Initially supportive of the Treaty of Waitangi, Hōne Heke became increasingly disenchanted with the effects of European colonisation. He expressed this through repeated assaults on the symbol of British power. This was his third attack on the flagstaff on the hill above Kororāreka (Russell).
Hōne Heke chopping down the British flag at Kororāreka is an enduring image from New Zealand history. Traditional interpretations portrayed him as a ‘rebel’ who was finally subdued by ‘good Governor George Grey’. This view failed to acknowledge the complexities of the conflict and the unresolved issue of Māori authority in the period after 1840, when Heke had been the first Māori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.
Heke’s first assault on the flagstaff came in July 1844 when Te Haratua, his right-hand man, chopped it down. The British re-erected the flagstaff, but it was felled again on 10 and 19 January 1845. A fourth attack on the flagstaff on 11 March marked the outbreak of war in the north.
Sometimes referred to as ‘Hōne Heke’s rebellion’ or the ‘Flagstaff War’, this was no simple matter of Māori versus British. It was a three-sided war involving two opposed factions of the Ngāpuhi confederation. Hōne Heke and Kawiti fought against both the Crown and other Ngāpuhi led by Tāmati Wāka Nene. The fighting ended in January 1846.