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How a Quadruple-Murder Made New Zealand

Wiremu Kīngi Maketū went on a killing spree, and New Zealand was born.



Under the faint moonlight of November 20, 1841, Maketū Wharetotara crept up on the sleeping figure of Thomas Bull. In his hand was an adze: a curved horizontal axe used by the Maori for hollowing out canoes.[1]

A few days earlier Bull, who managed the British-owned farm where Maketū worked, had insulted the man and threatened to revoke his pay and board. What Bull didn’t know was that the young man was disturbed, prone to fits of rage and violence.[2]

Now, looming over Bull, Maketū snapped. He plunged his adze into Bull’s skull, killing him instantly. But they weren’t alone. The farm’s owner, Elizabeth Roberton stumbled onto the scene, bleary-eyed and confused. She didn’t stand a chance. Her two children, including her half-Maori adopted daughter, were next. Maketū set fire to the farm and fled.[3]

Within days, British authorities came looking for Maketū, but the Maori refused to surrender him.[4] There was no denial of his crimes, no doubt he must be punished. But Maketū was Maori, the son of a chief. This was for the Maori to adjudicate—not these foreigners.[5]

Though none yet knew it and many today have forgotten his story, it was this brutal act—lowly Maketū, with his blood-stained adze—that paved the devastating warpath which would transform the Maori land of Aotearoa into the British nation of New Zealand.


The basis of the Maori objection to Maketū’s surrender was a treaty signed about a year and a half earlier at Waitangi, not far from the site of the crime.[6] With the Waitangi Treaty, the Maori believed they’d reached an agreement with the British, whereby each would respect the other’s sovereignty over their respective lands and people.

The British, however, had an altogether different idea, arguing the Maori had given up their sovereignty in exchange for British security and peace.[7] As it happens, this very disagreement has burst into the spotlight at the center of a political crisis in New Zealand today. We’ve got a short explainer all about it.

Anyways, on the surface, the disagreement could be chalked up to differences in translation, but in reality it had far deeper roots in a clash between the individualistic, hierarchical ethos of the British and the communitarian culture of the Maori: essential differences brought to the fore by Maketū’s crime, which threatened the very possibility of British-Maori coexistence.[8]

But though war loomed on the horizon, for now most of the senior chiefs of the Ngāpuhi, the Maori Iwi or tribe to which Maketū belonged, preferred compromise to confrontation with the colonists. And so on December 16th, they assembled to deliberate the matter at a summit organized by the British. One young chief in attendance didn’t share his elders' readiness to bargain with the British, a man who would prove to be one of the most important Ngāpuhi in the age of colonization: Hōne Heke.[9]

Representatives gathered in Paihia from all over Te Tai Tokerau, traveling for days in some cases: a serious problem for Hone Heke when he forgot his compelling powerpoint on his desktop back at Puketutu. If only he could control any of his devices from anywhere in the world, at any time!

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That’s Thank you, AnyDesk. Now, back to Paihia.

So who was this young firebrand, Hōne Heke, and why was he willing, even eager to go to war over Maketū?

One of the first signatories to the Waitangi Treaty and an enthusiastic convert to Anglicanism, Heke wasn’t anti-British. He was happy to live in a New Zealand big enough for a reasonably sized settler population that could coexist peacefully and productively with the native Maori.[10]

But in the case of Maketū, Heke saw profound consequence. If the British had the legal right to execute a Maori man—as they surely would Maketū—coexistence was doomed. It would be an unmistakable signal that British law trumped Maori customs, that the Maori weren’t coequals but mere subjects of the British crown.

While some chiefs shared Heke’s apprehension, few were convinced. The murder of Elizabeth Roberton and her children was horrific, there was no question about that. Moreover, her half-Maori adopted daughter had been the grandchild of one of the chiefs at the meeting![11] Did it really matter who carried out Maketū’s punishment, if the end result was the same?

In the end, even Maketū’s father consented to his surrender.[12] On March 1st, 1842, the case came before the colony’s Supreme Court.[13] The trial was short and straightforward; the judge and prosecution viewed the matter as an impartial enforcement of British law, in line with the Waitangi Treaty.[14] Maketū was convicted and sentenced to death. His execution was scheduled for a week later, on March 7th in the colonial capital of Auckland.

