On 8 May 1845, at Puketutu Pa on the shores of Lake Omapere, a small Maori force under Hone Heke repulsed a British assault with heavy losses.
Note: New Zealand History On-line: Puketutu and Te Ahuahu – Northern War refers to the Pa as Te Mawhe Pa with the location as Puketutu, but other sources consistently call it Puketutu Pa.
Late Apr 1845
Expedition under Lieutenant-Colonel Hulme sails to the Bay of Islands
30 Apr 1845
Hulme’s force burns Otuihu Pa, and arrests the local chief Pomare.
3 May 1845
Hulme’s expedition lands at Onewhero Bay. Immediately start the march of 15 miles to Lake Omapere, seeking Hone Heke.
7 May 1845
British arrive at Puketutu on the shores of Lake Omapere. Kawiti arrives by forced march to join Hone Heke.
The Maori defence
Maori Order of Battle
- 200 Ngapuhi (Hone Heke)
- 140 Ngatihine (Kawiti)
Puketutu pa was built on a slight eminence. It was square in shape, but zigzagged at the corners in order to bring a crossfire to bear. There was a strong double or triple palisade on three sides. The palisading was caulked with green flax to prevent bullets passing through. Loopholes were contructed at the bottom of the palisade. Heke hadn’t had time to complete the last side, which was only protected by a light fence. Heke’s men manned the defenses. Kawiti’s stayed outside in the bush, although he had arrived the day before.
The British attack
British forces (known as the Red tribe):
- 300 men of the 96th and 58th including:
- 96th under Lieutenant-Colonel Hulme:
- Included Lieutenant McLerie and Ensign Campbell.
- Probably only one company, possibly the light company.
- 58th (seemed to considerably outnumber the 96th) under Major Bridge:
- Light company under Captain Denny and Lieutenant Elliot
- At least two other companies.
- 96th under Lieutenant-Colonel Hulme:
- 120 seamen and marines under Acting-Commander Johnson (Naval Brigade).
- 40 European Volunteers from Auckland under Mr Hector:
- Friendly Maori from Hokianga under Tamati Nene Waka:
- 250 Ngapuhi.
- 40 Ngati-Pou (under Hakaraia?).
- Naval Rocket Brigade under Lieutenant Egerton:
- 2 rockets.
- Eight seamen.
British Order of Battle
The general plan seems to have been to surround the pa, terrify the defenders with rockets, and then capture the pa with an irresistible rush at the weakest point. Hulme’s plan involved three forces. The right of the pa faced the lake and was not to be watched. The main force would concentrate on the side of the pa closest to Okaihau. This comprised two companies of the 58th under Major Bridge and the Naval Rocket Brigade. He kept the men behind a ridge about 150-300 yards in front of the pa. The rockets were fired from the top of the rise. The rockets provided only entertainment value, most going over the pa.
The second force was the friendly Maori under Tamati Waka Nene. His men were posted on the left, between the pa and the fringe of the neighbouring bush. Most of the friendly Maori would not participate in the assault. They expressed the belief that the “This was not a war-party; it is a funeral procession.” A belief inspired by the litters the British brought with them to carry the dead and wounded. Tamati Wake Nene was left with 40 men. The rest retired to Taumata Kakaramu Hill to watch.
The main attack would come from a hill in the rear of the pa. Hulme was aware of the weakness of the rear wall, and sent 216 of his best men to attack it. The assault party consisted of the 58th Light Company, a detachment of the 96th, and the balance drawn from marines and sailors. This group moved around the left of the pa, under heavy fire. Kawiti attacked them in the rear before they could commence their assault on the pa. Leaving 60 men to face the pa, the remainder of the assault party engaged in close combat with Kawiti’s men. Just as the assault party was getting the upper hand, a small force sallied from the pa and drove back the 60 men facing it. This attack was signalled to Kawiti by hoisting flags over the pa; a British Ensign and a small red flag on a separate staff. The main assault force turned to drive Heke’s men back into the pa. Kawiti again attacked the assault force in the rear, but was driven back. By this time the British assault force had lost a quarter of its men and the remainder were exhausted.
After several hours of ineffectual fire on the pa, Hulme ordered a withdrawal, abandoning the dead.
British losses were 13 killed and 39 wounded. Maori losses were probably similar, Heke losing five killed, and Kawiti 23 killed. The Maori had a high proportion of killed to wounded, because the British slew some of Kawiti’s injured.
The Maori victory at Puketutu was gained after a month of skirmishing with pro-government Maori, with inferior numbers, and in a weak position. The defeat of a strong force of British regulars increased support for the anti-government side. However, most significantly the Maori learnt an important lesson. Maori warriors could not defeat British regulars in the open. Kawiti’s men had fought well, but were twice driven back by the assault party. This had a profound effect on subsequent Maori tactics. They would never try it again.