More than 100 people gathered before dawn yesterday on a Russell hilltop to remember a battle that changed the course of New Zealand history 175 years ago.
On March 11, 1845, Ngāpuhi warriors under chief Hone Heke chopped down the flagpole on Maiki or Flagstaff Hill for the fourth time, signalling the start of the Battle of Kororāreka.
Heke, who had been the first to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, had become increasingly frustrated by Treaty breaches and the governor's refusal to heed his concerns.
It was the first engagement of what later became known as the Northern War, a series of battles and skirmishes that ended in January 1846 with the Battle of Ruapekapeka Pā.
Armed conflict elsewhere in New Zealand, however, continued until at least the 1870s.
Yesterday's event started with a pre-dawn flag-raising ceremony, prayers and speeches atop Maiki Hill, lit by the full moon and punctuated by weka calls.
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After a vivid sunrise, commemorations continued at Christ Church, where ministers Heather Lindauer and Chris Swannell offered more prayers at a kōhatu (stone) near the spot where the battle's first blood was shed.
Ngati Hine leader Pita Tipene said Pumuka, from Te Haumi Pā, was the first to die, run through with a sword by Commander David Robertson of the Navy vessel HMS Hazard. Robertson was also badly injured in the battle.
That was following by a wreath-laying ceremony by Navy sailors at a grave for six members of the Hazard's crew.
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Those taking part yesterday included descendants from both sides of the conflict, the commander of the Devonport naval base, government ministers Kelvin Davis and Shane Jones, MPs Matt King and Willow-Jean Prime, and representatives of the army, Fire and Emergency NZ, police, and Kororareka Marae.
Ngāti Manu spokesman Arapeta Hamilton said Māori had been marking the battle's anniversary since 1875 when descendants of chief Te Ruki Kawiti re-erected a flagpole on Maiki Hill as a symbol of national unity.
Hamilton used his speech to challenge the MPs present, saying they were now the ones who wielded the axe. He urged them to use their power to end poverty and homelessness and ensure all children were fed.
Davis, who is Māori-Crown Relations Minister, also had a challenge, though his was directed at Pākehā New Zealand.
He said the bridge between Māori and Pākehā worlds was usually crossed in one direction only as Māori learned the language and ways of Pākehā. Some crossed the other way but not many, he said.
''My vision for Aotearoa is when people can cross between those two worlds easily, fluidly, and using whichever language they choose, especially as we head towards the 200th anniversary of the Treaty [signing in 2040]. When New Zealanders are comfortable in both worlds then the talking past each other will cease,'' he said.
About 20 Māori and 13 Britons died in the Battle of Kororāreka.