The Legend of Legendary Maori Chief Hone Heke (2023)

Learn about Hone Heke, the missionary-educated nephew of the fearsome warrior chief Hongi Hika, and the first Maori chief to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Legend of Legendary Maori Chief Hone Heke (1)Hone Heke andhis wife Hariata

Hone Heke Pokai

Hone Heke Pokai was a powerful Ngapuhi leader. He was noted for his prowess as a warrior, but also for his enterprise, intelligence and energy in looking after his people’s interests. He was the first rangatira (chief) to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.

Heke was probably born around 1808. He came under the influence of missionaries as a teenage student at the Kerikeri Mission School. He was baptised a Christian in 1835 and took on the name Hone (John).

He has strong friendships with the missionaries, especially Henry Williams, for much of his adult life.

Hone Heke Pokai

He rangatira tino kaha o Ngapuhi a Hone Heke Pokai. I mohio whanuitia ia hei toa kaha, mo tona rakahinoanga, mohiotanga me te tiaki kaha i nga tikanga o tona iwi. Ko ia te rangatira tuatahi i haina i te Tiriti o Waitangi.

I whanau mai i te 1808 pea. I noho ia i raro o te maru o nga mihinare i a ia e tamariki tonu ana i te kura mihinare i Kerikeri. I iriritia hei karaitiana i te tau 1835 ka mau i te ingoa Hone.

He hoa tino tata ia ki nga mihinare, ana, ki a Hēnare Wiremu, mo te nuinga o tona pakeketanga.

Self Determination

Heke spoke persuasively in favour of signing an agreement with the British. But he, along with many other Maori in the north, soon became disillusioned. He saw that government actions were undermining rangatiratanga (chiefly authority).

In 1844, Heke wrote to the Governor demanding the removal of British authority over Maori affairs. The focus of his protest was the British flag flying at Kororareka (Russell). He had the flagstaff there cut down four times.

War broke out between Heke and his allies and government forces. The fighting showed the government what formidable warriors their troops were up against.

Peace was made, but for the rest of Heke’s life (he died in 1850), he continued to promote Maori self-determination in meetings and correspondence with the government.

Te Tino rangatiratanga

I korero tino kaha a Heke ki te tautoko i te hainatanga o te whakaaetanga me te Pakeha. Engari kīhai i roa ka matekiri ia me te maha atu o nga rangatira o Te Tai Tokerau. I kite ia i nga mahi a te kawanatanga e whakaiti ana i to ratou tino rangatiratanga.

I te tau 1884 ka whakahau atu a Heke ki te Kawana kia whakakoretia te mana o Ingarangi. Ko to arotahi o tona porotēhi ko te haki o Ingarangi e rere ana i Kororareka. E wha nga wa i porohia e ia.

I tīmata te pakanga i waenganui i a Heke me ona kaitautoko me nga taua a te kawanatanga. I kite te kawanatanga i te toa me te kaha o nga taua pakanga a Heke.

I te mutunga ka tau te rangimarie, engari ka whawhai tonu a Heke ke te akiaki i te tino rangatiratanga mai i nga huihuinga me to tuhituhi ki te kawanatanga. I mate ia i te tau 1850.


Hone Heke was the missionary-educated nephew of the famous and fearsome Maori warrior chief Hongi Hika, who terrorised many tribes throughout the north of New Zealand in the early 1800s.

Hone Heke was an influential Maori voice in favour of the Treaty of Waitangi, and was the first Maori chief to sign the Treaty in 1840. Later, however, Hone Heke became a leading opponent of British rule in New Zealand. In 1844, he led a revolt against the British by chopping down their flagpole, the most fundamental symbol of authority. Despite new poles and more guards, Hone Heke chopped down the pole down three more times!

* * *

Early contact

Maori were the first people to colonise New Zealand, arriving from Polynesia in canoes sometime prior to 1400. Abel Tasman was the first European to visit, in 1642, but it was not until after Captain James Cook’s four visits between 1769 and 1777 that whalers, sealers, missionaries and traders had regular contact with Maori.

(Video) Hone Heke

Maori chiefs petition Britain

In 1831, lawlessness by sailors, escaped convicts and adventurers from Australia, coupled with growing fears of French annexation of New Zealand, prompted missionary William Yate to help 13 Maori chiefs prepare a letter to King William IV of England, asking for his protection. The British Crown acknowledged the petition and promised protection.

James Busby appointed Britain’s official resident

In 1832, the British Government appointed James Busby as its official resident to protect Maori, the growing number of British settlers and its own trade interest. Busby arrived in May 1833 and built a house on land at Waitangi, just a few kilometres from Kerikeri.

Governor William Hobson appointed

In 1839, the British Government appointed naval officer Captain William Hobson as consul and despatched him to New Zealand with instructions to obtain sovereignty over New Zealand, with the consent of a sufficient number of Maori chiefs. He arrived in January 1840 and met with James Busby, following which Busby invited the northern Maori chiefs to meet Hobson, “a rangatira [chief] from the Queen of England”.

Treaty of Waitangi signed, led by Hone Heke

At this meeting, the Treaty of Waitangi was discussed before about 500 Maori and 200 Europeans. Discussion continued throughout the day and into the night. During the meeting Hone Heke addressed Governor Hobson, saying:

“Governor, you should stay with us and be like a father. If you go away, then the French and the rum sellers will take us Maori over.”