He was hanged on March 7 in the colonial capital of Auckland. It was the first execution in the history of New Zealand.[15]


When word of Maketū’s execution reached the Ngāpuhi from Auckland, none were surprised at his fate, least of all Hōne Heke. While he had no sympathy for the wretched man, he was hardly convinced by the British insistence that this was nothing more than the impartial enforcement of the law. He still believed it was a sure signal the British considered themselves a superior authority in Aotearoa.

Still, few Maori shared his cynicism. Heke, though, had spent most of the 1830s living in Paihia, studying with an Anglican Reverend.[16] He’d learned the outcomes of other British colonial endeavors, that their apparent friendliness would track inversely with their growing settler population and military strength. Before long, many more Maori would come to see the British as Heke did.

For now, however, their trusting attitude could hardly be chalked up to mere ignorance. They had good reason to tolerate, even appreciate the British presence. They protected Maori lands from French aggression, adjudicated land transactions with dishonest settlers, and brought plentiful trade to Aotearoa, making many Maori wealthier and more powerful than ever before.

In fact, Heke himself was one of the greatest beneficiaries of all this trade, as he and his cousin collected a 5-pound fee on every ship that entered the Bay of Islands.[17] However, just as the British could cultivate exchange, they wielded the power to discourage it. In 1841, the British instituted import taxes on many key commodities.[18] Almost instantly, the Ngāpuhi saw a key redeeming quality of the British presence begin to evaporate.

By 1844, the Maori economy was devastated, and Heke himself hardly escaped the depression. The only silver lining was that, as trade continued to dwindle, many other Ngāpuhi began to realize he’d been right all those years ago in the debate over Maketū’s surrender. That same year, the Parliament back in London, entirely oblivious to the reality of Maori relations, announced a sweeping revision to the Treaty of Waitangi, declaring that recognition of Maori ownership of all land in New Zealand was a mistake: in effect, allowing colonial authorities to “legally”seize any land not actively used by Maori.[19]

As soon as the decree reached the Bay, there was no longer any ambiguity; the British meant to drive the Maori out of their own land. Anyone could see it. The treaty wasn’t a sly attempt to get the Maori to sign away their rights. It was just a distraction, nothing more: something to keep the Maori occupied until the British felt secure enough to expand their claim.

But in its ignorance, Parliament overplayed its hand. Heke knew how insecure the British truly were. He knew the strength of his people, the defensibility of Maori forts, and the power of a native understanding of the land. He knew, most of all, that the British knew none of this, that they would be arrogantly assured of their own superiority to Maori backwardness. He knew this would be their downfall. Now was his time to strike.

By mid-July, 1845, word arrived to Governor Robert Fitzroy in Auckland that the British flag at Russell, which flew right here, had been felled by a party of Maori warriors led by Heke a few days earlier: a monumental insult to British authority.[20] If they could not keep the Union Jack flying atop Maiki Hill, overlooking all of the Bay of Islands, their power hardly existed there at all. Yet even panicked Fitzroy failed to comprehend just how consequential this act of defiance was. He had no idea that it would set New Zealand inexorably on the path to a war which would bring the British occupation of Aotearoa nearer to defeat than any other time in its history.

For now, peace seemed possible—the summit to determine Maketū’s fate had seemed to work; why not another? But while some Ngāpuhi chiefs attended, Heke refused to appear. Fitzroy offered to relieve the Bay of all customs duties. The chiefs promised this was all they desired, and that Heke too would be placated.[21]

And so peace was made. It lasted until January.

Fitzroy was shaken to his core. Word from Russell was that the flag had been felled a second time. Worse still, after the deed, Hōne Heke was said to have paraded his war canoes through the bay, displaying the American flag; the taxation was gone, but Heke knew that nothing was guaranteed without representation.[22]

Immediately, Fitzroy dispatched a ship and detachment of soldiers to Russell to once more erect the Queen’s colours over the Bay. On the 17th, they arrived and did their duty. Before the sun rose on the 18th, it was felled once more.

Fitzroy finally understood. He sent word to Australia, begging for reinforcements. But by the time they reached the Bay, the flag had fallen a fourth time, Russell was in ashes, and war had begun.


