Kawiti the Master Engineer and the Northern War

by James Graham

No single man is more responsible for the remarkable Maori resistance than Kawiti, the great Nga Puhi chief.. His engineering talents were such that the British assumed his Pa were designed by Englishmen.

Kawiti was an old and respected chief amongst his tribe by the start of the wars 1845. He earned his mana in Hongi Hika's expeditions and in later engagements of the musket wars. It was in these battles that Kawiti learnt the power of the musket and the complete inadequacy of traditional pa in the face of a musket armed enemy. Nga Puhi were rarely on the defensive during the Musket Wars. This denied Kawiti any chance of testing in battle his ideas for a new design of pa, one that could be successfully defended by muskets.

Kawiti joined Hone Heke in the first major setback to European plans for New Zealand, the fall of Kororareka. Heke a younger Nga Puhi chief had already felled the flagpole at Kororareka three times when Kawiti joined him on his fourth attempt to remove the flagstaff. Unlike Heke's previous attempts the flagstaff and town were defended by 250 imperial troops. While the Maori numbered 450 the soldiers held pre-prepared positions, had artillery support and new the Maori attack was eminent. The reason for Maori victory was a silent coordinated three pronged attack that gave the Maori tactical surprise. Kororareka along with its flagstaff was destroyed with property damage estimated at 50,000 pounds. Neither chief intended to sack Kororareka but no general in the world could prevent his soldiers looting an empty town full of rum. The loss of the fifth largest European settlement in New Zealand was a bitter blow to European immigration and the expansion of the infant colony.

The reasons why Kawiti joined Heke in his rebellion are numerous. Kawiti was primarily concerned about British encroachment on his rangatiratanga. Perhaps he was even influenced by his old comrade in arms Hongi Hika's dying speech, traditionally the most important in Maori folklore. "If ever there should land on this shore a people who do not work, who neither buy nor sell and who always have arms in their hands then beware that these are are a people, whose only occupation is war. When you see them make war against them. Then, oh my children be brave! Then oh my friends be strong! Be brave that you may not be enslaved and that your country may not become the possession of strangers." It was his desire to keep his people free that made Kawiti sign The Declaration of Independence and initially hostile to the Treaty of Waitangi. Though he eventually signed, Kawiti remained true to many Maori customs and traditions.

Kawiti then turned his attention to the design, fortification and defence of pas. Puketutu while Heke's pa was defended by Kawiti and 140 of his warriors. Even though the British took four days to march to Puketutu the pa was not finished by the time the soldiers arrived on 7 May 1845. Faced with the prospect of defending an unfinished pa against a more numerous opposition the two chiefs devised cunning a plan. The British attack duly came on 8 May 1845 and the plan was implemented by Kawiti and Heke. Just as the British attacking force was about to assault the pa Kawiti who had been hiding in the bush attacked the storming party in the rear. The British fought Kawiti back only to be attacked by a party from the pa. As the party withdrew back to the pa Kawiti attacked again. The British had the upper hand in the fighting with Kawiti, however the storming party had lost a quarter of its number and was forced to withdraw. Puketutu is an example of brilliant improvisation of established Maori military tactics by Kawiti and Heke. The tactical victory lay with the chiefs but not by a large margin. More important was what the chiefs learned, that in open battle one on one British soldiers were superior to Maori warriors. This lesson was never forgotten by Kawiti and a later generation of Maori who fought in subsequent wars against the British.

The British defeat at Puketutu forced the government to mount two more major expeditions against the chiefs. Ohaeawai is examined in more detail in resource two. While Ohaeawai was Kawiti's greatest victory his most formidable pa was Ruapekapeka. Ruapekapeka suffered two weeks of constant bombardment before Kawiti and Heke abandoned it. The rua protected the garrison during the bombardment Kawiti was able to claim a strategic victory over the British.

Kawiti designed advanced fortifications to protect his rangatiratanga. After the wars northern chiefs continued to exercise substantial sovereignty over their people up to and well after the death of Heke and Kawiti.


The New Zealand Wars:
Ohaeawai | Maori Strategy in the Taranaki War | Guerilla Warfare in the Waikato
Battle of Rangiriri | The Gate Pa | Titokowaru's Tauranga-Ika Pa | Te Kooti