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The following day, 6 February 1840, Hone Heke was the first of more than 40northern chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. By September, more than 500 chiefs in different parts of the country had signed. The treaty guaranteed Maori “all the rights and privileges of British subjects” in exchange for their acknowledgment of British sovereignty.

The Legend of Legendary Maori Chief Hone Heke (2)Hone Heke, the first Maori chief to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, is shaking hands with Governor William Hobson (background) while behind him Kawiti is signing the Treaty and at the front is a group of Maori being challenged by a man with taiaha.[Waitangi, 6th February 1840]

Revolt against the British, led by Hone Heke

Instead of easing tensions, though, the Treaty of Waitangi ushered in one of the bloodiest periods in New Zealand’s history. Many northern chiefs suffered economically when customs duties were levied on ships calling at the Bay of Islands, increasing costs and reducing the flow of trade. They suffered further in 1841 when the colonial capital was relocated from the Bay of Islands to Auckland, 200 kilometres to the south.

The British were eager to exercise their right to purchase Maori land, and while some chiefs were willing sellers, others were not. As pressures forced them to sell, tensions mounted.

The first visible revolt came on 8 July 1844 when Hone Heke, disillusioned by the failure of colonialism to bring his people economic prosperity and by the increasing control of the British government over Maori affairs, chopped down the flagpole at Kororareka (now called Russell) in the Bay of Islands, which flew the British flag. Heke was incensed that the Union Jack, a symbol of British government, flew without the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealandbeside it. This signalled the beginning of some 20 years of fierce battles between Maori and Europeans.

The Legend of Legendary Maori Chief Hone Heke (3)Hone Heke, weilding an axe, fells the flagstaff at Kororareka (now known as Russell)

Hone Heke’s act was intended to show displeasure at the British government, yet not threaten the European settlers. On 19 July 1844, Hone Heke wrote to Governor Fitzroy (who had replaced Governor Hobson):

(Video) nz wars - ngapuhi

“Friend Governor – This is my speech to you. My disobedience and rudeness is no new thing. I inherit it from my parents, from my ancestors, do not imagine that it is a new feature of my character, but I am thinking of leaving off my rude conduct towards the Europeans. Now I say that I will prepare another pole … in order to put an end to our present quarrel. … The pole that was cut down belonged to me, I made it for the native flag, and it was never paid for by the Europeans.”

It appears that Chief Hone Heke’s peace overtures were unsuccessful because over the following months, and despite new poles and more guards, Hone Heke chopped the pole down three more times! Some considered this a truly patriotic gesture on Hone Heke’s part. In September 1844, while addressing a meeting of Maori chiefs in Auckland, Governor Fitzroy said:

“About six weeks ago the town of Kororareka was disturbed by a party of young men, headed by Hone Heke, who … cut down the Government flagstaff. … I will now speak of the flagstaff, in itself worth nothing; a mere stick, but, as connected with the British flag of very great importance. … I have heard that Heke and a few others have said that the British flag has done them harm, and it was for that reason they cut down the staff. I have also been told that some persons have been suspicious of the British Government and doubtful of our intentions. … The British flag is the signal of freedom, liberty and safety. That flag is considered most sacred, because it defends and protects us.”

Hone Heke’s protest actions resulted in war between British troops and northern Maori, led by Chief Hone Heke and and his ally Chief Kawiti. In January 1845, Governor Fitzroy posted a £100 reward for Hone Heke’s arrest, to which the chief is rumoured to have responded by offering a £100 reward for the governor’s head!

A force of soldiers was despatched to the Bay of Islands and marched inland to bring Hone Heke to action. They attacked a pa [Maori fortified village] at Lake Omapere, but were defeated.

(Video) Treaty of Waitangi - What Really Happened

The British troops suffered another more disastrous defeat when an attempt to storm a pa at Ohaeawai failed. Over 40 British soldiers were killed and wounded.

The Legend of Legendary Maori Chief Hone Heke (4)British soldiers (foreground) watch British troops attack Hone Heke's pa (background). The pa's flag pole carries theFlag of the United Tribes of New Zealand above a Union Jack.[Ohaeawai, 1st July 1845]

Hone Heke wrote to Governor Fitzroy in May 1845:

“Governor, you are the representative of the Queen by whom you were sent. … I shall write to her … to restore to us the sovereignty of our island… I have heard she is a good woman, and that she will not desire that our land shall be purchased with the blood of the soldiers and of the natives.”

The situation was normalised to some degree when Governor Fitzroy was replaced at the end of 1845 by the military governor George Grey, with Hone Heke still at large and successfully eluding capture. Governor Grey was the most able of New Zealand’s governors and a man who did more than anyone else to shape the country’s early years. When Hone Heke and Kawiti gave Grey an empty victory at Ruapekapeka, by simply withdrawing, the clever tactic resulted in stalemate.

An uneasy peace followed, with Hone Heke and George Grey only reconciling at a meeting in 1848. A clear indication of the nature of this peace is that the flagpole remained felled to avoid provoking further conflict. It was only after Hone Heke and Kawiti both passed away that the flagpole was re-erected, and then only by Kawiti’s own son – the person with the appropriate mana [influence and authority] to do so.

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Hone Heke died of tuberculosis in 1850. He is still regarded as a great leader and a hero by the Ngapuhi tribe and the Maori people. To this day, Hone Heke’s burial place remains a secret known only to a few people.

And so lives the legend of the great Maori chief Hone Heke!

Photo credits: National Library of New Zealand


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