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The Siege and Capture of Ruapekapeka - New Zealand

Ruapekapeka (bats nest), a pā 20 kilometres (12 mi) southeast of Kawakawa in the Northland Region of New Zealand, is one of the largest and most complex pā in New Zealand, it specifically to counter the cannon of British forces. The earthworks can still be seen.

A pā is a Māori village or defensive settlement, but often refers to hillforts – fortified settlements with palisades and defensive terraces – and also to fortified villages.

Ruapekapeka was the site of the last battle in the Flagstaff War of 1845-1846, fought between Colonial forces and the Ngāpuhi led by Hone Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti. This was the first major armed conflict between the Colonial government and the Māori.

In early December 1845 Governor George Grey sent a force of 1,170 soldiers, volunteers, Seamen and Marines and 400 Māori to advance on Ruapekapeka, who would and besieged it from 31st December to 10th January 1846, when the Maoris abandoned it.

After hauling 30 tonnes of artillery and supplies over nearly 30 km of rugged country, the British force assembled before Ruapekapeka – ‘the bat’s nest’. The highly intricate pā with tunnels, rifle pits and trenches was surrounded by a strong palisade, but its garrison was outnumbered four to one.

The British had three naval 32-pounder cannon, an 18-pounder, two howitzers and a number of mortar and rocket tubes. Te Ruki Kawiti had an ancient 12-pounder (which was destroyed shortly after the British began shelling the pā) and a 4-pounder.

Hōne Heke, who had recovered from his wounds, joined Kawiti inside Ruapekapeka with 60 reinforcements during the night of 9 January 1846. He and Kawiti now had a combined force of perhaps 500.

A full-scale bombardment on 10 January created three small breaches in the palisade. Despard was keen to attack before Kawiti’s men could escape but was talked out of this course of action by Wāka Nene and Grey.

The end of the battle is shrouded in controversy. The following day, 11 January, scouts discovered that only Kawiti and around a dozen men were still inside the pā. When troops attacked, this group fled into nearby bush after firing a volley. When the British followed they were fired on from hidden positions. Fighting intensified briefly and Kawiti’s men seemed to be trying to retake the pā. The conflict fizzled out when the British refused to be lured into the bush. A dozen British had been killed, and rather more Māori. Some of the British may have been shot by their own side as they scoured the pā for non-existent loot.

Despard and Grey proclaimed a ‘brilliant success’. Despard boasted that Ruapekapeka had been ‘carried by assault’ and that a full-sale attempt to regain it had been repulsed. Grey used Ruapekapeka to establish his credentials with a Pākehā community in need of reassurance about who was in control of New Zealand.

The British loss was 13 killed and 30 wounded.

The Chiefs surrendered and were pardoned, and the War in the North Island ended. A medal was granted for this campaign in 1869.

Related Royal Marines 'Dits':

References/ Further Reading:

  1. Wikipedia - Ruapekapeka

  2. New Zealand History - The Northern War - Ruapekapeka

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