The assault was launched on the 11th of March, several weeks after the flag was re-erected for the third time in January. It began at about 4am, when the silent twilight on Maiki Hill was shattered by volleys of muskets in the town below. The men fortifying the flagstaff rushed to investigate. It was all the opportunity Heke needed to surprise them and fell the flagstaff a fourth and final time. Six hours later, Heke watched from this very hilltop as the British surrendered, evacuated Russell, and boarded ships for Auckland. The town was in ruins, and there was no longer any doubt; the Maori had the power to drive the British into the sea.[23]

It was a message hardly lost on Governor Fitzroy, as refugees arrived in the capital with stories of Maori bravery, cunning, and strength. He knew he had to march north and strike a blow against Heke. If word of this success spread among the Maori without a sign of British strength in response, it could spell disaster for the colonists, who still depended on alliances with some tribes.

So, Fitzroy’s man Lieutenant-Colonel Hulme led a cohort of soldiers, some Auckland volunteers, and a number of allied Maori warriors to meet Heke at his own fort, Puketutu Pa. As early as this march, disaster in battle was foretold, as the Maori watched Hulme’s men struggle along the muddy path without artillery, sufficient rations, or proper camp equipment.[24]

Sure enough, the May 8th Battle of Puketutu went poorly for Hulme. After a day of brutal fighting, both sides counted heavy losses, but Hulme’s forces were exhausted and without supplies, unable to mount a second offensive. They had massively underestimated the Maori, and the first British march inland in New Zealand’s history had ended in defeat.[25] Hulme’s successor would fare even worse.

Colonel Despard arrived in early June, with fresh troops and a stale perspective: disdain for the Maori. One mistake he would not repeat, though: artillery. The barrage on Ohaeawai Pa began June 24th, but Despard’s small guns were no match for the Maori fortifications. Following a week of frustration, Despard finally decided to charge the fort. After all, he outnumbered the defenders at least three-to-one, and each British man must be worth at least five savages, he thought.[26]

On July 1st, Corporal Free fixed his bayonet. “When we were within about fifty paces of the stockade-front we cheered and went at it with a rush, our best speed and ‘divil take the hindmost.’ The whole front of the pa flashed fire, and in a moment we were in the one-sided fight—gun-flashes from the foot of the stockade and from loopholes higher up, smoke half-hiding the pa from us, yells and cheers, and men falling all round.”[27]

It was a disaster. Despard’s front collapsed, as he ordered a retreat. Heke’s forces, almost unscathed, triumphed at Ohaeawai, trouncing the largest British force yet deployed in New Zealand. But the war wasn’t over yet.

The British needed a change at the top. On November 14th, Governor Fitzroy’s replacement George Grey arrived on the scene. Unlike his predecessors, Grey respected the Maori’s martial prowess, and he intended to order the campaign accordingly. So he began with a peace offer stipulating, among other things, respect for the British flag and authority. Heke dignified it with a response. “Let the Governor and his soldiers return to England to the land that God has given them, and leave [this land] to us, to whom God has given it.”[28] But that just wasn’t on the table.

So in December Grey set his 1,500 troops, including roughly 500 allied Maori, on the march south from Russell, to Ruapekapeka Pa: the most formidable Pa yet constructed by the Maori. With guns twice the size of Despard’s at Ohaeawai, Grey’s artillery opened fire on January 10th, 1846: the beginning of the end.

Inside the fort, the walls and ground shook with each thunderous blow, one following ceaselessly the last. Hōne Heke urged a retreat; the walls simply couldn’t withstand this battery. The other chiefs insisted the fort would hold.[29]

The next morning, friendly Maori scouts spied a gap in the pa, blown open by artillery. The firing ceased, as British troops suddenly surged into the fort. But inside, they didn’t find a soul. Thinking the Maori had retreated through the rear, they gave chase, charging headlong into the woods behind the Pa. But suddenly musket fire erupted from all around—the Maori were hidden in the trees.

Still, it was too little, too late. Ruapekapeka was put to the torch, leaving Heke’s men scattered and bereft of sanctuary.[30] All that remains of the once great fort are these trenches.

The chiefs made peace, without securing Maori sovereignty. Yet it wasn’t a total loss. Grey absolved Heke and his men of any offenses. There would be no confiscations of land. No retribution. And the flagstaff on Maiki hill would not be raised once more.

