The Hone Heke Story

The year is 1850. Or is it 1851? Either way, we must go back to June 1845, to Kororareka beach, to the man sitting at a table in the small, lamp-lit back room of his frontier store. His name is John Weavell, and he’s momentarily stuck. He reads again what he has written..
..and now commences the most eventful period in the history of New Zealand and which has caused as great a sensation (I have no doubt) at home as anything that has happened for many years. In June 1844 a native chief named Hone Heke came to Kororareka beach to demand utu from a woman who was one of his slaves some years since for an insult she had given by calling him a “pig,” one of the greatest insults to a chief which can be given. This woman, now named Lord, having married a whaler of that name, came running to me to intercede for her with Heke who threatened to take her away as well as her property, and with her husband being in Auckland at the time, she was considerably alarmed.
Heke was at this time seated on the beach opposite my store surrounded by fifty of his tribe and wrapped in his blanket so that scarcely more than a forehead could be seen. The woman mustered all her Maori friends who did all they could for four hours to pacify him by bringing him blankets, gown pieces, handkerchieves, in fact all sorts of things, throwing them into the midst of their circle, and when he found that he had exhausted their means, he coolly ordered the goods to be placed in one of his canoes and then marched the poor woman into his own canoe after all.

Hold up. Heke is seated on the beach at Russell. What was on his mind? It was this..
“The hero is the nipple of his tribe, well placed, imagined to be a little larger than life. ‘Pig’ the woman called me. Perfect. And that the matter doesn’t rest here I’ll take the woman, and see if her husband doesn’t come running.”

When her husband returned from Auckland he went to Heke’s pa and demanded his wife. Heke demanded more payment and Lord foolishly promised him a gun, tobacco etc, and brought his wife away. Early in July, then, Heke came to Kororareka for his promised payment but Lord had nothing. This enraged Heke and he began to destroy the house. This brought forth the police magistrate and his party, but Heke deliberately told the magistrate to go home and be quiet or else he would send him off Kororareka beach altogether.. he had no business there, or the Queen either, and that he intended pulling the flagstaff down for it was that which drove all the shipping away and caused them, the Ngapuhi, to have no trade now.

What Heke was saying was true. Since the treaty of Waitangi, which he himself had signed four years earlier, the benevolent English had begun taxing all and sundry, and with a higher rate being applied to ‘foreigners,’ they had by this method driven away the American whalers.
“You think I don’t see through that treaty? Shall I gawp and swallow like a fish with legs while my people are robbed?

Should we starve because you have forced the whalers away? You are mistaken, mister paper magistrate! This is my land, the land of the Ngapuhi, and it is not yet made of paper!”
Heke turned his back on the magistrate and seemed to search the waters of the Bay. His men were already waiting with the canoe, half on the beach and half in the water.
“Do you like Thursdays?” he asked. “I like Thursdays. Thursday next, when I return, the flagpole goes.” So said John Heke to the magistrate.

As to the chopping down of the flagstaff, the magistrate smiled at the threat but it was found that Heke was to his word, for the very day he said he should come..

“It begins, it begins!
Hear the sparrows chirp like mad!
How sweet the taste of an axe..
Niaaaoou poonk! falls the flag
Tears? Who me?
But this instant I’m in ecstasy!”

After pulling the flagstaff down, Heke told the magistrate that if another was put up he’d have it down too. A second staff was put up and Heke, true to his word, came two days after and..

“It’s begun! It’s begun!
You’ll protect our freedom? What a dag!
I’ve never had so much fun!
Whhhiiouu pooka! goes the flag
You see done what before you heard.
Hypocrites! Believe your eyes!
I am my word!”

Before the chopping down of this second flagstaff Heke had written to Governor Fitzroy asking for a meeting to discuss the matter. He received no reply. However, upon hearing of this second affront to Her Majesty’s empire Fitzroy did, by proclamation, offer a hundred pounds reward for Heke’s capture. To this, Heke, according to his sense of fair play, offered a hundred pounds for Fitzroy’s capture.

A third flagstaff was soon erected. Indeed, Fitzroy had outlawed the flying of any but the British flag at the Bay. Within days Heke was once more at Kororareka beach. This time leaving his men below, and despite the presence of Tamati Waka Nene’s men (Nene having sworn to the Governor to keep Heke in line), he made his way up the hill and chopped the flag into pieces himself.

