The Flagstaff War
While certainly not pointless – and certainly not to the New Zealand natives – the Flagstaff War is a prime example of a conflict that could have been easily avoided. Indeed, with a little more common sense and a touch of diplomacy, and a little less hot-headedness, the bloody fighting that gripped the small town of Kororareka in the 1840s might have been avoided altogether, saving as many as 200 lives and improving relations between the British and the Maoris who challenged their authority.
Certainly, the Maoris living in the Bay of Islands region of New Zealand had reason to feel aggrieved. While some leaders of the native people, including a tribal leader by the name of Hone Heke, had initially agreed to the British presence in the Bay of Islands, they would become markedly less enthusiastic following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. That agreement had a massive impact on the local economy, keeping whaling ships away from the town of Kororareka and the Bay of Islands in general. Simmering tensions between the British and the Maori came to a head in 1844 and in July of that year, Hone Heke decided to send out a clear signal of local feelings by chopping down the town’s flagstaff.
Rather than letting the matter lie, the British troops in the town took offense at the act of vandalism and swiftly erected a new flagstaff. Hone Heke returned to town and proceeded to chop this one down. A third one was then put up, only for it too to be chopped down. Then a fourth was put up, this time fortified with iron, and acting on orders from London, the British warned Hone Heke and his supporters that any more acts of vandalism would not go unpunished. Such tough words were a spectacular own-goal and failure of democracy. Far from cooling tensions, they made matters worse and on 11 March 1845, what started out as a minor sideshow became something much more serious.
Along with his tribe, Hone Heke rode into town and killed the innocent townsfolk. The British garrison was also attacked and soon overran. In all, an estimated 164 Maori warriors were killed, along with as many as 94 Brits. The fighting directly caused by the chopping down of the flagstaff would rage and simmer for ten long months. At the time, the British felt that it had been worth it. The rebellion was quashed and future subversion discouraged. At the same time, however, the British never did raise their flag again over the town of Kororareka, handing a symbolic victory to the Maori.