Heritage Talk - Gunfighter Pā

Plan of Ōhaeawai pa copied from a drawing taken by Mr Symonds of the 99th Regt [1845].

The genesis of Ōhaeawai and Ruapekapeka gunfighter pā

Talk date: 29 March 2023.

Following the Ngapuhi rangatira Hongi Hika’s return from England to Aotearoa with 200 muskets in 1820, the process of learning how to use muskets as an effective means of attack began. This is well documented in the 1820s during the period of intertribal fighting known as the 'Musket Wars'.  

However, the first clear historic evidence of Māori defensive gunfighter pa appears over 20 years later at the Ohaeawai and Ruapekapeka Northern Wars battlefields. Here specialist flatland pa with an integrated range of defensive gunfighter pits, underground bunkers and tunnels to protect against British muskets, cannon and explosive artillery, suddenly appear fully formed in the archaeological record.

It is argued that gunfighter pa were present from the 1820s onwards and were the genesis of these complex pa built to fight the British Imperial forces in 1845-6.

This talk explored how these gunfighter pa evolved and why they are so hard to see archaeologically. 

Picture shows a Plan of Ōhaeawai pa by Thomas Hutton, copied from a drawing taken by Mr Symonds of the 99th Regt [1845]
https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/plan-ohaeawai-pa, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage). 

Picture of Dr James Robinson.

About Dr James Robinson

Archaeologist, historian and archivist, James is a highly experienced landscape archaeologist who thrives on multidisciplinary approaches to recording history - especially working with tangata whenua (people of the land) partners to incorporate traditional knowledge into interpretations about the human settlement of the Pacific. He has a specific focus on Northland where he has worked for over 30 years.

Aotearoa New Zealand is the world's last significant landmass to be settled by humanity. Sometime around 1300AD, voyagers came from a Hawaiki (Polynesian homeland) made up of a cluster of island groups in Eastern Polynesia. James uses a wide range of resource material to study the unique culture that Māori developed here as tangata whenua and the later similarly unique Pakeha (European) society that developed in the 1800s, after the country was rediscovered by European explorers. He is interested in questions about what drove people to cross such vast distances and risk so much to make a new life in this strange new world.

James incorporates a variety of European sciences and history alongside traditional knowledge to recreate testable stories about the human settlement of the south Pacific. He tries to explain how and why such unique cultures developed in Aotearoa New Zealand.

His studies include:

  • Surveying the complex reticulated taro gardens of the Puna K’eia region of Mangaia in the Southern Cook Islands of Eastern Polynesia
  • Excavating an early Polynesian settlement site of Mangahawea Bay in the Bay of Islands, where the first colonisers to this country began their hikoi (journey) to become Māori.
  • Mapping the abruptly abandoned classic (circa 1800AD) period Māori archaeological landscape of Tawhiti Rahi (the Poor Knights Islands) offshore from Northland as part of his doctoral research.
  • Teasing out the 1860s gunfighter defences built on a much older traditional pa (hill fort) of Hungahungatoroa in the East Coast region.

James is based in Northland - one of the cradles for the development of Māori and Pakeha society. He is the Senior Archaeologist for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, the lead heritage government agency responsible for protecting archaeology.