I’ve previously posted battlefield guides for two of the most famous battlefields in Europe; Omaha Beach and Waterloo. Today’s guide is for a lesser known battlefield, but one that is a lot closer to home – at the top of the North Island of New Zealand. Known today as Russell it was once the site of the infamous ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’, Kororareka.
In 1845 Kororareka was the scene of the opening round of the New Zealand Wars (excepting the earlier skirmish at Wairau in the South Island). The short battle saw fierce fighting between experienced Māori warriors and a combined force of settlers, soldiers and sailors; it featured a naval bombardment courtesy of the Royal Navy and ended in the almost complete destruction of one of the nation’s earliest and most scandalous settlements. Do you still think that New Zealand history is boring?
I’m not going to lecture you on the events leading up to the war, the reasons behind it or anything remotely academic. You can learn more about that here, here and here. Instead I’m going to share some of my experiences exploring the battlefield and walk you through the key sites you can still visit today.
The tour begins at the beautiful town of Russell in the Bay of Islands. You can drive there or take the ferry across the bay from Paihia. If you have the time then I do recommend staying a few nights in Russell, there are plenty of accommodation options ranging from cheap backpackers to luxurious resorts. I went for the former, and enjoyed a beautiful meal at the site of New Zealand’s earliest licensed hotel (1827). It was surreal to imagine the scenes of debauchery that the place must once have witnessed – duels, crimping, drunkenness, prostitution, brawls and wars, only to have my imaginings interrupted by the nearby voice of a well dressed Auckland housewife loudly trying to decide which dessert wine she fancied next. I stuck to rum, it seemed more ‘authentic’.
During my short walk back to my accommodation in the warm summer air I was lucky enough to spot a morepork which seemed equally as interested in me. It is said that in the hours before the attack back in March 1845 the Māori warriors communicated with each other by mimicking the call of this little owl as they snuck into their positions.
Flagstaff Hill – The best place to get a feel for the lay of the land and the events of that morning on 11th March 1845 is to head up to the site of the iconic flagpole that played such a central role in the battle. Chief Hone Heke had chopped it down three times and to prevent a fourth attempt the British built fortifications around the pole to protect it. Some of those defensive earthworks are still visible today. The current flagpole you can see there remains as a symbolic post-war gesture by Ngāpuhi.
The view looking down from Flagstaff hill over the township gives you a good understanding of the brilliant strategy employed by the Māori when they attacked at dawn.
The first contact between Māori warriors and the European defenders was at the far side of town near the church which still stands today. You can imagine hearing the sound of fighting erupting over there and of course the reaction of the British soldiers defending the flagpole was to go have a look. It was during this distraction that Heke’s warriors ambushed the defenders at the top of Flagstaff hill and quickly overwhelmed them.
The Church – This is perhaps the most well-known remnant of the original town. It is a national treasure in its own right, it was built before the Treaty of Waitangi and is the oldest church in the country. Ironically it was even partly funded by Charles Darwin who visited the area while voyaging on the HMS Beagle but that is another story – today we are going to look at the role the church played in the Battle for Kororareka.
It was near here that first contact was made between Kawiti’s warriors and the defenders. This was the distraction that set the scene for Heke’s attack at Flagstaff Hill. There are a number of key points of interest at the church. At the front of the church on the corner of Robertson and Church streets is a plaque dedicated to all those that fell in the fighting.
In the cemetery in front of the church there is a headstone dedicated to the men from the HMS Hazard who were killed during the defence of the town.
The warlike of the Isles,
The men of field and wave!
Are not the rocks their funeral piles,
The seas and shores their grave?
Go, stranger! track the deep,
Free, free, the white sails spread!
Wave may not foam nor wild wind sweep,
Where rest not England’s dead.
Behind the church there is another grave where some more of the defenders were buried.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of the battle are the musket ball holes still visible in the walls of the church.
