The Battle for Kawiti's Ohaeawai Pa
by James Graham
The battle of Ohaeawai Pa was Kawiti's greatest victory and one of the three most serious defeats for the British in New Zealand. Designed and defended solely by Kawiti and his warriors Ohaeawai was the prototype of a new kind of pa.
Kawiti's innovations to the traditional pa were not only groundbreaking in Maori warfare but were also amongst some of the most sophisticated entrenchments in the world. A firing trench five or six feet deep was located within the inner palisade. This allowed the Maori to fire by standing on firing steps cut in the side unmolested by return fire from the soldiers. The warriors fired through loopholes cut in the palisades which can be clearly seen in Bridge's drawing. Being able to place their muskets along the ground gave the Kawiti's warriors the opportunity to align their targets properly. In this way the trench also improved the notoriously wayward accuracy of muskets. This firing trench was not continuous but consisted of many small sections connected by a series of tiny communication trenches. Secondary communication trenches also connected opposite sides of the pa. Ohaeawai's most remarkable feature was its artillery bunkers which the Maori called ruas. The rua were hollow caves roofed with timber, earth, fern and stones. These caves allowed the defenders of the pa to survive the British bombardment virtually unharmed. Ohaeawai's entrenchments were light years in front of previous Maori pas.
The construction of the pa was not the only means Kawiti used to gain ascendancy in the battle of Ohaewai. All contact between the garrison and the British forces was cut before and during the battle. This left colonel Despard with no creditable information about the strength of the pa since visual observations was obscured by flax and the pekerangi. Fire control was also of vital importance as the defenders had time for only a single volley before the soldiers made it to the pekerangi. This volley was fired in one coordinated motion when the soldiers were within twenty five yards of the pa. The effect of this volley was to effectively stop the advance in its tracks.
Ohaeawai was a significant victory for the anti government Nga Puhi and provided a blueprint for future Maori resistance. At the time of the attack the pa contained only 100 warriors. The storming party contained 250 of the best soldiers in the world but was comprehensively smashed losing 110 killed and wounded. Kawiti lost between one and ten soldiers killed during the entire British siege and attack. Such a complete victory proved to the Maori that they could not only fight but also defeat some of the most disciplined soldiers in the world. Both Heke and Kawiti's numbers of supporters increased rapidly after Ohaeawai broadening the Northen War. Kawiti also displayed the hindsight of the great leader he was when he despatched messengers around the country carrying models of Ohaeawai Pa. This ensured his adaptations of the traditional pa and his other innovations would come back to haunt the British time and time again.
The defeat was a tremendous blow for European settlement in Northland. The government's plans to bring the Maori in the north under their control looked a complete loss after the battle. Kawiti was not only able to fight again another day but his support increased was also significantly after the battle. Ohaeawai then, strengthened Kawiti the exact opposite of the British aim which was to cripple him.