Ngāpuhi had enjoyed many economic benefits from their early contact with Europeans. Key leaders such as Tāmati Wāka Nene and Hōne Heke were keen to preserve this relationship. Both had converted to Christianity and supported the Treaty of Waitangi. Heke was the first to sign and invited Lieutenant-Governor Hobson to ‘stay with us and be like a father’.
The Treaty of Waitangi was expected to cement the relationship with the British Crown and deliver greater economic prosperity for Ngāpuhi. This optimism quickly turned to frustration. Hobson’s decision to relocate the capital from Kororāreka to Auckland in 1841 was a serious blow to Ngāpuhi.
When the flagstaff was re-erected after the third attack on 18 January 1845, FitzRoy had it clad in iron and protected by a blockhouse. Nene also provided guards for the flagstaff (although his men did not forcibly oppose the final assault on the flagstaff in March).
As tension mounted Kororāreka was placed on a war footing. FitzRoy appealed for military aid. A detachment of the 96th Regiment and the sloop HMS Hazard, which had been sent from New South Wales after the first incident in July 1844, were instructed to return to Kororāreka. In addition to Nene’s guard, 140 soldiers, sailors and marines were available to defend the town. A further 200 residents of the town and crew of visiting ships were armed.
Shortly before dawn on 11 March 1845, Heke and about 450 warriors moved on Kororāreka. One group, led by Te Ruki Kawiti, created a diversion at the southern end of the town, enabling Heke to seize the blockhouse defending the flagstaff. The offending pole was cut down for the fourth and final time.
Rather aimless fighting dominated the rest of the morning. In the early afternoon the powder magazine at Polack’s Stockade exploded. Surrounding buildings caught fire. The remaining inhabitants of Kororāreka were evacuated to ships anchored in the bay and transferred to Auckland the following day.
Lieutenant G. Philpotts of the Hazard now ordered the bombardment of Kororāreka. This was the signal for the sacking of the town. British and Māori forces from all sides helped themselves to whatever they could lay their hands on. Hōne Heke ordered that the southern end of the town remain untouched. As a result, the Anglican and Catholic churches were spared from destruction.
The sacking of Kororāreka shook the settler population. Over £50,000 worth of property was lost. In Auckland panic set in. Some settlers sold their land for whatever price they could obtain, and left the colony as quickly as possible.
Settlers and officials demanded an explanation of how professional soldiers and sailors had allowed Kororāreka to fall. Some pointed to divine retribution. As a ‘Gomorrah, the scourge of the Pacific’, Kororāreka had finally got what it deserved.
The size of the Māori force was inflated to between 1000 and 1200. In what was to become a feature of the New Zealand Wars, Māori casualty figures were similarly inflated, from 13 dead and 28 wounded to 34 and 68 respectively. The British lost 19 or 20 dead and 23 wounded.
Lieutenant Philpotts also pointed a finger of suspicion at Henry Williams, whose close relationship with Heke saw him accused of somehow betraying the town. Though FitzRoy dismissed the allegation as ‘utterly absurd’, rumours persisted throughout the Northern War that the missionaries were in some way to blame.
The officers in charge also came in for their share of criticism. FitzRoy described ‘the shameful conduct of those officers whose uselessness caused the loss and destruction of Kororareka’. The decision to abandon the town was also criticised as too hasty.
Nene and his supporters took no part in the fighting in Kororāreka. Nene continued to talk to Heke in a bid to stop the conflict escalating. But fighting between the two main Ngāpuhi factions broke out in April. Historian James Belich has described this as ‘restrained feuding’– no ambushes, no fighting at night – but conflict intensified when Heke insulted Nene’s mana by accusing him of ‘fighting for blankets’.