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The Battle of Ruapekapeka

01 February, 2021

Photo credit: Storming of the Pa at Ruapekapeka, 11th January 1846, 1846, New Zealand, by John Williams. Purchased 2000 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (2000-0008-1).

Te Ruapekapeka, was the last battle of the Northern War of 1845-1846, which was the first major conflict between the British Crown and iwi to follow the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840.

Hōne Heke Pōkai (Ngāpuhi) and Te Ruki Kawiti (Ngāti Hine) led the resistance to the Crown because of its  disregard for tino rangatiratanga, but iwi leaders were not united. Other Ngāpuhi chiefs, led by Tāmati Wāka Nene, sided with the Crown.

In the early battles, Heke and Kawiti fought largely defensively from behind the walls of stoutly-built ‘anti-artillery’ pā, exacting a heavy toll from assaulting British infantry.

Kawiti’s pā at Te Ruapekapeka, constructed over several months, was the mostly strongly-built of all. Defended by a double palisade of heavy Puriri logs, the pā was named Te Ruapekapeka because its trenches, underground tunnels and deep, bomb-proof shelters made it resemble a ‘Bats’ Nest’.

It took a month for the British forces and their allies, consisting of 1300 British commanded by Colonel Henry Despard and 400 Māori led by Nene, to drag heavy artillery over 20km of rugged country to reach Te Ruapekapeka.

The artillery included three massive 32 pounders and a range of other cannon, mortars and rockets. Kawiti and Heke’s forces numbered no more than 500 warriors, armed only with muskets and two light cannon.

After weeks of harassing fire against the pā, Despard ordered a massive general bombardment on 10 January 1846, which breached the wall in two places. The following morning Nene’s scouts reported that Ruapekapeka appeared to be empty, for reasons that remain contested. Kawiti and around a dozen of his men, however, were still inside when the British launched their assault.

After heavy fighting, Kawiti withdrew into the nearby bush and an intense firefight broke out among the trees. Twelve of the British and an unknown number of Māori were killed before the firing eventually fizzled out.

Peace between the iwi leaders, and between iwi and the Crown, soon followed. All sides wished to bring an end to a war which had expended enormous resources and cost many lives.

Now, 175 years on, Te Ruapekapeka is in a remarkable state of preservation. But over the years many of the features on the battlefield, including the grave of 12 British troops who died in the battle, have faded from view.

Beginning in 2012, with the support of Te Ruapekapeka Trust and the Department of Conservation, investigations of the site led by archaeologist Jonathan Carpenter have rediscovered many of these features.

Much of this work focused on the area of the former British camp, which for many years was least understood or protected part of the battlefield. It was here, according to the diary of Alexander Whisker, a soldier who fought at the battle, that the British troops were buried.

Early efforts concentrated on locating the camp's defensive ditch and breastwork, and it was in the course of this work that the first hints of a rectangular gravel-like feature were discovered.

In December 2017, a further excavation confirmed that this feature was the long-lost gravesite of the 12 men.  Among the finds was a clay pipe, as well as items of uniform and personal equipment All these items were lift exactly where they were found when the gravesite was reclosed.

A memorial to the twelve British soldiers, sailors and Royal Marines who died in the battle will be unveiled on 3 February 2021, as a lasting symbol of remembrance, courage, determination and sacrifice for all those who fought at Te Ruapekapeka.