Russell Museum – The local museum holds some priceless artifacts from the battle including pieces of the original flagstaff; weapons, medals, cannonballs and grapeshot that locals have found over the years (fired by the HMS Hazard during the battle) and my personal favourite – a native bird that was caught by a pet cat during the evacuation of the civilians that day. The bird was caught by a cat belonging to a young girl who was on the beach waiting to be evacuated to one of the ships waiting in the harbour. A sailor on-board the ship happened to be a budding taxidermist and the rest is history. The story has since been immortalized as a children’s book and the stuffed bird survives in the museum as a bizarre memento from the day of the battle.
The Cannon – Down on the waterfront is a cannon that was used by the defenders during the defence of the town. It was more for looks than practical use, the cannon had been salvaged from the wreck of the Sourabaya which had used it as ballast. Regardless of its effectiveness, it is a cannon, and History Geek isn’t too fussy when it comes to cannons.
Pompallier Mission – This former mission is one of the few buildings in the town to have survived the battle, naval barrage and fires – not to mention the following 150 years. It didn’t play a key role in the conflict but it is a rare example of what life was like in the settlement around the time of the battle and is well worth a visit in its own right.
It is also New Zealand’s earliest surviving industrial building and once housed a printery. The knowledgeable and entertaining guide that led a group around when I visited shared a hilarious story about how some of the typefaces kept going missing – it turned out that an enterprising local had discovered that they were the perfect size to be melted down into musket balls!
It is a beautiful building that was a delight to finally have the chance to visit. I can also recommend their souvineer shop which stocks some fantastic handmade journals, packets of seeds from their beautiful garden and an assortment of items related to the mission’s Catholic roots. It was encouraging to see a souvineer shop that has found such an assortment of unique items appropriate to the specific site instead of just selling the usual range of All Black flags and novelty pencil-sharpeners.
The R. Tucker Thompson – As the Māori warriors overwhelmed the settlers, sailors and soldiers the townsfolk rushed to evacuate to the ships that were moored in the harbour. Among these ships was the HMS Hazard which opened fire on the settlement contributing to its destruction.
By far the best way to experience this maritime perspective of the battle is to join the tall ship R. Tucker Thompson on one of her day sails from Russell. Here is an earlier post of mine dedicated to the Tucker. Twice a year they also offer special history sails – an adventure that I haven’t had the fortune to join yet but they come highly recommended!St. Paul’s, Paihia – The last stop I’d recommend for anyone interested in exploring the battlefield is actually across at Paihia on the other side of the bay. In the churchyard of St. Paul’s there is a plaque at the final resting place of five British soldiers from the 96th Regiment who were killed during the fighting at Kororareka. Unfortunately this campaign predates battlefield photography, and only a handful of paintings and sketches (such as the above) exist to illustrate the times, but if you want an idea of what the soldiers, sailors and warriors from this conflict looked like then head on over to the fantastic ‘Dressing the Lines’ blog which regularly shares images of beautifully painted wargaming miniatures from the Northern War and other campaigns from the New Zealand Wars.
Conclusion – If you time your trip to St. Pauls right then afterwards you can enjoy a beautiful sunset from Paihia as you look across the bay to present-day Russell – imagining what it must have been like for the settlers looking across as the fires glowed, the smoke billowed and the thunder of musket and cannon fire echoed across the bay on that bloody day. Fortunately for twenty-first century tourists the fighting ended over 150 years ago. Also Paihia sells good fish n chips.
Thus concludes my tour of the battlefield of Kororareka. You can pack all of those sites and experiences into one day if you have to but I’d recommend two. There is accommodation on both sides of the bay – which side you pick is up to personal preference. Despite being all but burned to the ground Russell seems to have retained more of a sense of its past than Paihia has – but the latter has fancy restaurants, a seemingly endless number of souvineer shops; and heated towel rails. Take your pick. I know which side of the bay I prefer!
I’d like to thank a few people who helped me out with their local knowledge, specifically local historian Lindsay Alexander; Kate Martin, Manager at the Pompallier Mission, NZ Historic Places Trust; the friendly staff and crew of the R. Tucker Thompson and last but not least the Alexander Turnbull Library for allowing bloggers like me to share images from their collection.
© Lemuel Lyes