From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

Br Emery to Brother Francois, Bay of Islands, 14 September 1845

LO 55


The bulk of this letter [pars 2-9] contains an account of the first armed conflict between Maori and European arising from different interpretations of the text and spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi. The prime mover in the affair was the mission-educated Ngapuhi chief, Hone Heke, one of the first to sign the Treaty in February 1840. To protest against the ways in which he considered Maori custom and chiefly mana and authority were being undermined, Heke cut down the flagpole at Kororareka, symbol of British sovereignty in July 1844, and, when the British failed to respond, again in January 1845. The efforts of the Anglican missionaries, Bishop Selwyn and Henry Williams especially, could not dissuade him from his course, though they did succeed in deterring a number of Maori from following him.

When the flagpole was raised again, and this time placed under heavy guard, Heke allied himself with his older relative, the warrior chief Kawiti, of Ngati Hine from Kawakawa, one of the last northerners to sign the Treaty. Despite Emery's claim [6], he was not a Christian, let alone a Catholic, at this time, though most of the Catholics among the disaffected were of his people. Having given the town a week's advance warning so as to avoid civilian casualties, the two chiefs attacked at dawn on Monday 10 March 1845. A good summary of this battle and the rest of the campaign can be found in Tom Brooking's "Milestones: Turning Points in New Zealand History" (1988). At the end of the fighting the Maori had 13 dead and 28 wounded, and the British 20 dead and 23 wounded - though Governor Fitzroy in his report trebled the Maori losses.

The townspeople were evacuated, leaving the town to be looted by the victorious Maori.

The Marists would have had a good view of most of the action from the little boat they had hired and to which they retired when the fighting started. Their party comprised the bishop, Frs Seon and Baty, and Brs Emery, Pierre-Marie and Basile. They were forced to keep to the boat when it was all over, not, however, because of the Maori, but because the British on HMS "Hazard" (whose captain had been severely wounded in the fighting) continued to shell the town long after there was any point to the operation. It was only after the ships left for Auckland with the evacuees that they were able to return to their residence. Tension still running high in the days following, they decided to evacuate the press and most of their possessions to safer havens at Whangaroa and Terawiti (Rawhiti) respectively. Emery joined Petit-Jean at the latter locality where this letter was written.

In the meantime, another Ngapuhi chief and relative of Heke, Tamati Waka Nene, one of the first to be baptised, and pro-government in his sympathies, engaged Heke in order to prevent him completing his new pa at Puketutu. British troops arrived at the end of April and fighting began on May 8. The British and their allies had initial success, but caught between Heke and Kawiti, were finally driven off. Each side suffered about 50 casualties, with Maori dead outnumbering British by 28 to 13. The Maori abandoned the pa a few days later, allowing the British to claim a dubious victory.

Emery gives the impression [10] that the May-June campaigns were against the same pa of Heke's, but the second in fact was against that of his ally, Pene Taui, at Ohaeawai. Kawiti was in charge here, Heke having been wounded in a previous encounter with Nene. The British opened the attack on 24 June, shelling the pa for a week without any noticeable effect. They were then lured into a frontal assault on 1 July. 39 were killed outright and 70 wounded, many of them to die from their wounds. The Maori recorded a single casualty. Kawiti and Heke abandoned the pa 10 days later. Fitzroy was dismissed in September, and it was left to his successor, Sir George Grey, to resume the war and bring it to a successful conclusion for the British in January 1846. It was the end, however, of Kororareka as a town of any importance and as the centre of the Catholic mission.

Comparing the accounts, we find that Emery gives us a fairly reliable account of the northern wars, though clearly he did not have occasion or time to check some details, including his dates. Another Marist to give an account was Fr Chouvet in his "Tour du Monde", although he was not an eyewitness but in Auckland at the time. His account can be found in English in "A Marist Missionary in New Zealand 1843-1846" (Whakatane 1985), Chapter 6 (pp 76-82). Pompallier only makes a passing reference to it in his History, though he is somewhat disingenuous in his claim that "both sides understood our spirit of neutrality in political matters and our desire for peace" (p 83). Emery states specifically that Heke had given the bishop a letter absolving him of any alleged complicity in the affair [6], a very reasonable foresight, since the British were soon charging him with precisely that. And on the strength of earlier allegations on similar lines, Pompallier had already approached Rome for the return of part of his original vicariate as a possible refuge if the British should expel him from New Zealand (rf L 62).