“It begins, it begins,
it begins again!
So many beginnings
for but one end.
Devourer of the skies
divide! divide!
For the devourer of the earth
does multiply.”

The deed done, Heke walked back down to the beach, boarded his canoe and set off home across the Bay, the Stars and Stripes fluttering nonchalantly from the stern.

A party of thirty soldiers was sent from Auckland to protect a fourth flagstaff which was in due time erected, the lower part cased in iron. A block-house was built and a moat of considerable dimensions and depth was dug around it. Before midnight on March 10th, 1845, a select number of Heke’s men placed themselves among the scrub in the gully some eighty to a hundred yards below the block-house where they awaited the dawn of day, at which time they crept up to within about thirty yards of the flagstaff. Some of the guard of the block-house, not suspecting the enemy so near, and hearing a movement in the town, opened the door of the block-house, threw the plank used as a bridge across the moat, and proceeded tool in hand to the unfinished breastwork.

Patience. A sun was about to rise. A glorious pink of life that was the food of trees was sure to climb its way above the horizon. Upon sight of the first ray of this same sun, Kawiti (chief, devout pagan, fully seventy years old and fighting fit, and ally of Heke’s) would lead an attack on the township of Kororareka so as, among other things, to distract the soldiers at the block-house.
Only one thing more need be mentioned before this scene is set and that is Heke’s fascination with animals. The number of different kinds of land mammal that Heke had seen with his own eyes was no more than about six or seven: pigs, rats, dogs, and some few recently imported domestic animals. For apart from birds and the native bat, and the small number of species introduced, New Zealand had no animals of its own. Heke had been amazed to hear of the many strange and wonderful creatures that existed in other parts of the world according to the testimony of the pakeha he had talked to. And he had made the pakeha draw them, and colour them in, and explain their natures, and cry their cries..
But enough! The sun is rising! Heke is crouching with his men in the scrub. The soldiers’ minds are elsewhere..

Heke and his men stormed the block-house, routing the soldiers, and a fourth time gained possession of the flagstaff.
The soldiers who were not shot found their way down into the town. The labour of destroying the flagstaff was not small, and required time. During the operation a constant fire was kept up from the HMS Hazard, a man-o-war in the Bay, but in the course of an hour and a half the flagstaff fell.

“It’s done! It’s done!
We’ve won the war for the piece of rag!
And a fourth time I drop my prize..
after all, it’s just a flag.”

Heke looked around at his men. “I say chaps. I’m famished. Anyone care for a spot of breakfast?” he ventured in as much of an English accent as he could muster.


Now I am sure it is 1850. Five years later. Heke was dying, bleeding to death. Bandages and dressings were not enough to stem the flow for he was bleeding from within, slowly but surely pouring himself out on the land he had fought to save from being turned into paper. He sat outside his whare looking at the stars, at the myriad lights which cast no shadow, and which were perfect unto themselves.
The past? What of it?

May 7th, 1845. Troops sent from Auckland were disembarking at Russell to join Tamati Waka Nene in putting an end to this nonsense of Kawiti and Heke’s. Nene had an old score to settle with Heke and relished the thought of paying it back with the British army to help him. Meanwhile, Heke and Kawiti had built a fortified pa at nearby Mawe. On May 9th the two sides met in battle. As the day wore on the pa proved itself to be impregnable to the outside forces and most of the fighting proper took place on the surrounding plain, much of this being hand to hand. At the height of the battle Heke had the Union Jack raised within the pa.
“Flags. Everywhere flags, flags, flags,” said Heke as he watched it go up. “What the hell.”
Some of the troops, thinking that the pa had been taken, hurried to join their victorious comrades and were understandably surprised to be met with a barrage of fire from Heke’s guns.

On May 11th, after a day of rain on which the Reverend Robert Burrows, Heke and others buried the dead (Maori and pakeha, the troops having withdrawn to Kerikeri).. on the night of May 11th Heke and Kawiti abandoned their pa and after some days commenced the building of a new pa at Ohaeawai.

May 23rd, from the diary of Reverend Robert Burrows: A messenger brought a letter from Heke to be sent to Archdeacon Williams, who was to forward it on to the Governor. As he had read the letter to his people in my presence, I am acquainted with its contents, but do not feel at liberty to quote any portion of it. Suffice it to say that it displayed a great amount of independence and he said it was for the Governor to decide whether there should be further war or not, as he was on his own land, meaning thereby that he should not seek for further hostilities but wait for the soldiers to come to him if the Governor wanted more fighting.