One of the top chiefs on Heke’s side, Kawiti, reflected on the war. “I have stood five successive engagements with the soldiers belonging to the greatest white nation in the world, the soldiers that we have been told would fight until every man was killed. But I am now perfectly satisfied they are men, not gods. And had they nothing but muskets, the same as ourselves, I should be in my pa today.”[31]


In the end, the war was essentially a draw. And though Kawiti was right that the British were mere men, not gods, and that it was technology to which they owed the draw, Heke’s war—sparked by the grim crimes of one rage-fuelled man—was the last best chance for the Maori to secure their place as coequals with the British rather than colonial subjects.

By 1860, the once small minority of whit e settlers had grown to outnumber the Maori.[32] Even mere men, in great enough numbers, can become almost unstoppable. To defend what they were so rapidly losing, the Maori fought yet another war for their sovereignty. But British technology, thanks to industrialization, had only further outstripped Maori weapons since their last meeting.[33] This time, there was no draw. The British won. And there was no conciliation, no proclamations of absolution or hesitation from land confiscation. Confident in the finality of their victory, the British simply stole huge swathes of Maori land, a massive dispossession that relegated the Maori to ever shrinking corners of New Zealand.[34]

Unfortunately, the past can’t be undone. But remembering this history offers the opportunity to correct, to improve, to build a more just society on the basis of more responsive and representative democratic institutions. And to their credit, New Zealand has made a lot of progress toward this goal, thanks in no small part to tireless Maori activism, which has secured some shared Maori sovereignty and political input.[35]

Such activism began to peak in the 1970s and ‘80s, as Maori advocated for adherence to the original Waitangi Treaty and all that entailed for Maori rights and sovereignty. In turn, numerous reforms followed, addressing the history of land seizures and granting Maori more influence in government policy about matters like natural resource management.

Interestingly enough, however, New Zealand’s most unique reforms began in 1867 with the Maori Representation Act. A first of its kind policy which established special legislative seats elected by Maori voters, guaranteeing a voice for the country’s now-minority native people.

All that said, wounds this deep won’t heal quickly, no matter how consequential or creative the political innovations may be. Between Maori and Pakeha, there remain striking disparities in health, wealth, and education, but progress is being made. And while those special Maori electoral seats are safe for now, the Waitangi Treaty is under real threat. Because progress isn’t inevitable or guaranteed.

However, while New Zealand may not be able to escape its bloody origins, with an honest assessment of the past and real democratic accountability, they’ve proven that a better future is possible.


(† = page numbers unavailable)

  1. Paul Moon, “Maketū’s Execution and the Extension of British Sovereignty in New Zealand,” in Te Kaharoa, vol. 6 (2013).
  2. †Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand (Penguin Books: New York City, 2003).
  3. †Danny Keenan, Wars Without End | Nga Pakanga Whenua O Mua: New Zealand’s Land Wars—A Maori Perspective (Penguin, 2021).
  4. “Plain facts relative to the late war in the northern district of New Zealand,” (Philip Kunst, Auckland, 1847).
  5. †Vincent O’Malley, The New Zealand Wars | Nga Pakanga O Aotearoa (Bridget Williams Books, 2019).
  6. R v Maketū, 1842.
  7. †James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars, 1923,

  1. A, p.37, 40-41 ↩︎

  2. A, p.40 ↩︎

  3. A, p.40-41 ↩︎

  4. A, p.42 ↩︎

  5. A, p.44 ↩︎

  6. B, ch.11 ↩︎

  7. Ibid. ↩︎

  8. C, ch.1 ↩︎

  9. D, p.9 ↩︎

  10. E, ch.2 ↩︎

  11. A, p.43 ↩︎

  12. A, p.44 ↩︎

  13. A, p.46 ↩︎

  14. F ↩︎

  15. A, p.46-47 ↩︎

  16. G, ch.3 ↩︎

  17. Ibid. ↩︎

  18. Ibid. ↩︎

  19. Ibid. ↩︎

  20. Ibid. ↩︎

  21. Ibid. ↩︎

  22. Ibid. ↩︎

  23. G, ch.4 ↩︎

  24. G, ch.5 ↩︎

  25. G, ch.6 ↩︎

  26. G, ch.7 ↩︎

  27. G, ch.8 ↩︎

  28. G, ch.9 ↩︎

  29. Ibid. ↩︎

  30. Ibid. ↩︎

  31. Ibid. ↩︎

  32. B, ch.12 ↩︎

  33. E, ch.1 ↩︎

  34. E, ch.5 ↩︎

  35. B, ch.21, 28 ↩︎


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