Terawiti lies at the south-eastern end of the Bay of Islands. This period at the end of 1845 seems to have been the only time Catholic missionaries were resident there.

Text of the Letter

Very honourable Brother,
With Monsignor Pompallier's permission, I am sending you some plant grubs the Maori call "hotete". [1] I do not know whether they will be forwarded. They eat the leaves of a tree the Maori call "nata". They bury themselves near the root of the tree and afterward they grow as you see. There are a lot in this country. There are others which eat the sweet potatoes; they also go into the ground and die.
I am going to give you a resume of the misfortunes which have befallen the Bay of Islands this year. There is a chief from the interior, a Protestant, who chased away his bishop who was living near his tribe. Knowing the difference between Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, he also had the good sense to tell them 4 home truths, comparing the former with the latter. He is an extraordinary Maori and knows perfectly well what the English flag flown in New Zealand signifies. That is why he came to cut down the one at Kororareka. The governor brought in troops from Sydney, but he didn't dare to go into the interior in search of Heke (that is the chief's name). He had the flagpole re-erected and paid some chiefs of the Bay to guard it. When Heke had finished gathering in his potatoes, he returned as he said he would, climbed the hill and cut down the flagpole. Then the Maori of the Bay, who had been paid to, came to put up another little pole and guard it, but Heke's men outnumbered them. That day all the Maori of the Bay came together and performed their war dances for two days in the town. The poor English did not really know what to make of it, for it was a frightening thing to hear them shouting. In the end, they said goodbye to the English and left Heke free. He had spoken to them with such eloquence and conviction that he had won them over. Only a small group stayed loyal to the whites. In vain did Williams, the famous Protestant minister,[2] use his credit with them. He gained nothing and left the meeting thoroughly disappointed. At a meeting of the whites he said: "That man defeated me by his reasoning and his great spirit." He told him: "It's because of you that the English are taking our land. You have written to the Queen to come and take our lands. You brought us the word of God and then you gave us the word of the devil. I don't want any flag here. Let all the nations come, but don't let them put up any flag." And there were also other chiefs who were angry with the governor because he had put a price on their heads. They were all for fighting the English. They joined Heke and set up camp about a quarter of an hour from the town. I forgot to mention that the governor had come with a warship. They erected a new flagpole and built a little wooden fort next to it with a garrison of 20 soldiers, and a deep ditch around, and the flagpole itself was surrounded by a strong fence and a trench. No one thought at the time that the Maori would take it by assault. There was a large block house where the women and the children slept every night; it was also protected by a strong fence. There was a fort with three cannon above and another with one, and a garrison of about 30 soldiers. All the men in the town under arms every night. They were ready for the Maori.
On Sunday I was at the Maori camp with Fr Seon. The chief Hone Heke[3] received us cordially, he made me sit beside him, and they all gathered around us. I was quite embarrassed as they were only Protestants. The chief told Fr Seon: "Stay with us all of you. You have nothing to fear. We will spare the French." The Catholic chiefs said the same. The priest took the Catholics for prayers, he baptized 4 and confessed 4; one of them was killed. We came home assured of their friendship. They told us, "We will be coming tomorrow, or the day after." They did not fail. On Tuesday, March 11 1845, there they were at dawn attacking the town from three sides at once. The first attack, which was behind our place, was the most frightening. The Maori gained control of the cannon and drove the soldiers right into the town where they fought hand to hand. There were only twenty Maori at the time, and when their terrible old chief saw that half were dead or wounded he retreated, still shouting insults, to go and find twenty others who were fresh. The commandant noticed a wounded Maori and finished him off with his sword. The enraged Maori threw themselves on him and wounded him five times. His thigh was broken. Then they pursued the rest so furiously that the English fled yelling back to their ship. Those in the town set it alight and retreated to their refuge, and the Maori were the masters of the town.
