Hone Heke was a man of his word. He had promised the governor he would put up a new flagstaff on Maiki Hill after felling the old one in July 1844. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t chop it down again if necessary. And again, and again. Down she came. For the fourth time. It was March 1845.
|Heke Fells the Flagstaff at Kororareka, A-004-037, ATL|
Pandemonium ensued. A smoker dropped ash on some kegs of gunpowder, causing the whole magazine to blow. Heke had no truck with the settlers. His warriors even helped some of them flee town. But now it was too late to go back. It was a question of mana.
Kororareka. The Hell-hole of the Pacific, they reckoned. Today it is refined, posh Russell. But the past lingers everywhere. It’s like a living museum.
The British never did re-erect their flagstaff. Maori did it instead, in 1858. They had made their point. The flagstaff would be a token of reconciliation, not a symbol of sovereignty. They called it ‘Te Whakakotahitanga’, the binding together. The government preferred to see it as a sign of submission. Ngapuhi had finally decided to bow to a superior power.
|The Flagstaff before its partial destruction in 1913|
But Maori were being driven out of the town. By the 1860s the land had nearly all passed to the Pakeha. The dodgy grog-sellers of old had given way to a more respectable class of settler — god fearing and upright, unfamiliar with the old days when Maori were a force to be reckoned with. Back then, it wasn’t a case of political correctness. You could get into a lot of trouble if you didn’t abide by the native ways. Tapu and all that.
Now they were virtually invisible. And the flagstaff? Like the Treaty that was stashed away in the basement of Parliament, to be nibbled away at by rats, it could safely be ignored. It made a handy shipping signal station for a while, though a gorse fire in 1913 left it considerably shorter than before.
They touched the flagstaff up for the Queen’s visit in 1953. Drunken sailors played out an old naval joke on the eve of Waitangi Day the following year. Not so funny in the morning perhaps. The four naval ratings (three of them Maori) had just about succeeded in felling the flagstaff.
Vandals, property developers and political protestors. It is hard to say who did the most damage. A road was built up the hill after the war. A housing subdivision followed. One bureaucrat reckoned it wasn’t a good look having the flagstaff surrounded by backyards, clotheslines and cars. No RMA back in the seventies though. And no one thought to ask Maori about it.
Somewhere along the way, history got lost in the wash. Folks forgot who had put up the new flagstaff. In the 1980s it became the site for new acts of protest. Chopped down twice in 1981. Two years later they tied sticks of gelignite to its base. The explosion was heard three kilometres away. A note was found. ‘The Treaty is a Fraud’, it said.
|The base of the flagstaff after the 1983 explosion, Northern Advocate|
By 1992 Te Whakakotahitanga was near terminal. Rotted and beyond repair. They took it down for a closer look. Not as sick as first feared. There were speeches and prayers and feasting when Te Whakakotahitanga went up again the following year.
|The flagstaff today, doc.govt.nz|
The local iwi had no marae in the town to prepare for the occasion. Some folks didn’t want them back. Things got nasty for a bit. Haratu marae opened in 2009, under the shadow of Te Whakakotahitanga — a flagstaff that silently tells the story of the town beneath it.