Māori chief Hone Heke, who had been one of the signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi, was becoming disenchanted by what he saw as Government oppression of Māori. Disgruntled too by the economic losses to his people, in July 1844 he led a faction to protest by cutting down the flagstaff and the Union Jack flying on Maiki Hill in Russell. The flagstaff was quickly restored but then cut down again three more times. The last was on 11 March 1845, this time in a three-pronged attack on the town involving Heke and two other chiefs, Pūmuka and Kawiti. The first of the Northern Land Wars had started.

The Battle of Kororāreka In the dead of night, 11 March 1845, Heke’s men crept up Maiki Hill toward the British army blockhouse. At the same time Pūmuka and Kawiti created a diversion. When the dawn star rose they attacked the town from two different directions. The troops in the blockhouse rushed out to see what was going on – that’s when Heke attacked, taking the blockhouse completely by surprise. The battle for the town was fierce, one big skirmish took place right by Christ Church – you can still see the musket ball holes in its walls. The British settlers were evacuated to ships anchored in the bay. Fighting continued all next morning when suddenly the garrison’s ammunition store exploded setting nearby buildings alight. With their ammunition reserves gone the British retreated to their ships while Māori took the town. Even a last bombardment by the British sloop ‘Hazard” couldn’t save Kororāreka. The town was sacked and burnt, all except for the south of the town which was spared on Heke’s orders – which is why Christ Church and Pompallier still stand today. This battle was the first of a series in this part of New Zealand known as the Northern Land Wars, the last of which was at Ruapekapeka, a remarkable site about half an hour’s drive south of Russell.

Whakakotahitanga – The Flagstaff on Maiki Hill. A new flagstaff was erected on Maiki hill in 1857 and stands there still. It was gIven by the son of Kawiti as a symbolic gesture and called Whakakotahitanga in Māori or ‘Being as one’ in English. It has suffered damage over the years from vandalism, fire, lightning and dry rot. Restored in recent years it flies the United Tribes flag of 1834 on twelve days a year. You can walk to the flagstaff through the bush tracks of the Kororāreka Reserve, or drive up. The views are amazing.