The second attack was on the garrison post. The soldiers took refuge in the fort and left behind all their baggage. The third was led by Hone Heke on the flagpole. The Maori split the soldiers in two. They also sought refuge in the fort but some could not make it and barricaded themselves in their post. The Maori broke down the door with their axes and killed them. The wife and children of the man who raised the flag were also there. The Maori had already killed one child when the chief Heke arrived and stopped them. He had the woman and children conducted to safety without doing them any harm. That was regarded as a great act for a savage, but he wished the inhabitants no harm. He only wanted the flag which represented the possession of his country. Heke quickly began to cut down the flag amid cannon fire. During the whole time the battle lasted, the warship did not stop firing its guns, and likewise the governor's brig and the fort. But the Maori continued in the face of muskets, bayonets, bullets, grapeshot, cannon balls - nothing frightened them. There were only 400 of them and about as many English. They lost no more than the English although they had only their rifles. The English, who had only their redoubt and their fort which was in great danger, finally recognised they were beaten. They began to evacuate their women and children to the ships, then the men. They abandoned everything to the Maori who quickly turned to looting. The next morning the doors of the houses stood wide open. The Maori took all the boats on the shore and rowed them away loaded with things under the noses of their enemies. In the afternoon they set fire to the town and they finished it all off next day.
Now you must be worrying about us, but you know that divine Providence never abandons those who place their trust in it. It had saved for us a little vessel; we hired it and put aboard what we needed most. The last nights some slept on board while the others stood watch ashore. The day they came I was the one on watch. When I saw daylight appear I was in chapel making my meditation. We did not think they would attack by day. When I had finished my prayer, I heard the cannon shot which was the signal they were near. I thought it was a priest entering the sacristy. Then there was a crackle of rifle fire and I thought it was the priest walking around. However, after listening carefully, I went out to see what it was. A a a a a - when I heard the bullets whistling like that, I didn't go back to the chapel. I left my little lantern lit and my book beside me and then the others came looking for me to leave for the ship. When I was pushing the boat into the water there was a burst of cannon fire. Oh, I thought it was the end of me. It took my breath away. The ball passed about 40 paces from me, making a terrible whistling sound, and then the musket balls were whizzing past our ears or over our heads. I ducked down as low as I could. A man passing by said, "I've just had a bullet hole in my hat." Eventually we were all on board our ship and we left the house in the hands of Providence.
The war was over by 9 or 10 o'clock, and in the afternoon Monsignor sent me with Fr Seon to the Maori camp to see what they had to say about our establishment. The chief Heke was there and he received us in high spirits. He said to the Father, "Well! We certainly made the redcoats run, didn't we!" and he laughed uproariously. He spoke as if he had just been up to a little mischief, for these Maori take everything for granted. He added: "The English soldiers are not men, they run away at the first sound of a gun. The French are not like that, are they?" He told Father, "Stay at home, all of you. Don't go outside if you don't want to be harmed." We had a bit of a look at the wounded and then we returned to the ship. We couldn't return to our house yet because the warship was threatening like a wild beast to set the town on fire. Because of that, when the Maori had plundered the town they saw our house was empty and they went there. We could see them from the ship so Monsignor quickly went ashore and stopped the pillaging. But they had already broken the shutters or knocked down the doors, and carried off our beds and many blankets. The three altars in the chapel were completely despoiled and many ornaments taken. The box containing the bones of the martyr Fr Chanel had been opened but they had not taken anything. Monsignor went to the camp to speak to the chief. Heke was very indignant that his orders had been ignored. He told Monsignor he knew nothing about it, but that we should stay at home. His Lordship told him that the warship was still threatening to set fire to the town with its guns and that was why we were not staying in the house. As for me, I was there to act as interpreter for a Frenchman who had gone to look for his belongings. It was Hone Heke who told His Lordship about them. The afternoon I was at the camp I noticed the sky was all red. I asked the Maori what it was, and they said it was the town burning. When we returned we landed on shore. Oh, how sinister it was, how frightening to see such a huge blaze, and then the way our house was lit up, our broken shutters and smashed-in doors - it was shameful. We returned quickly to the ship to sleep, and His Lordship went off as usual to sleep on an American warship [the " St Louis"] which was very friendly to him the whole time it was in the Bay. The next day the English warship departed with all the others carrying the inhabitants and, as for us, we returned to our residence.