May 26th, from the same diary: Saw Heke today. The treaty of Waitangi came under discussion. To my reply that I fully concurred in what Archdeacon Williams had again and again told him, namely, that that document was their salvation, he looked at me and said “I suppose those rockets and guns fired at our pa at Mawe must be taken as evidence of the truth of what you say.”

June 6th. Saw the government brig and another vessel entering the Bay. Later in the day heard that two other vessels are behind with more troops; that the whole force including volunteers when all have arrived will amount to over six hundred besides Nene’s men, who are approximately three hundred.

June 12th. Heke and his men attack Nene’s camp and after a day of the fiercest fighting both sides retire with heavy casualties, one of whom was Heke himself, shot through the thigh whilst dragging one of his comrades to safety. On June 24th, the troops besiege Ohaeawai pa. Heke, meanwhile, had removed to Kaikohe and was there recovering from his wound. A week into the siege and the British forces’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Despard, frustrated by the lack of success of his cannon and rocket fire against the pa’s defences, orders the pa to be stormed. Within minutes of the sounding of the charge over a hundred British soldiers have fallen, and a retreat is ordered. Ten days later, having proved his eight week old pa to be immune to British subjects, Kawiti deserts the pa overnight. Within the next few months he builds another at Ruapekapeka.

In November, the new Governor, George Grey, arrives to take the place of Governor Fitzroy. He reiterates Fitzroy’s demand that, in compensation for the cutting down of the flags, Heke must forfeit a large part of his land to the government, in a letter to Heke signed “George Grey. The new Governor.” Heke replies that he is not about to give up any land, and that if the Governor wants it he’ll have to fight for it like any other upright citizen, signing himself “the new Hone Heke.”

New year’s day, 1846. The troops, reinforced by more soldiers sent out in two ships, one from India, one from China, and now commanded by Governor Grey himself, reach Kawiti’s pa at Ruapekapeka. Two days later, Heke and his men arrive to join Kawiti in the defence of the pa.

Sunday, January 4th, from Burrows diary: Neither the force outside the pa, nor the enemy inside, calculated upon this being the last day of fighting, although as I heard afterwards from some of the natives who were in the pa, there had been a talk of deserting it shortly, and they had no intention of allowing themselves to be surrounded, but had made every preparation to leave the pa before their avenues of escape should be closed.
On this Sunday morning, with a view to hold their religious services without being exposed to the fire of the guns, which from past experience they could not calculate would not be used on that Sabbath, the great body of those within the pa left it by the ‘back door,’ and dividing themselves into two or more parties, were engaged in worship when a few of Nene’s men, having probably surmised from the lack of voices or noise in the pa how they were employed, made their way towards it, and meeting with no opposition, they were quickly followed by others, and in a short time the pa was virtually in the hands of the troops.

But here we must interrupt the Reverend. Heke and Kawiti knew that the pa, complete with its trenches and underground shelters (a thing the troops had never before seen) in all likelihood could not be taken by the British. If any real fighting was to take place it would happen outside the pa. They considered that if a conclusive victory was to be gained over the British they would need to draw them into the forest surrounding the pa. And so they formulated a plan whereby they would desert the pa on the Sunday, in daytime, hoping that the soldiers would follow them into the forest. For once, they miscalculated, for as it turned out, the loyalist Maori now in possession of the pa, realizing that their enemy was still close by, began hurling insults in their direction. And so the war ended as it had begun, with insults. For as Burrows says: The rebels made a strenuous effort to regain possession, but after an unsuccessful struggle lasting several hours, the rebels retreated, and Her Majesty’s forces were left in possession of the place.
The pa was partially demolished, and the whole force shortly afterwards returned to the Bay. In a short time a proclamation appeared allowing all who had been in rebellion against Her Majesty to return in peace to their homes. As far as I could gather, the number of Heke’s and Kawiti’s men at no time exceeded four hundred.


