti’s pas at Ohaewai and Ruapekapeka exemplified this.

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Reviews

Maettu's avatar

Maettu

Switzerland

Ranking: 5/10

There's not much to see from the pa. There are only holes and ditches covered with grass. You have to be careful not to fall into one.
There's only a gravel road to the pa.
It's only worth a trip, if you're really into maori history.

Reviewed over 10 years ago and experienced in January 2009

DOC Managed

Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍

Nick Morrison's avatar

Nick Morrison

Rankers owner