Ngapuhi leader Hone Wiremu Heke Pokai was the first of the northern chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February, 1840. He was also the first to object to subsequent encroachments by European settlers on traditional Māori prerogatives. The British flag that flew on a hill overlooking the settler town of Kororareka became for Heke a symbol of the European usurpation of chiefly authority. Between July 1844 and March 1845 his warriors cut down the flagstaff four times. The fourth occasion led to open warfare with British troops.
Though he could be fierce in battle, Heke was reluctant to take settler lives. Before his forces overran Kororareka, he warned townsfolk with whom he was acquainted and allowed them to escape with their belongings. He took care to preserve certain buildings from destruction, including the Anglican church and the Roman Catholic bishop's house.
Heke's attitude to Europeans was complex. While determined to maintain the ways of his ancestors and not to yield too much land or power to the Pakeha newcomers, he had close personal links with and affection for particular settlers. Born at Pakaraka (about fifteen kilometres inland of the Bay of the Islands) in 1807 or 1808 (the exact date is uncertain), he attended the school set up by the Church Missionary Society at Kerikeri in the early 1820s and learned there to read and write. He converted to Christianity in August 1835, taking the baptismal names Hone Wiremu (John William) at this time.
Written in 1844 and dated ‘Oketopa [i.e. October] 16’ the letter in Māori shown here is addressed to the prominent English-born trader Gilbert Mair (1799-1857), who had moved from Kororareka to Whangarei two years earlier. Heke greets Mair as an old friend and expresses a wish for continuing peace and goodwill between them. Nevertheless, the letter is essentially a statement of grievances. Heke warns against plans to erect a British flagpole at Whangarei without first obtaining Māori permission. He rebukes Mair for selling unpaid-for land to a ‘strange European’ (i.e. a new settler unknown to Heke). He is further offended by the stripping of bark from trees on land tapu (sacred) to Ngapuhi. He is generally concerned about the ever-increasing influx of settlers.
As well as the original letter, the Library has an undated typescript of an English translation made by Gilbert Mair's son, Gilbert Jnr (). The final paragraph of this rendering reads: ‘Cease therefore to invite the European indiscriminately to that place [i.e. traditional Ngapuhi territory]. Only allow a few to settle there. Otherwise I shall be very angry – very wroth indeed. Leave me a portion, a half of my kainga (home) – do not appropriate the whole.’
The war in the north lasted from March 1845 to mid-January 1846. Heke continued thereafter to send letters to British authorities until the end of his life. He died of tuberculosis in August 1850.
Related resources: Iwidex - an index to the sources of information on tribal history, tikanga-a-iwi, and whakapapa held in the heritage and research collections; Manuscripts Online; Maori manuscripts.