1850 is surely running out. Heke was very weak. He knelt down to say his prayers before going to bed. Hone Heke had fallen in love, if such could be said, with saying his prayers. In a dream once, Jesus had appeared to him, so that when he prayed he would picture Jesus standing before him so, and then, upon saying hello, Heke would begin by relating what had happened during the day, how such-and-such a building was going, what the next steps would be. Who had arrived just after lunchtime and was a particular pain in the ass. Who was to give birth any day now and whether it would be a boy or girl. And they would talk about the pakeha, or they would wonder if a particular piece of bush would yield many pigs, and pretty soon they would be talking about strange animals with strange markings, animals with three toes, or those with noses as long as a tent pole. Some who cried like the full moon, others leaping a nikau palm in a single bound. Or the peoples themselves, each with his own outlandish way, some black, some yellow, or brown.. and the trees which were different. Or then, the waterless, dizzying lands.
And every now and then, when he prayed, Hone Heke and Jesus would end up talking about the pakeha and how the pakeha had wanted to take away Hone Heke’s land, and everybody else’s land, even the whalers’ houses at the Beach who were pakeha themselves, but that Hone Heke would rather die first, and that Hone Heke was a man of his word. That the treaty was a trick to steal the land from the Maori, and how the pakeha had a mania for paper because he didn’t have a very good memory. And maybe that suited them not to have so very good memories. But anyway, what was the use of being free without some room to move?
Heke stood up, went inside and, coughing all the time, climbed into bed.
Now he was lying beside his wife. Hariata, for that was her name, was a princess from tip to toe. To begin with, she was the daughter of Hongi Hika, the mention of whose name was during his lifetime enough to make the person who valued his skin shake in his boots, that is assuming he had any, which is doubtful. Hariata herself was a petite woman, dignified, graceful, a representative chieftainess. She was also strikingly beautiful. Her hair fell in shiny black ringlets about her face, a face of pale complexion, the chin and mouth strong and thin and somewhat cruel. Her small, exquisitely shaped hands and feet would have been the envy of any lady of high society of the time. As for Hariata, she was high society and it suited her down to the ground.
“My Hone,” she said softly. “What will I do with you?” Her husband was silent. Neither had it gone unnoticed that he had had less and less to say with each passing day.
“I do not believe you will ever rest,” she added to cheer him up. “You and your ideas.”
Hone shuffled his body under the blankets and coughed once more.
“What is to be valued in this life?” he asked out of the dark. "Our skins?" In a fit of coughing he sat up, groping for the bowl beside the bed into which, when he had it before him, he spat. Blood. Hariata too sat up. He wiped his mouth with his hand. Hariata put a hand on his shoulder, and straightaway removed it.
“When I was a young man I had a dream,” said Heke. “In this dream I found myself in Africa, in a town where every house was white. I was in the centre of this town, in a huge square amid a chattering, expectant crowd. What were they expecting? We all gathered around a wagon in which were two soldiers and a prisoner. There was to be an execution. And I heard the two soldiers making jokes about the prisoner, and I heard also the laughter and the jokes of those around me in the crowd. But what was in the minds of those two men who approached the wagon? I thought I recognised those two men. The soldiers raised their muskets to warn them away but the two men kept coming, and walked straight up to the muskets and put their noses to the ends of the barrels! Then a shot came from one of the muskets! And the two men were grappling with the soldiers, and the people all around in a pandemonium, fighting, screaming, jostling. My feet! My legs were rushing me toward the wagon! And there, lying on the seat, was a penguin! I picked it up and held it in my arms. It was so blue! But there was no time. I ran like hell through the streets of Africa.”
“A penguin, Hone?”
“That was a dream.” Heke took a deep breath. “Could I go on forever? We must learn how to stop before we start.”


Hone Wiremu Heke Pokai died of tuberculosis in the year 1850 and was buried, after some disagreement on the matter, in the traditional Maori way. Later, perhaps in 1851 (who am I to say?) his bones were brought down, cleaned, and taken to their final resting place.
As a result of Hone Heke’s war against paper, Russell was declared a free port, exempt of taxes, and the British flag wasn’t flown again on Flagstaff Hill until 1858, seven years after his death. The Ngapuhi retained the land which both Fitzroy and Grey had threatened to confiscate.
From the beginning Hone Heke’s idea had been to declare Aotearoa an independent state. Without the support of even the other northern tribes this had proved to be unachievable. Some, no doubt, will imagine Heke died a broken and bitter man. But listen..

It began, it began..
the mad chirping of sparrows it began
a flag and a thud it began
the swing of an axe it began
Tears.. who me?
No! That moment I was in ecstasy!