Te Pakanga o Ōhaeawai, one of the most important battle sites of the Northern Wars, has been added to the New Zealand Heritage List as a Wāhi Tapu Area by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

Under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act, a wāhi tapu is defined as a place sacred to Māori in the traditional, spiritual, religious, ritual or mythological senses.

"Te Pakanga o Ōhaeawai is a hillside near Ngāwhā, where a faction of Ngāpuhi, under Te Ruki [The Duke] Kawiti, successfully defended the pā of Pene Taui, of Ngāti Rangi, against British forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Despard in June-July 1845," Heritage New Zealand's Northern Pouārahi, Atareiria Heihei, said.

"The fortifications were ground-breaking in every way, and became one of the prototypes for gunfighter warfare in later engagements.

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"The pā at Ōhaeawai is tapu to Ngāti Rangi as a place of battle and bloodshed. It also incorporates the urupā, in the middle of which stands Te Whare Karakia o Mikaere [St Michael's Church]. "It is also the original site for the place name Ōhaeawai, although the name was exported to the nascent township 4km down the road in the 1870s."

The peaceful vista of today was very different from the scene of carnage that occurred on July 1, 1845, during the third major engagement of the Northern Wars.

"On June 25 about 600 troops from the 58th and 99th Regiments, the Royal Marines and militia, as well as approximately 300 warriors of Tāmati Wāka Nene, besieged about 100 men in Pene Taui's pā," Ms Heihei said.

"Prior to the attack, Pene Taui had insisted that the battle take place at his pā, which Kawiti had agreed to. Kawiti subsequently fortified the pā for this purpose."

Kawiti and Taui did an exceptional job. The pā had two palisades — including a strong inner fence made of puriri logs set almost two metres into the ground with five metres of log standing above ground.

A curtain of flax matting hung on the exterior of the pā, quenching musket ball fire, concealing the interior from the British and robbing them of such basic information as to whether or not their shelling was effective.

In addition, a trench between the two palisades encircling the pā provided protection for warriors, enabling them to reload their muskets then step up on to platforms that elevated them to ground level. From there they were able to fire almost completely concealed from the enemy.

Breaking new ground

If that wasn't enough, some trenches extended beyond the shape of the pā to form bastions from which fighters could shoot at attackers side-on as they attacked the pā.

The coup de grace, however, was a series of rua (pits), underground compartments roofed with beams and timber, regarded as possibly the first example of an anti-artillery bunker.

"The rua stood the defenders in good stead," Ms Heihei said.

"The British established a four-gun battery on the nearby hill of Puketapu, and opened fire on June 25, continuing until it was dark. By the end of the day, however, they had done very little damage.

"The bombardment was to continue, equally ineffectually, for a further two days."

Despite the bombardment, and the fact that they were outnumbered almost 10 to one, the defenders weren't exactly throwing in the towel, however.

"On July 1 a raiding party from the pā successfully overpowered Tāmati Wāka Nene's camp and took the Union Jack that had been flying there," she added.

"The Union Jack was then flown within the defenders' pā in full view of the British — upside down and at half mast below a kākahu (Māori cloak). Despard was apoplectic with rage at the insult."

Goaded into action, he ordered the storming of the heavily defended pā. Although Despard's officers and allies warned against that — Wāka Nene, who had since recaptured his territory from the defenders, refused to participate in the attack — Despard would not be dissuaded.

"The disastrous assault went ahead," Ms Heihei said. "The solid palisades of the inner fence had withstood the artillery attack and remained intact, preventing the British from entering the pā. Meanwhile, the firing trenches proved devastatingly effective against the attackers. Within seven minutes of the attack beginning, more than 47 of the attackers lay dead with about 70 more injured. The attack was an unmitigated disaster."

Although more ammunition was brought in, and the British continued shelling for a few more days, the result had been a foregone conclusion.

By July 8 the pā was found to have been abandoned; the defenders had disappeared into the night.

"Although he tried to put a positive spin on the result, Despard had achieved nothing at enormous cost," she added.

"He was to experience similar frustration at Ruapekapeka, where he would be confronted once again by an almost impregnable pā."

Today, remnants of Pene Taui's pā can still be seen in some of the undulations in the ground, although the area is predominantly an urupā, with Te Whare Karakia o Mikaere at its heart.

In 1871, Heta Te Haara, who had succeeded Pene Taui as the local rangatira after his death, wrote to the government for permission to remove the remains of the troops from the original burial site to where they currently lie inside the St Michael's churchyard.

On July 1, 1872, 27 years to the day of the battle itself, the troops were honoured by Māori at a service that was attended by a government official representing the Under Secretary of the then Native Department, who reported on 'the present good feeling, singleness of purpose, and perfect unanimity which very apparently existed between the Ngapuhi and their Pākehā neighbours'."

The grandson of Heta Te Haara, kaumātua Ben Te Haara, remembers his grandfather talking about the battleground. His recollections were a vital part of the research, as he was able to point out many features from information passed down to him, including the location of a line of pūriri trees the British used to range their guns.

"The listing formally identifies the tapu nature of this place to Ngāti Rangi, while also highlighting the importance of this place to all New Zealanders."