Governor Fitzroy once again appealed to New South Wales for aid and, on
the very day on which the soldiers sailed from Sydney, Heke opened his
campaign and scored his first success at Kororareka.
A serious attack does not seem to have been anticipated; but a stockade
had been erected for the benefit of the women and children, some light
guns had been mounted, and the place garrisoned by half a company of
regulars and a number of settlers. In addition, H.M.S. _Hazard_ was in
the bay, her guns trained upon the approaches to the town.
Heke first gave evidence of his presence by capturing Lieutenant G.
Phillpotts of the _Hazard_, though he almost immediately released the
gallant officer, in proof, he said, of his pacific intentions. Then,
in spite of the watch kept upon his movements, the Maori warrior
out-generalled the watchers, and sprung a surprise upon the town.
Late on the night of the 10th of March, 1845, two columns of Maori
under Heke and old Kawiti–Hongi’s fighting chief–landed at Onoroa and
Matavia, close by Kororareka. Heke ambushed his men amid the deep fern
in rear of Signal Hill, almost within touch of the blockhouse, while
Kawiti disposed his party about the Matavia Pass, on the opposite side
of the town. So quietly were these manoeuvres executed, that neither
the soldiers in the upper blockhouse, nor the sailors under Captain
Robertson of the _Hazard_ on the Matavia side, nor the civilians in the
stockade and lower blockhouse had any idea that they were ringed round
by a cordon of fighting men under two of the most experienced warriors
of their day. Not by the slightest sound did the Maori indicate their
presence; not even for the sake of capturing one of the officers who
walked through their lines, wholly unsuspicious of their proximity. It
was Heke’s intention to surprise his foes, and he succeeded perfectly.
As day broke, cloudy and raw, on the 11th, the lieutenant of the
regulars went to the barracks to turn out his men. His second in
command, a young ensign, who was in charge of the upper blockhouse, by
the flagstaff, thereupon left his post under guard of a corporal and
fifteen men, and proceeded with a few soldiers to complete an earthwork
overlooking Onoroa Bay. Captain Robertson occupied a similar position
on an opposite hill overlooking Matavia Bay.
No sooner was the ensign out of sight than a sham attack was begun on
the Matavia side, and the young soldier very properly fell back towards
the blockhouse. At the same moment the corporal, believing his officer
trapped, left three or four men in the blockhouse, and raced with the
rest to the ensign’s support. He soon realised that the firing was
from the Matavia side of the town, wheeled his men and hurried back
towards Signal Hill.
But a cloud of Maori sprang without the least warning from the fern
and, yelling discordantly, began to harass the little company. Others
rushed the blockhouse and slew the few defenders, while their heavy
fire convinced the corporal that to regain the place was impossible,
and that his wisest move would be to join forces with the ensign.
He effected this; but when the officer endeavoured to retake the
blockhouse, he was not only held off by the captors of the post, but
had much ado to break through the Maori who were stealing round to cut
him off from the lower blockhouse.
The action had by this time become general, and the British, though
fighting bravely, were getting the worst of it, owing to inferiority of
numbers and lack of ammunition.
The British fought sturdily and with dogged persistence, after their
usual fashion, and the Maori, brave themselves, never hesitated to give
credit to their valorous foes. For years after this historic engagement
they told the story of Captain Robertson’s fight, how he felled with
his own hand five stalwart Maori, one of them a chief of note. Then the
gallant sailor dropped to the ground, sorely wounded, while Lieutenant
Barclay very reluctantly fell back just in time upon the town, and
thence reached the lower blockhouse.
For the Maori had seized the barracks and, surging round the
blockhouse, threatened to make an end. But the “Tommies” and the “handy
men” were not yet done with, and these, sweeping out without orders,
cleared their front of the triumphant foe.
“So all day long the noise of battle rolled”; but nightfall saw the
town evacuated, and the women and children safe on board the _Hazard_
and other ships in harbour, whose crews had looked on wonderingly at
the success of primitive warriors against disciplined soldiers. Numbers
must always count for something; but the “way of the Britisher,” which
is ever to underrate a foe, particularly if he be of dark complexion,
accounts for the success of the Maori that day.
Victory was no sooner assured than the Maori swept down upon the town,
looted and burnt it to ashes. Yet so generous–or so stupid, from
the soldiers’ point of view–were they that they allowed many of the
townspeople, with whom they considered they had no quarrel, to take
what goods they could and go unhindered. It was as if they had said,
“Our dispute is with the authorities. Go you in peace, and learn that
the savage Maori can be as chivalrous as the civilised Briton.”
Were there present at the sack of the town any of the grosser sort of
Maori, who might have been inclined to defy their chiefs and commit
those excesses too often associated with the victory of the savage,
there were yet two men there to hold their passions in check. For, in
and out of the flaming houses, and here and there among the wounded,
unmoved by the riot and confusion around them, went all day long Bishop
Selwyn of the English and Bishop Pompallier of the Catholic Church,
their differences forgot as they united in acts of Christian charity
and corporal works of mercy.
So fell Kororareka, with the loss of a dozen killed and a score or so
wounded on the side of the defenders, while the Maori lost–so they
said–ten or twelve more. But, in addition, the town was destroyed, and
along with it fifty thousand pounds’ worth of property. It was a signal
triumph for Heke and Kawiti, and, worse than all, it taught the Maori
to disbelieve in the invincibility of the Pakeha.
So fell Kororareka, one of the oldest settlements–if not the
oldest–in New Zealand; nor were there wanting those who averred that
the place had brought its fate upon itself and, like a latter-day “city
of the plain,” thoroughly deserved its downfall.