1 Dec 2017

The Battle of Ruapekapeka

From NZ Wars: The Stories of Ruapekapeka, 4:00 pm on 1 December 2017

A beginning and an end. A battle with no victor. A pā built to fend off a superpower - defended, then abandoned.

The Battle of Ruapekapeka is a tale of unanswered questions but 172 years on, what's clear is the importance of the Northern Wars and the impact they still have in Northland today. To help understand that impact, this podcast looks for answers to some of those key questions.

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Photo: RNZ / Great Southern Television

How were Māori able to adapt to gunpowder weapons so quickly? Where did Kawiti get his inspiration for the revolutionary pā and how did he survive 10 days of British bombardment? Was this really the invention of trench warfare?

The Battle for Ruapekapeka contains a host of mysteries. For one, nobody knows for sure where Ngati Hine chief Te Ruki Kawiti got his inspiration for the revolutionary design of the pā.

Some historians suggest the deep trenches and artillery bunkers dug inside the pā could be an evolution from earlier designs used in the Musket Wars.

“The Musket Wars from the 1810s to the 1830s brought a huge evolution in how māori fought,” says Ministry of Culture and Heritage historian David Green. “Traditional pā were changed quite markedly in that period so they would resist musket fire and even artillery because artillery was used by many iwi during the Musket Wars.”

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Some of those earlier innovations included building thick palisades and covering whare inside the pā with earth. Kawiti was a veteran of the Musket Wars and would have seen how these designs performed in battle first-hand. Photo: Supplied

According to one story, Kawiti was hunting for tuna (eel) and took inspiration for Ruapekapeka (translated as ‘bat’s nest’) from how the animals hid in tunnels under the riverbanks.

Ruapekapeka Trust Chair Peeni Henare, a descendant of Kawiti, says others have more mystical explanations.

Peeni Henare

Peeni Henare Photo: Photography By Woolf

“When I grew up our tupuna always talked to us about astral-travel and how our ancestor were able to do that, travel to distant places ‘a wairua’ - in spirit,” Henare says.

“[Kawiti] clearly saw something in a world that we didn't see, that we didn’t know. He was able to have an out of body experience to be able to coordinate exactly what went on here.”

The greatest riddle of Ruapekapeka is the battle’s ending.

After a final earthshaking bombardment by 30 tons of British artillery, scouts slipped through breaches in the palisade to find the pā all but empty. All food and ammo reserves had been removed and just a handful of defenders remained inside, including Kawiti himself.

An old-fashioned explanation is that the majority of Kawiti’s forces had left the pā for Sunday prayers, expecting British commanders to honor the Sabbath. Historians today treat that explanation with extreme skepticism, pointing out that the British had previously continued bombardment on Sunday in earlier battles in the Northern War.

Ruapekapeka re-enactment for Great Southern Television, 2017

Ruapekapeka re-enactment for Great Southern Television, 2017 Photo: supplied


Another more widely accepted explanation suggests the abandonment of Ruapekapeka was a tactic; Kawiti and his small group of troops were the bait for a trap.

“For the British the person of Kawiti was very important,” says historian and author of The Great War for New Zealand, Vincent O’Malley. “His capture or death would have been an enormous blow against Ngāpuhi.”

When the British stormed the pā Kawiti’s men fired one volley, then fled out the rear. A larger group of Māori warriors were in the bush behind the pā, presumably waiting to ambush the troops.

Historian Vincent O'Malley

Historian Vincent O'Malley Photo: Supplied

If so, that ambush was sprung prematurely. Kawiti and Heke’s warriors attacked the redcoats before they were drawn into the bush.

“Supposedly the rumour got around Kawiti was still in the pā and had been captured or killed by the British,” says David Green.

“His men were determined to go back into the pā to rescue him or retrieve his body and it took a while for them to be convinced that in fact Kawiti was with Heke behind the lines. By that time the British officers had gained some control over their men and prevented them from charging into the bush – although a number of them did and were killed.”

But even this explanation leaves some questions.

If Kawiti’s plan was to ambush the British all along, surely it would have made more sense to carry out that ambush while the British and allied Māori troops were marching to Ruapekapeka, encumbered by heavy equipment and strung out in a marching column?

Moreover, Kawiti’s previous experience at the Battle of Ohaeawai had proven he could inflict devastating casualties from an entrenched position. Why abandon a winning strategy?

“Kawiti had won his victory [at Ohaeawai] by almost goading them into a frontal assault and mowing them down when they were 30 or 40 metres away. It would be reasonable to guess he was hoping to repeat that on a larger scale [at Ruapekapeka],” Green says.

He speculates the difference may have been that the British bombardment did actually breach defences at Ruapekapeka. Holes were blasted in the thick wooden palisade in three places. That’s something the redcoats failed to achieve at Ohaeawai.

Green, of Ngai Tahu and Pakeha descent, says it’s possible Kawiti decided these breaches would make the pā too difficult to defend and came up with a plan for an ambush instead.

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The final enigma of Ruapekapeka is the historical significance of its design. Photo: RNZ / Great Southern Television

In his 1998 documentary The New Zealand Wars, historian James Belich famously stated pā like Ruapekapeka were evidence of “the Māori invention of trench warfare”.

While it’s certainly true that Maori did invent trench-based defences without any offshore aid, this claim prompted an ongoing firestorm of controversy among military historians. Many pointed out there are accounts of trenches being used as part of military defences as far back as ancient Roman times and possibly earlier.

Moreover, there’s no evidence Kawiti’s sophisticated defences inspired later trench-based defences used in the American Civil War or the First World War.

Green says British engineers did take detailed notes of the design of Ruapekapeka and that British commanders who faced similar defences in the Waikato War even taught at Sandhurst Military Academy.

“But my understanding is that in the curriculum it didn’t teach anything related to what you’d think they would have learned in Waikato,” says Green. “Whatever they learned on the spot didn’t become part of formal military study. It seemed like similar defences against artillery had to keep being reinvented.”

The site of the Battle of Ruapekapeka.

The site of the Battle of Ruapekapeka. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

Which begs the question, why didn’t the British learn from Ruapekapeka?

Green answers, “I think it’s partly that European officers didn’t think they had anything to learn from indigenous military experts, even when the evidence that they did was staring them in the face… We all know the jokes about military intelligence.”

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