[4] There were some chiefs on guard at our house so that it should not be burned. They had put two white flags at either end of our establishment with a notice beneath forbidding the burning the house of "epikopo", and signed by the great chiefs. The second most important chief, the famous warrior Kawiti, who was a Catholic, came to see Monsignor and gave him the cloak he had been wearing during the battle. That is the highest pledge of friendship one can give. I met him and he told me, "We are burning all the houses, but we are leaving yours and the ones nearest it so that the fire will not spread to it." And they did what they said. The day after, the great chief Hone Heke came to pay His Lordship a visit with all his troop and they slept there. He also gave Monsignor his war cloak and even wrote a very long letter in his defence. Monsignor gave him one of his cloaks, a pair of blankets, and many other things, so they parted good friends.
Some days later, someone came to warn us a party of Maori was coming to our place apparently to finish off the looting. Monsignor quickly sent off a priest to warn our Catholic protectors. They came the same night and the next morning to the number of 4 or 500. When the enemy saw their canoes in the distance they went back home. The following week, a troop of natives came to Wapu (Te Wahapu) and spent the night with a Frenchman. They told him they were going to Kororareka the next morning, and as we were by ourselves, we were afraid. The Frenchman sent messengers to our guardians and at 2 o'clock in the morning they had already set up ambushes in at least 3 or 4 places. The next day, at 7 o'clock, a dozen canoes arrived full of natives uttering fearsome cries. When they were opposite our place they suddenly stopped. We did not know what that meant. Monsignor always had his rosary in his hand. They saw two women of chiefly rank with us and talking to us, and that surprised them. Eventually they landed and fired a volley on the battlefield in honour of their dead. Afterward, our protectors emerged from the bush and ran upon the enemy like madmen and challenged them. The others responded and then they sat down together and had a discussion. Ours reproached them for destroying the town and now coming after the bishop, and said they would not allow it. There about 100 of the enemy and 500 of ours.
The next day the enemy went home and we hastened to transport our belongings to Terawiti among our protectors. The press went to Wangaroa. We left nothing at Kororareka, but 2 priests and 2 brothers remained there. I was sent with Fr Petit-Jean to Terawiti to look after our belongings. I am working there at my profession. I cannot make all the clothes now because I am frequently interrupted. We are in a reed hut; it takes in water like a bucket. It is 5 feet high, about 20 feet wide, and 30 long. Inside are 60 cases, all the printing paper, 3 beds, the dining room, the chapel, where we say Mass on weekdays, my workshop, and many other things. You see how grand we are. We are having a house built. We are in the middle of a pa (fortification) 3 or 4 leagues from Kororareka. There are many Catholics and also some Protestants quite hardened in error. The Catholics are good enough, though they are very hard on their priests. They don't know how to render them the least service without putting a price on it. When help is needed to draw the boat up on shore, they do not know how to give the least. They do not know what giving means. To crown it all, they think you have an obligation to provide them with everything they need.
These are our great trials. Still, the poor Maori are not the less deserving of compassion. Yes, my very dear Brother, don't forget our poor New Zealanders in your fervent prayers, nor us as well. We have so much need of grace to support us amidst these poor savages, especially me, a poor unfortunate sinner.
