In response to Governor Robert Fitzroy’s January plea, Lieutenant-Colonel William Hulme arrived at the Bay of Islands at the end of April 1845 with 460 soldiers, marines and volunteers. In May the British destroyed Otuihu, the coastal pā of the neutral chief Pōmare, who was suspected of secretly supporting Hōne Heke. Hulme and his force then moved inland to confront Heke at his new pa, Te Mawhe at Puketutu.
Skirmishing between Māori forces had delayed the completion of this pā. Strong defences consisting of double or triple palisading were in place on three sides, but the rear of the pā was vulnerable.
A British assault party of approximately 216 men attacked Te Mawhe on 8 May. They were surprised by 140 warriors led by Te Ruki Kawiti who had been hiding in the bush. Turning to deal with Kawiti, the British appeared to be gaining the upper hand when Heke led a group from the pā. Fierce fighting ensued. Heke’s party returned to the pā with the British in hot pursuit, then Kawiti’s men regrouped and attacked again. After forcing Kawiti back a second time, Hulme called off the attack. Lacking artillery back-up, he may have felt that retreat was the safer option.
Te Mawhe had been built away from civilians and crops and had no long-term strategic value for Heke. After the battle it was simply abandoned. FitzRoy reacted to Hulme’s occupation of an empty pā by reporting to his superiors that the rebels had been ‘beaten and dispersed’. Maori casualties were higher than the British – 28 killed compared with 15 – but some reports claimed that up to 200 Māori had been killed.
Māori learnt an important lesson at Puketutu: the British were a formidable foe in open battle. This would influence Maōri tactics in future clashes.
The knock-out blow against Heke that most settlers and British military personnel desired very nearly came in a battle in which no British forces were involved. At Te Ahuahu on 12 June 1845 Heke suffered his most serious setback of the Northern War.
The ‘war within a war’ continued in the aftermath of Puketutu. Skirmishing between the forces of Nene and Heke culminated in a substantial battle near Heke’s home pā, Te Ahuahu, which was captured when he left to gather food. Heke tried in vain to retake the pā, receiving a serious wound when he was shot in the thigh. At least 30 of his men were killed or wounded, including one of his lieutenants.
While recovering in Kaikohe Heke was visited by the missionaries Henry Williams and Robert Burrows, who hoped to persuade him to end the fighting. Heke was unmoved. Some of the British military saw this as further evidence that the missionaries were colluding with a rebel.