Te Ruapekapeka was the final battle in New Zealand’s Northern War of 1845-1846, and was the first major conflict between iwi (Maori tribes) and the British Crown following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The Crown and iwi interpreted the Treaty differently, and iwi considered that Crown policies not only damaged the Northland economy, but also were a defilement of chiefly authority. However, the iwi leaders were not united, and several Ngāpuhi chiefs, motivated by old rivalries and fears about the balance of power within the region, either tried to remain neutral or sided with the Crown. There were more iwi fighting for the British than against them.
Te Ruki Kawiti (of the Ngāti Hine tribe) constructed the pā at Te Ruapekapeka over several months and it was the strongest pā built during the Northern Wars. Defended by a double pallisade of heavy logs, the pā’s extensive network of trenches, underground tunnels and deep, bomb proof shelters made the defenders almost artillery proof. By siting the pā deep inland on an inaccesible hilltop, Kawiti also ensured that the pā would be difficult for the British to reach and that assaulting troops would have to cross a narrow field swept by interlocking musket fire.
Governor Robert Fitzroy warned the troops “You will never surprise the New Zealanders, but they may frequently surprise you, unless a vigilence hardly known in European warfare be always, and at all hours, unremittingly exercised.”
It took a month for 1300 British troops commanded by Col Henry Despard and 400 Māori led by Tāmati Wāka Nene to drag heavy artillery over 20Km of rugged country to reach Te Ruapekapeka. After weeks of harassing fire against the pā, Despard ordered a massive bombardment on 10 January 1846, which breached the walls of the pā in two places. The British launched the attack and after prolonged and heavy fighting, Kawiti withdrew into the nearby bush and an intense firefight broke out amongst 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, and the Wars came to an end.
Capt Robert Marlow RE surveyed and drew the fortifications after the battle and the RSME at Chatham built some replicas for practice, anticipating further Māori conflict. Whilst it may be disputed whether Ngāpuhi invented trench warfare, their expertise certainly came as a nasty surprise at Ohaewhai earlier in the War, when Col Despard managed to incur 90 casualties in 60 mins with a very ill-judged frontal attack. Chief Tāmati Wāka Nene, who had expressly warned against it, to describe him as “a very stupid man”.
Prior to the event, the Colonel of the Regimental, Major General RW Wooddisse CBE MC sent a message to Te Ruapekapeka Trust which was exceptionally well received, with copies being framed and displayed in a number of marae (Māori meeting places).
On the day, the Regiment was represented by Nick Gordge, formerly of 5 (V) Bn Royal Anglian Regiment, who in conversation passed on the Regiment’s best wishes to the Trustees.
Should you ever be fortunate enough to come to New Zealand, you are highly recommended to visit this impressive unique battlefield, untouched from the time of the Battle and pay your respects at this new memorial.