As his bones are about to be re-interred in Northland, Heke's biographer reveals why he was so unpredictable

Despite his well-lacquered reputation as a great warrior, Hone Heke's military prowess was never sufficiently tested to warrant the claim. He led his troops in only a handful of engagements with the British over a period of just 11 months, and although his supporters noted that he was never defeated by the British, it is equally true that he never secured a decisive victory over his enemy either - at least not militarily.

Heke's greater skill, and the reason for his enduring fame, is based on his mercurial instinct for diplomatic brinkmanship and risk-taking. When he was in his early 20s, for example, he was captured by the Ngati Hine chief Kawiti during a battle, but somehow persuaded Kawiti not to kill him but, instead, to tie him to a tree.

The animosity between Heke and Kawiti was such that any chance of reconciliation would have seemed impossible to onlookers at the time. Yet, in 1844, Heke contrived a plan to forge an alliance with his former enemy. In an act of pure theatre, he approached Kawiti's marae and handed his adversary a gift: a piece of flax matting containing a greenstone mere smeared in excrement. Not a word was spoken, but Kawiti's men braced themselves to kill the visitor. After all, surely there could be no greater insult to their chief?

However, Kawiti paused to consider this gesture before announcing to his astonished people that he would now enter an alliance with Heke. Heke's gift was a metaphor: the greenstone represented Maori, and the excrement signified the effects of European colonisation on the culture. It was precisely such audacious diplomatic risk-taking that endeared Heke to his followers, and that made him so unpredictable to his opponents.


With this alliance secured, Heke now swung his attention to a war with the British. It is at this juncture that the issue of his motives emerges, and where the relief of his personality is best illuminated.

The source of this conflict has been the subject of lengthy debate. Heke's disillusionment with colonialism, and his frustration with Northland's economic decline are certainly part of the amalgam of explanations, but the reason closest to the bone for Heke's decision to go to war revolved around his political narcissism.

The chiefly status that Heke saw as his birthright had been eroded by the early 1840s, while the status of his uncle - Tamati Waka Nene - had risen in favour in the eyes of the colonial government - something that privately infuriated him.

But how to redress this imbalance? Heke needed numbers and a cause, and what better cause to rouse support than a war with the British?

Heke was brazen but seldom reckless with his schemes. In the conflict he was concocting, he wanted to ensure he had the moral upper hand, and to that end, throughout 1844, he prodded and provoked the British settlers in the Bay of Islands - each time escalating the tension, culminating in his vexatious masterstroke: the (repeated) felling of the flagpole in Russell.

Heke did not want to give the British the opportunity of labelling him as the aggressor in any ensuing war, but the Governor's reticence to rise to the bait eventually made Heke abandon his provocation in favour of a direct offensive, which he launched on March 11, 1845 against the settlement of Kororareka.

A series of scrappy battles followed, culminating in the excessively vaunted engagement at Kawiti's pa at Ruapekapeka. On January 29, 1846, after Ruapekapeka had been pulverised by the heaviest bombardment in New Zealand history to date, Kawiti sued for peace.

Heke, though, was not in the mood for capitulation despite now having no chance against the mass of British and Maori forces (the latter led by Waka Nene) that were lined up against him. Instead, Heke wrote to Grey, suggesting that the Governor visit Northland so "that we might set aright your misunderstandings". It was vintage Heke - spirited, intuitive, and obstinately opposed to accepting the words "surrender" or "defeat".

Eventually, tuberculosis did to Heke what hundreds of opposing troops had failed to achieve, and on August 7, 1850, he died from the disease. Even in his final days, though, his bluster - half menacing, half wryly humorous - remained undiminished. When asked what he would do if Europeans tried to gain the upper hand in the Bay of Islands, he propped himself up on his death-bed and warned: "My good intentions are over, and the lion shall be let loose to roar and to bite."

Dr Paul Moon is professor of history at AUT University.