Kororareka was a major trading and ship provisioning centre. Located in the Bay Islands it had been the original capital of New Zealand. Although it had suffered a decline in trade it was still the fifth largest town in the colony. On 11 March 1845 Maori under Hone Heke and Kawiti defeated a defending British force and sacked the town.
The Maori plan of attack
Maori Order of Battle
- 150 Ngapuhi (Hone Heke)
- 150-200 Ngatihine (Kawiti and Pumuka)
- 150 Kapotai
The Maori attack was to begin simultaneously from three different points, the signal begin the rising of the dawn star (Pleiades) above the horizon. The first two attacks being a diversion for the third.
1. The Ngatihine hapu under Kawiti and Pumuka where to march upon the town from Matauhi Bay.
2. The Kapotai hapu was to attack in the centre from the hills above the town.
3. Heke with his own people was to take the flagstaff.
Neither of the first two forces were expected to push their attacks. The intention was to distract the British. Their job was to pin down the defenders by sniping from cover.
Having made the plan, the tohungas (priests) were called in, and threw darts to divine the result. The omens were good for Heke. On the other hand, Kawiti was to have a stiff fight with losses on both sides. Hone Heke makes no secret of his plan, and it is subsequently reported to the European authorities in Kororareka.
British defences in the town
The British forces in Kororareka were ordered to defend the town and not to initiate hostilities.
British Order of Battle
- Naval Brigade from H.M.S. Hazard:
- Acting-Commander Robertson.
- Lieutenant Phillpotts.
- Lieutenant Morgan.
- 87 marines and sailors; some serving as artillerymen.
- Detachment of the 96th Regiment of foot:
- Lieutenant Barclay.
- Ensign Campbell.
- 52 other ranks.
- ‘Civic Guard’:
- Police Magistrate Thomas Beckham
- 110 armed settlers
- 3 old cannon (9 pdrs and 12 pdrs), under the command of Mr Hector, a civilian.
- 1 small cannon from the Hazard.
- All guns were served by seamen with a few civilians.
- H.M.S. ‘Hazard’
- Although an 18 gun sloop Hazard only had 10 guns on board; one was on shore and seven others had been lost at sea.
The flagstaff on Maiki hill was shod with iron, and projected from a blockhouse. The blockhouse was in turn surrounded by a palisade and a wide and deep ditch. This bockhouse dominated the British position at the south end of town. Ensign Campbell with 20 men of the 96th were assigned as guards. A second blockhouse was lower down the hill, directly overlooking the house of Mr Polack. The lower blockhouse had a battery of three old guns under a civilian called Mr Hector. The guns were manned by seamen and some civilians. Polack’s house was transformed into a stockade for the reception of the non-combatants. Lieutenant Phillpotts commanded in the stockade. He had some of the sailors, the Civic Guard, the women and children, and the ammunition supply. Lieutenent Barclay commanded the main body of the 96th who were lodged in the barracks at the edge of town.
Gilbert Mair, a gentleman of high standing in the community and some knowledge of the Maori, reported Hone Heke’s plans to the authorities in Kororareka. The locals scoffed at the suggestion of a serious attack. With armed Europeans, cannon, fortifications, and the support of the Hazard, the town was full of confidence before the attack.
Acting-Commander Robertson paid some attention to the warning, landing a small cannon from the Hazard and a mobile force of 45 sailors and marines. The small gun from the Hazard and a picket was stationed at a narrow pass on the road to Matauhi. The idea was to fire a signal to warn of approaching danger. The other seamen were lodged in the town.
The Maori attacked while it is still dark, between 4 and 5 in the morning. Kawiti drove back the piquet at the small cannon, killing the gunner before it could be fired or spiked. The retiring piquet encountered Robertson with 45 sailors and marines moving up from the town. He had intended to dig an entrenched position above the road to Matauhi Bay. Robertson’s men formed line just in time to meet Kawiti’s advancing force. The fight was long and fierce, raging for several hours. Both sides suffered severe losses. Robertson was separated from his men and seriously wounded. Eventually Robertson’s men where forced back to town by superior numbers. They found their commander in the process. Robertson was taken to the stockade. Kawiti’s men settled down to deliver harassing fire from the bush.
Meanwhile the Kapotai were maintaining a brisk fire from the woods at the back of the settlement. Lieutenant Barclay moved some men to the edge of the town to return fire, but the bulk of the troops remained in the stockade. The guns at the lower stockade were used to little effect against the centre force of Maori.
At the flagstaff, Heke had concealed his men in the bush close to the blockhouse. At 4 a.m. Ensign Campbell left the fortification with five men. His intention was to entrench the heights above Oneroa beach. They had just started digging when the firing started on the Matauhi track. Campbell and his men returned to the blockhouse. As the rest of the guard turned out of the blockhouse to see the show. When only four were left, Heke and his men rushed the blockhouse and the remaining occupants were dispatched. After a brief fire fight, the British retired to the lower blockhouse. The flagstaff fell again.
The gunners at the lower blockade found themselves shot at from both Heke’s men above and the Kapotai from the side. Both Barclay and Phillpotts refused to send aid. Mr Hector and some volunteers from the stockade skirmished with the Kapotai, eventually driving them back. At 10:30 a.m. the Kapotai attack essentially ceased.
Lieutenant Barclay suggested to Acting-Commander Robertson that the women and children be moved to the vessels anchored in the harbour. This was done, and probably included a good number of the civic guard, because it was observed that only 68 were at their post in the stockade. A subsequent council of war (Phillpotts, Barclay, Campbell and Beckham) on the Hazard decided to evacuate the town. Mr Hector volunteered to hold the town with 40 men, but was overruled by Lieutenant Phillpotts, who as senior officer of the Hazard had now taken command. Meanwhile someone took the decision into their own hands and spiked the guns. The evacuation was then carried out.
After the evacuation was complete, the Maori entered the town. At 1 PM the magazine at Polack’s stockade exploded, with the loss of two men and three buildings. This was caused by men smoking near the powder. The Maori started looting the town. Lieutenant Phillpotts ordered the town to be bombarded.
The immediate result
Looting continued the on the 12th. Maori who hadn’t been involved in the attack joined the looters, as did several Europeans. Rev. Henry Williams and others recovered the bodies of the dead, plus some goods. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Phillpotts ordered the town to be bombarded again, on both friend and foe. That evening the town was set alight by a chief called Te Aho.
With the flagstaff down, the town sacked and burned, Lieutenant Phillpotts considered there little reason to stay at Kororareka. On the 13th, the British survivors sailed to Auckland. Kawiti retired inland to Waiomio, and Heke to Puketutu.
Total European losses in the attack were 13 killed, 23 wounded and £50,000 worth of property. In addition, six European looters were killed by the Maori on the evening of the 11th. Possibly they were too greedy, since other Europeans were coming and going freely. Maori losses are likely to have been 13 killed and 28 wounded.
The main effect of the battle was moral. Natives seizing a settlement protected by the British army and Royal navy was an extremely unusual event. No Europeans expected the attack to succeed. The loss of Kororareka sent the Aucklanders into a panic. Many sold their land and possession for low prices and left the colony.
Explanations for the disaster varied. One viewed it as an act of Divine Providence, Kororareka being viewed as a den of iniquity. More commonly explanations involved four factors, none of which have much substance. The factors involved:
1. Inflating Maori numbers, estimates ranging from 1000 to 2000 men.
2. Inflating Maori losses , estimates being 130+ killed and wounded.
3. Claiming Kawiti’s force was routed, thus offsetting the loss of the town.
4. Claiming the loss was due to the incompetence of the leaders or treachery. The military believed the missionaries betrayed the town.