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Battlefield Guide: Kororareka 1845

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.

Flagstaff Hill, Russell © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Flagstaff Hill, Russell
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

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.

View of the town formerly known as Kororareka - now called Russell © Lemuel Lyes 2013

View of the town formerly known as Kororareka – now called Russell
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

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.

Christ Church, Russell © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Christ Church, Russell
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

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.

Memorial commemorating the Battle of Kororareka © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Memorial commemorating the Battle of Kororareka
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

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.

Headstone at the grave of sailors from HMS Hazard who fell during the battle © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Headstone at the grave of sailors from HMS Hazard who fell during the battle
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

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.

These verses are from Felicia Hemans’ ‘England’s Dead’, the lyrics of which give an interesting insight into those imperialistic times.

Behind the church there is another grave where some more of the defenders were buried.

Grave of some of Kororareka's defenders © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Grave of some of Kororareka’s defenders
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

Perhaps the most striking evidence of the battle are the musket ball holes still visible in the walls of the church.

Musket ball hole remaining from the battle of Kororareka 1845 © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Musket ball hole remaining from the battle of Kororareka 1845
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

Musket ball hole remaining from the battle of Kororareka 1845 © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Musket ball hole remaining from the battle of Kororareka 1845
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

Russell MuseumThe 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.

Cannon on the waterfront at present-day Russell © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Cannon on the waterfront at present-day Russell
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

Pompallier MissionThis 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.

Pompallier House © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Pompallier House
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

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!

View of Kororareka/Russell through the rigging of the R. Tucker Thompson © Lemuel Lyes 2013

View of Kororareka/Russell through the rigging of the R. Tucker Thompson
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

Sketch from the day before the battle - showing some of the many ships that were in the harbour Clayton, George Thomas (Capt), fl 1845-1848. Clayton, George Thomas fl 1845 :Kororareka in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. Sketched Mar 10th 1845 on the morning before the assault and destruction by Honi Heke. Drawn by Captain Clayton, and on stone by W. A. Nicholas. London, E. D. Barlow [1845?]. Ref: C-010-022. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22708113

Clayton, George Thomas (Capt), fl 1845-1848. Clayton, George Thomas fl 1845 : Kororareka in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. Sketched Mar 10th 1845 on the morning before the assault and destruction by Honi Heke. Drawn by Captain Clayton, and on stone by W. A. Nicholas. London, E. D. Barlow [1845?]. Ref: C-010-022. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22708113

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.

Grave of five soldiers from the 96th Regiment who were killed during the battle © Lemuel Lyes 2013

Grave of five soldiers from the 96th Regiment who were killed during the battle
© Lemuel Lyes 2013

The 96th Regiment during the Northern War Robley, Horatio Gordon, 1840-1930. Robley, Horatio Gordon 1840-1930 :The Manchester rifles on there [sic] famious [sic] march from the front &c. [1845. Painted after 1863]. Ref: A-080-021. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22532931

The 96th Regiment during the Northern War (but painted significantly later)
Robley, Horatio Gordon, 1840-1930. Robley, Horatio Gordon 1840-1930 :The Manchester rifles on there [sic] famious [sic] march from the front &c. [1845. Painted after 1863]. Ref: A-080-021. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22532931

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

19 replies »

  1. Hi Lemuel,

    In my book, yet to be finished, on the years after the Treaty for Henry Williams, there is a wonderful blow by blow account by Henry and others of the days around this event. Let me know if you’d like to see it.
    Caroline Fitzgerald

  2. Thanks very much for mentioning my Dressing the Lines wargaming site, Lemuel. One of the exciting things you can do in the fascinating (albeit rather niche) hobby of wargaming is to recreate events from the past.

    Until recently, recreating New Zealand Wars battles was rather difficult because of the lack of miniatures for the fighters of both sides. But with the introduction of metal figures for the 1840s campaigns, made by British company Empress Miniatures, this is now eminently possible.

    Some time ago I wrote the following scenario for recreating Kororareka using the ‘Sharp Practice’ wargaming rules: http://toofatlardies.co.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Flagstaff-War-Scenario.pdf

    • I’ve been looking on enviously at your beautifully painted New Zealand Wars miniatures! The Empress range certainly look stunning.

      That scenario looks like fun! Have you had many games? Did it play out true to the history books or were there some mixed results?

      • Er, truth to tell I haven’t played it yet! I wrote it as an entry for a scenario competition run by the rules publisher. But I am getting close to having sufficient miniature figures to give it a go soon.

