Marking the battle of Ruapekapeka Pa

10:26 am on 10 January 2016

In Northland, hundreds have attended a dawn service to remember the battle of Ruapekapeka Pa. The old pa site just south of Kawakawa is a special place for 19-year-old Phadray Brown.

Commemorating the battle of Ruapekapeka Pa.

Phadray Brown in the thick of it. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

As the sun rose on the pa site, local iwi and hapu commemorated the battle, which marked the end of the Northern Wars.

The service to pay homage to those who fought was attended by iwi representatives from around the country and several Maori politicians.

Aaron Taikato of the Department of Conservation, who works with local iwi to help maintain the historic pa site, said a lot of work had gone into restoring it.

"I remember coming to visit about 20 years ago, the first time I came up to Ruapekapeka and really it was just holes in the ground, it had been grazed by animals. So over the years we've purchased or swapped lands with those previous landowners to just bring it up to scratch and keep it well maintained."

More people are expected to attend a mass haka and further commemorations later this morning.

As the sun rose hundreds attended the dawn service for the battle of ruapekapeka commemoration.

As the sun rose hundreds attended the dawn service for the battle of ruapekapeka commemoration. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

Hundreds attend the dawn service, including Maori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell and other Maori MPs.

Hundreds attend the dawn service for the battle of Ruapekapeka Pa including Maori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell and other Maori MPs. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

A rich history

Many northern travellers speed past the turn-off not knowing it hides a rich history and is one of the nation's oldest battle sites. Not so for Phadray Brown.

From the top of the hill you can still see the dozens of trenches which Maori dug to hide from British troops, beneath them is a network of underground tunnels.

The battle started in December 1845 and the pā defences were breached after a two week bombardment in the new year of 1846.

The term 'trench warfare' was designed here and Phadray Brown is a direct descendant of the chief who had the foresight to develop them.

"Just knowing this is the first trench battlefield in the world, even that statement alone says a lot."

Yesterday morning Phadray Brown joined by hundreds of other warriors took his taiaha and retraced the footsteps of his great, great, great, great grandfather Te Ruki Kawiti.

The Ngati Hine chief and 500 of his men faced over 1000 armed British troops in the final assault which would end the Northern land wars.

Phadray Brown

Phadray Brown Photo: RNZ / Mihingarangi Forbes

"Just to be amongst the presence of my tupuna (ancestor) and think what they were capable of its massive for me, it's massive," said Mr Brown.

Just who won the final battle is not clear cut but about 30 Maori and 45 British soldiers lost their lives that morning 170 years ago.

Northland iwi and hapu preparing for today's commemorations marking the battle of Ruapekapeka Pā.

Northland iwi and hapu preparing for today's commemorations marking the battle of Ruapekapeka Pā. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

Phadray Brown has been training in the art of Maori weaponry since he was 10 and today he says it was the real thing.

"This is it, you don't get a kaupapa (occasion) bigger than this, than your tupuna (ancestors), and this is an occasion where all our tupuna participated in willingly for their people, so as their descendants we feel very humble."

Phadray Brown has been training for months and while he says his weapon skills are polished he says the spiritual preparation is more intense.

Phadray Brown's lineage to Chief Te Ruki Kawiti

Te Ruki Kawiti > Maihi Paraone Taura > Matauranga > Tiari Maihi Paraone > Ned Brown > Phadray Brown

Preparations started at 2am

The group of 300 warriors has been performing spiritual rituals since 2am, incantations to prepare them for the special task.

"That's when you depend on your wairua (spirit) to carry you through the day. Physically and mentally we prepare ourselves but this isn't just a powhiri like at a marae, this is a powhiri onto our pa where a lot of bad, a lot of hurt happened.

"We haven't had anything like this in my life time and I'm really excited and nervous."

Phadray Brown (centre, green top) practising ahead of today's commemorations.

Phadray Brown (centre, green top) practising ahead of today's commemorations. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

Phadray Brown grew up in Moerewa he's the oldest male grandchild of 20 and is the oldest sibling to six others.

It was important for his family that he was brought up with te reo Maori and a good understanding of Ngati Hine tikanga (customs).

He describes the various marae in Ngati Hine as his homes because he's spent so much of his life on them.

He's also grown to understand how significant his family lineage is too.

"When I first heard about Kawiti I thought yeah that's pretty cool but as I got older and heard the stories of what he actually achieved and who he was I feel quite humble to be his direct descendant."

Ruapekapeka battle commemoration

Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

The Northern land wars began in early 1845, it's believed tensions erupted around the time Hone Heke cut down the flagpole.

Before the Ruapekapeka battle other famous battles included Kororareka or Russell, Otuihu, Te Mawhe at Puketutu, Te Ahuahu and Te Tuki at Ohaeawai.

Visitors from Tuhoe, Tainui, Tauranga and throughout the North have arrived today to pay homage to those who fought in the battle of Ruapekapeka.

Phadray Brown says playing host as a descendant to these important guests is a humbling experience.

"I'm old enough now to appreciate how big the actual event was and what it must have been like and I have such a huge appreciation."

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