Getting close and personal with taonga (treasures) that speak of people and nations is one of the many things that make working at the Whanganui Regional Museum special. It would be easy to write a sexy piece about something elaborate or breath-taking, but I have chosen a very unassuming chunk of a painted wooden pole.
The label simply reads “TH.1231. Part of a flagpole”. Some pretty intense research, however, has revealed an amazing story. This 50cm length of flagpole is an important part of Aotearoa history; it is a section of the fourth flagstaff that the legendary Hōne Heke chopped down.
At school we were taught about this “troublemaker”, the flagpole-felling rebel who was finally subdued by Governor George Grey. But there is more to Hōne Heke than meets the eye.
Hōne Wiremu Heke Pōkai was a great rangatira (chief) and war strategist from Ngā Puhi, who was the first to sign Te Tiriti o Waitangi. After Māori leaders of The United Tribes signed the Declaration of Independence on 28 October 1835 and declared their sovereignty, Hōne gifted a flagstaff to Kororāreka (Russell) so that the United Tribes flag could be flown.
In 1836 King William IV sanctioned The United Tribes Declaration and the flag, making it our nation’s first official flag. Used until 1902, this flag featured on the medals presented to soldiers who served in the South African War (1899–1902).
After the signing of the Tiriti o Waitangi, Governor Hobson had the United Tribes flag removed from the flagstaff and flew the British flag there. Hōne Heke saw this as a rejection of the equal status of Māori with the government. He wished to show his objection without hurting or alarming settlers so cut his flagstaff down on 8 July 1844, and wrote to the new Governor Fitzroy on 19 June:
Friend Governor… 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.
The flagstaff was replaced and the British flag re-flown, increasing Māori disquiet. Hōne cut down replacement flagstaffs on 10 January and 18 January 1845. A military presence was established in Kororāreka in February and Governor Fitzroy posted a £100 reward for the arrest of Hōne Heke. It is rumoured that Heke responded by offering a £100 reward for the governor’s head!
On 30 December 1897 the Wanganui Chronicle published a letter by Samuel Drew, our Museum founder, stating that James J Clendon Esq, RM, sent him the piece of flagpole and “vouched” its authenticity. Clendon was a ship owner and captain before settling in Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands) in 1832. A successful merchant, farmer, JP, Police Magistrate, and eventually Magistrate of the Court, he collected the pole whilst holding the position of Police Magistrate. The article reads:
… the last chopping down of this staff that was the starting point of that Hone Heke war which proved so disastrous to our troops. … He considered that while the British flag was floating there the Pakeha would acquire Maori land and with it a power that would oust the Maori, much in the same way as the white people were doing in Van Dieman’s Land and Australia …
… to prevent any more chopping iron plates were fastened round its base, and a block house built round it so that the staff came through the centre of the roof. This time it was left unmolested until March 11th, 1845, when in the first grey of the morning an attack was made. … The strong iron casing on the flagstaff did not protect it for the Maoris quickly dug below the iron and soon chopped it through. Here it fell and lay on the ground for many years. … Our soldiers were afterwards sent several times to chastise Heke. He was a noble old warrior and fought well, and was never beaten, but our troops suffered severely in the assaults on their strong pahs.
This plain, humble piece of wood is the essence of our nation’s history.
Āwhina Twomey is Kaitiaki Taonga Māori and Kaiwhakaako at Whanganui Regional Museum.