Let us go back to the war to finish the story. When the great chief Heke returned to his tribe, he encountered another chief with 400 men who had come to fight him. They joined battle but did one another no great harm. Some time after, the governor sent 400 soldiers to capture Heke, believing they could take him as if he were a little child. They marched inland under the protection of those who had fought Heke. The soldiers lost about 20 men and Heke the same through carelessness. The soldiers, seeing they could gain nothing, withdrew. At the end of May they returned with 700 men and 7 cannon, again under the protection of their Maori who numbered 400. For a dozen days they fired their cannon against Heke's wooden fortifications; what they destroyed during the day the Maori repaired at night. Finally, frustrated, the soldiers launched an assault. The Maori of the fort fired their cannon at the same time as the rifles, and killed about 100 soldiers. The rest then beat a retreat, and went on firing their cannon day and night. Heke, seeing his fort completely destroyed and the soldiers preparing a second assault, escaped in the dark of the night saying his pa had paid enough. There were only 400 of them. It's incredible what great warriors these Maori are. They aren't at all afraid of the English soldiers. Without their protectors it is possible not one of the latter would have returned.
One can believe it is God who has raised up this chief to confound the Protestants and humiliate the government. He has chased away his bishop who was living near his tribe. He told him some home truths. One would say he has studied the Catholic religion and the life of the priests, for he has a lot of respect for the priests but not much for the Protestant ministers. He is an eloquent man. He has a great liking for Monsignor and his priests, although he is still a Protestant. We believe the good God will reward him for the care with which he has looked after us. Pray for him so that he will be converted.
The Protestant bishop already had a big school which was going very well and was going to establish a college[5] which we would not have been able to do. As for this poor town of Kororareka, it had previously circulated such calumnies that the good God has chastised it, and the temple where all these calumnies were produced has been completely destroyed by the cannon, and the minister's house as well. It seems that they also fired at our big chapel but the cannon balls respected it - they fell three or four feet short and to the side.
The Catholic religion is making little progress now. The Protestant Maori are as prejudiced as their master. It is incredible how stubborn they are. They have certainly acquired the spirit of heresy. They are proud, insolent, malign, brooding, with savage expressions - they wear on their brows the signs of what they are. One can easily distinguish a Protestant Maori from a Catholic one. The devil also gets great amusement from these poor people. He makes himself heard by his whistling. It appears, so they say, that he makes himself visible and talks to them, especially when they are sick. He makes himself heard above the houses and that is why the roofs of the houses are sacred - because that is where their god dwells. They also have their priests who pray to them and speak to them.
I am still in good health but my soul is not so well. Please don't forget me, for I have great need of grace among these poor savages. Dear Br P. Marie is at Kororareka. He has his constant rheumatism and this causes him a lot of pain. Br Basile is there too. His health is marvellous.
In the tribe where I am we have about 40 communions every month. There are some every Sunday. The Maori here are the most fervent of the mission.
The paper has run out. There are many mistakes, but I cannot revise it. The boat is leaving.
I am your very humble and obedient servant,
Br Emery.


  1. hotete (otete): dried adult form of a rare native caterpillar (Maori "anuhe" when alive) with a peculiar growth on the nape of the neck. The Marists also gave specimens to the Captain of the "Rhin" for delivery to the museums of Paris and Avignon (Chouvet pp 89-90).
  2. Henry Williams (1782-1867) of the Church Missionary Society came to New Zealand in 1823. Although a staunch defender of Maori interests, he also possessed considerable land holdings purchased from the Maori, a fact which later brought him into conflict with Selwyn and led to his temporary dismissal from the CMS.
  3. using the more familiar Hone where Emery regularly offers its English equivalent: John
  4. News of the disaster caused panic in Auckland. Chouvet records: "We passed more than fifteen days in a painful and fearful wait for the enemy ... As for us, we had a staff in Auckland at that time of two priests and one brother and had hired places on a schooner for the three of us and our most important effects." (Chouvet p 80).
  5. college is the most likely reading here for what is not clear in the French. Bishop Selwyn had set up St. John's College at Waimate in 1842 and moved it to Auckland in 1844. He might have had similar plans for Kororareka.

Previous Letter Letters from Oceania Next letter