Archaeological investigation of the Ruapekapeka campaign


Today I stumbled across Ari ki te Ruapekapeka, a blog by Jono Carpenter, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at Australian National University in Canberra. The blog outlines his archaeological journey to investigate the Ruapekapeka campaign  of the colonial New Zealand Wars as part of his doctoral research.   I’m also interested in Ruapekapeka as it was a key campaign during the period of my own  New Zealand Wars wargaming project.  


In late 1845 a combined force of approximately 1600 British troops, colonial militia, allied Maori and sundry hangers-on disembarked on the muddy banks of the Kawakawa River, which flows into  New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. They proceeded to push their way over miles of rough terrain in order to confront Chief Te Ruki Kawiti and his own force of 3-400 Maori warriors at his pa, Ruapekapeka.


Jono introduces his project as follows:

The British and the allied Maori camp received little attention in the primary and secondary accounts of the battle, focussing as they do on the cut and thrust of the military engagement and descriptions of Ruapekapeka itself. However this albeit very temporary settlement would have seen one of the most intensive cross-cultural encounters of the mid-19th century in New Zealand. More than a thousand British soldiers, marines, settler militia and sundry others, largely “fresh off the boat”, were forced to live under arms, in close contact with and depending on the good will of hundreds of Maori warriors …

He goes on to say:

While Ruapekapeka Pa itself is the key component of the battlefield and was the focus of the military campaign, the research outlined here does not propose invasive investigation of the pa. Rather it concerns itself with the positions of the British and Maori combatants beyond the pa, and the wider battlefield and campaign landscape.

Although Ruapekapeka Pa and the campaign are well known from historic accounts and the impressive surface archaeology of the fortification itself, almost no attention has been paid to the main British and allied Maori encampment and forward positions, the battle and campaign landscape or their archaeological potential. Other sites associated with the Ruapekapeka campaign have not been recorded in detail yet alone investigated, including the marching camps and allied Maori pa, or the post-war British military cantonment established at Te Wahapu in the Bay of  Islands.

One of my favourite postings in Jono’s blog is one where he takes his three-year-old son on a tour of the battle-site, explaining it in terms that young Charlie can understand.

4 thoughts on “Archaeological investigation of the Ruapekapeka campaign

  1. I’ve visited the site more than once, originally in my general research on the NZ Wars period. DOC have done a pretty good job with the interpretation boards, and not succumbed too heavily to Belichian military fantasy. One of the more remarkable relics remains Kawiti’s carronade.nicely re-set these days on a concrete plinth. What I found most astonishing about the site was its remoteness, even today – and the fact that the British had to drag all their heavy artillery and munitions, all the way up from the sea. The place is well worth a visit – not least because it’s one of the very few NZ Wars battle sites actually preserved in any way at all.

  2. Great post! I was fortunate to visit Ruapekapeka earlier this year. I had high expectations and the site truly exceeded them with the earthworks being even more impressive than I had imagined and in surpisingly good condition.

    Thanks for the link to Jono’s blog, I look forward to checking it out!

  3. Thanks for the comments. DOC and the Ruapekapeka Pa Management Trust have put a great deal of time, effort and money into the reserve over the last ten years and it really is looking the best it has ever been.

    With regard to getting the big guns up to the pa, and Roly’s very nice 32 pdr, here is an account of getting one of these to Ruapekapeka (its a shame Cowan doesnt note the source, and this particular anecdote doesnt make it into his book with this detail):

I hope I've given you something to think about - please do leave a comment with your thoughts or reactions.

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