Friday, October 2, 2009


By the time I get to the top of Te Maiki hill, I’m amazed Hone Heke had the energy to chop anything down. It’s a hell of a climb up here, a steep and winding track through tangled bush. And there’s a pretty good path for us to walk on. Back in 1844, running up this hill would have meant shoving your way through bushes and brambles, overgrown trees and angry British soldiers.

When we get to the top, the entire Bay of Islands is laid out before us. We can see all the way across to Opua, out to Cape Brett and the famous Hole in the Rock. And right here, standing firm in thirty-five knots of wind, is an empty flagpole. That's what we came to find.

In 1844, this flagpole really pissed off one man: Hone Heke, chief of the Nga Puhi tribe in the Bay of Islands. And he was the one who’d bought it in the first place. It was supposed to be a symbol of the peace between Maori and Pakeha. But the British, who had promised to raise the Maori flag, were flying the Union Jack instead. And Heke was starting to feel like that piece of paper he’d signed four years earlier—the Treaty of Waitangi—might have been a big mistake. More and more, the English were calling the shots: telling his people they couldn’t chop down their own trees, moving the capital to Auckland so nobody was making any money up in the Bay of Islands anymore. Then they hanged the Maori son of a local chief for killing a white family—something that wasn’t their business, and wasn’t their affair. Little by little, the English were stealing Heke’s rangatiratanga—his tribal authority—and it was time he taught them a lesson.

So he hacked down the flagpole. Or, depending on who you ask, Heke might have ordered one of his men to do it. But either way, the Union Jack was found lying in the dirt, and the British had to build another monument to Empire, this one at their own expense.

They did. And six months later, Heke chopped that one down, too.

The British built a third flagpole within a week. And less than two days later, it lay in splinters on the ground.

What was wrong with these tattooed savages? Why were they getting so angry, when they’d willingly signed a treaty that gave the British complete rights of government? As it turns out, the problems were complicated, but a lot of it came down to sloppy translation.

The Treaty of Waitangi wasn’t written by lawyers or career politicians, but by William Hobson, a navy man, and James Busby—a retired grape farmer. Though they did their best, these guys didn’t think about the finer points of the law. And when they realized that an English treaty would sound like babbling gibberish to a gathering of Maori chiefs, they brought in Reverend Henry Williams to translate it. Williams gave it his best shot, but he didn’t have much time. He pulled an all-nighter to crank out a Maori version of the treaty by morning.

The result was that the Maori chieftains signed a subtly different document to the one that had been read to them in English. In short, they thought they were retaining chieftainship over their land and all their treasures. And as far as the English were concerned, they’d just pledged allegiance to the Queen.

The fourth flagpole the British built on Te Maiki hill was made to last. They sheathed the bottom twenty feet in iron, and assigned armed guards to defend it. So on March 10, 1845, Hone Heke sacked the town.

The Battle of Kororareka probably wasn’t intended to be as deadly as it was. A few muskets fired, a diversion created, and Heke and his men could have chopped down the fourth flagpole, sending the English a serious message. But unfortunately, some poor jerk dropped his pipe on a barrel of gunpowder. When British troops saw the explosion, they assumed that war had begun. And from the safety of their ships, they fired on the town.

Kororareka burned. And Hone Heke, undeterred by iron sheathing, chopped down the flagpole for the fourth time.

Not every building in town was reduced to ashes, though many were destroyed. Christ Church still stands, and you can stick your finger in the musket holes left over from Hone Heke’s war. But for more than a decade, no one built another flagpole. It was just too dangerous.

By 1857, tempers had cooled a little, and the flagpole was replaced. This one—the fifth to be built on Te Maiki Hill—has a massive iron base, at least twenty feet high. The control lines are sealed in a locked box, so no one can raise his own flag. If Hone Heke wanted to knock this one down, he’d need more than an axe. He’d need an acetylene torch.

But it’s possible he wouldn’t even bother. On the day we visited, there wasn’t any flag flying at all.


  1. Oh yes...yes..more..more..oh yes...more...MORE....MORE.....MORE....

  2. The Maori version of the Treaty was possibly a bit more pre-mediditated than you're suggesting. The English had access to a top-notch translator, but he happened to be away the week they decided to write the Maori version, which happens to have a misleading translation right at the point the chiefs were most likely to baulk over...

    I didn't know about the bullet holes, I'll have to look for them next time I'm in Russell.