“The Battle of Gate Pa was arguably the most important battle of the New Zealand Wars, in terms of both its political effects and its wider implications for military technology. Historians have failed to appreciate its full significance because the contemporary British interpretations, on which they rely, were dominated by the shock of defeat and the need to palliate it.” (Belich, 1986, p. 180.)
On the 29th April 2014, an important anniversary will be marked on our national calendar, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Pukehinahina, also known as the Battle of Gate Pā. In Tauranga, the home of this significant battle, there are a number of different commemorative activities happening yet it is just one in a series of different important occasions across the North Island organised to remember these exceptionally important events in our national history, and which form our collective memory of the New Zealand Wars.
Other battles that have been commemorated across the country include Rangiriri, Ōrākau, and Rangiaowhia. Each site and event continues to be significant to their communities, and especially Māori, so the memorialisation of each battle is marked with great solemnity.
Gate Pā / Pukehinahina
A famous symbol of the Battle of Gate Pā is the flag that flew above the pā during the conflict. In this famous Robley portrait from the Alexander Turnbull Library, of the tupuna, Henare Taratoa, sitting in front of the pā, you can see the flag flying in the distance:
The Gate Pā flag consisted of three symbols on a red background – a cross, a new crescent moon, and a star. The icons used in the flag are related to the various Hauhau flags that flew during the New Zealand Wars, and there are multiple interpretations of the meanings of these symbols. The rīpeka or the cross is a sign of the adoption of Judeo-Christianity syncretised with the new Pai Mārire faith that had been embraced in some parts of Tauranga at the time. The star has been thought to symbolise the star of Bethlehem, also the name of a district in Tauranga. In other flags of the same period, the crescent moon is said to represent the Old Testament of the Bible and the cross is also said to represent the New Testament (Orbell, 1965, p. 32). However these interpretations are taken from flags related to the prophet Te Kooti, so their application to the Gate Pā flag may not be exact.
James Belich explains the strategic role that the flag played in the battle:
Maoris [sic] had cunningly placed their red war flag some sixty yards behind their actual position. It is possible that they had also through up some mock fortifications at this point. This induced some of the British gunners initially to believe that the centre of the Maori position was marked by the flag, and to direct their fire at it. (Belich, 1986, p. 183.)
While Belich notes that this tactic did not fool the British troops for long, the flag in combination with other factors in the course of the battle (such as the leadership of Rawiri Puhirake and the fortifications built at Pukehinahina by Pene Taka Tuaia, among other things), allowed Māori an advantage under extraordinarily heavy bombardment. By the end of the battle, the British had to concede defeat with a loss of approximately 111 men, with losses on the Māori side of about 32.
Gate Pā in Te Papa’s Collection
For those interested, there is the W.F. Gordon collection of Māori and Colonial flags from the New Zealand Wars periods. Also of note in the museum’s collection are the series of watercolours created by Horatio Gordon Robley, an officer who served with the colonial forces in Tauranga. His images serve as valuable reminders of the fortifications at Gate Pā, and an engraving after his Breach of Gate Pa, morning of April 30, 1864 was to be published in the Illustrated London News a few months later (Museum of New Zealand & McAloon, 2009, p. 78).
Te Papa commemorates Pukehinahina
To contribute to the commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gate Pā, Te Papa Tongarewa will be flying a replica of the famous flag that flew at Pukehinahina on the 29th of April, from the main flagpoles outside the museum, beside the New Zealand and Chinese national flags. The flag will for one day to signify not only the 150th anniversary of the battle, but to also acknowledge the important series of anniversaries around the country that reflect upon the New Zealand Wars and their importance to our national history.
- Battle of Gate Pā: Māori – Battle of Gate Pa, 1864 – Tauranga Memories. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://tauranga.kete.net.nz/en/battle_of_gate_pa_1864/topics/show/1503-battle-of-gate-pa-maori
- Belich, J. (1986). The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict. Auckland: Auckland University Press.
- Museum of New Zealand, & McAloon, W. (2009). Art at Te Papa. Wellington, N.Z: Te Papa Press.
- Orbell, M. (1965, March). Maori Flags and Banners. Te Ao Hou, 50, 32-35. Retrieved from http://teaohou.natlib.govt.nz/journals/teaohou/issue/Mao50TeA/c21.html