  3. The Bay of Islands is fantastic for history – I have to confess, I went there on honeymoon and dragged my wife around some of the historic sites, many years ago, researching the NZ wars… this, as I say, when we had just got married. Some of the photos I took of the historic sites then ended up in my book ‘Two Peoples, One Land’. We’ve been back since and I’m hugely impressed with the way Ruapekapeka has been restored since that first visit, complete with some wonderful interpretation boards.

    We took a trip on the R. Tucker Thompson, too. Wonderful vessel. My family knew the people who built it, way back, but I think it’s been sold since.

    • It is easy to be envious of both the history and the climate they have up there! My visit in February was only the second time I’ve made it up to that part of the country and I had been looking forward to many of the historic sites – especially over in Russell. To your credit it is a beautiful part of the country and worthy of being a honeymoon destination in its own right!

      It was my first time visiting Ruapekapeka and I too was very impressed with the maintenance and accessibility to the site – and of course was even more impressed by the surviving earthworks. It is one thing to read about the site, or see photos; but I think it is one of those places that you really have to visit in person to fully appreciate.

  4. Many thanks for giving me the link to your blog. I found it most interesting and congratulations on the content and especially the photography. I have letters from the Beagle and also had a letter from one of the families evacuated from Kororareka when it was attacked. As you say Darwin was unimpressed by what he saw of the locals! Thanks again. Gerald

    • Hi Gerald, thanks for stopping by! I have to say I’m most envious of your postal history collection, especially the early Royal Navy items. It is incredible to hear you have a letter from such a historic event!

      I especially like the way you are using your blog to make postal history come alive. That is what attracted me to postal history too, the stories behind each item, although now I mostly collect ephemera.

  5. I am a descendant of one of the evacuated families. Fascinating to think a letter exists from that time. My ancestor apparently lived on land on the beach, next to the allotment of John Lette and William Wilson. Do you happen to know where that may be?

    • Wow, what an incredible family history to have!

      I don’t know exactly where your ancestors lot was, but here is a reference to the neighboring property you mention:

      ” John Lette, per William Wilson, of Kororarika, Claimant.

      ¼ (one-quarter) acre, more or less, at Kororarika, having a frontage to the beach of 38 feet by 90 feet depth from the face of the pa. Bounded on one side by land occupied by J. Smith; and on the other by land occupied by H. Thompson and Co. Alleged to have been purchased by Patrick Fitzmorris and Thomas Butterworth from the Native chief Akore, who sold to J. R. Clendon, who sold to John Kelly and Daniel Pollen, who sold to claimant. Consideration: Goods; £25 sterling. Nature of conveyance: Not stated.”

      Source: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-TurOldP-t1-g1-g3-g1-t8-body-d2.html

      The J. R. Clendon mentioned is a particularly well known settler and his own cottage is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the town – cared for by the Historic Places Trust.

      http://www.historic.org.nz/theregister/registersearch/RegisterResults.aspx?RID=420

      His cottage is down the southern end of the town, next to the Pompallier Mission.

      To find out more about your family history I highly recommend the Russell Museum, I’m sure they will have access to records to confirm more details. Good luck!

  6. I’ve been doing some research around Kororareka and the Flagstaff War, and I have a couple, of questions:

    Firstly: who called it the Hellhole of the Pacific? I see it said a lot that Kororareka got that nickname, but not who from or why.
    Secondly: do you know of any primary sources describing the place? I don’t really know how I would go about getting my hands on primary sources at all, let alone finding the specific ones I want, but information on what Kororareka was *actually like* is incredibly hard to come by.

    Thanks much!

    • Good questions! From what I recall, the origins of the nickname ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’ are debated. Some people I’ve spoken with question if the name was even used at the time at all. However, the contrast between the missionary settlements on one side of the bay and the relatively lawless settlement of Kororareka on the opposite side might have had something to do with it.

      There is a story about how a Maori girl who wanted to cross from Paihia to Kororareka to ‘visit’ sailors on a ship was told that if she wanted to go to hell then that was her choice. She mentioned this on to locals at Kororareka and the name ‘hell’ seems to have stuck – with the missionaries’ side of the bay sometimes referred to as ‘heaven’.

      Many of the missionaries wrote letters and kept detailed journals, however their view of Kororareka may not be the one you are looking for. There were many other visitors to the bay who also kept records. Charles Darwin wrote down observations during his visit.

      My best advice would be to get hold of a copy of ‘Hell-hole of the Pacific’ (2005) by Richard Wolfe. He summarizes many of the primary sources and attempts to discern what it was ‘actually like’. Good luck!

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