No settlement in New Zealand can claim a past as colourful and chequered as that of Kororāreka, in the Bay of Islands, later to become Russell.

35°16’.089 S

174°07’.221 E

Under the waves of Kororāreka Bay, there is said to be a Cannon. This forgotten iron played an important role in New Zealand’s founding days


Rum has flavoured the Bay of Islands since the first European footprints in New Zealand.

While James Cook anchored at Motuarohia (Roberton) Island in 1769, three crew members of the Endeavour received a dozen lashes each for indulging in ship’s cask of Rum. This was one of the first records of alcohol in New Zealand and established the course of the country’s relationship with Rum.

Kororāreka, Bay of Isalands NZ, 1836

Kororāreka, (1843) by Charles Pharazyn, to the left is Socabaya in Matauwhi Bay

A short time after Cook’s visits, the anchorage of Kororāreka became a port with no laws for whaling and sealing ships of the Southern Pacific. For the loose living men working these early industries, Kororāreka became a temporary home. In every ship’s cargo were both muskets and rum. Like a sailor’s tattoo, these cargoes left a permanent mark on the wild and lawless town.

Grog shops were soon set up on the beach and in basic huts. Simply a place to dilute rum from a cask to be sold it any bottle one could find. As many as 60 were operating in Kororāreka in 1830.

In addition to the prolific grog shops, there was a willing female population. Prostitution was the industry of Kororāreka during this time. Local girls would join the visiting boats and where possible they would be paid in muskets. At all times the rum flowed freely on the boats and beach. The widespread introduction of guns to New Zealand was interlinked with rum and prostitution. For very good reasons, by the 1830’s Kororāreka was widely known as the “Hellhole of the Pacific”. The “Girls War” of 1830 saw over 30 people killed in a conflict over trading rights.

On the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1835, Charles Darwin described the people of Kororāreka as “the very refuse of society”.


New Zealand is a nation founded on Rum, and the fear of its consequences.

Hone Heke was a prominent Chief of the Bay of Islands. In 1840, at Waitangi he was very supportive of proposed treaty between Maori and the British Crown. In argument for the Treaty, Hone Heke  showed how much concern there was to the impacts of the alcohol culture that was deeply entrenched across the water at nearby Kororāreka. 

‘Governor,’ he told Hobson, ‘you should stay with us and be like a father. If you go away, then the French and the rum sellers will take us Māori over.’ The following day, he was the first of more than 40 northern chiefs to sign.

The Treaty of Waitangi


The 3 mast Francisca (725 tons) was built in 1836 on the side shores of the River Guayas in Ecuador. Later sold into Peruvian Naval service & renamed Socabaya, she was classified as a Corvette, armed with 24 x 12 pounder cannon under Santa Cruz Marshall, who became Dictator of Peru and Bolivia.

Chile at war with Peru captured most of the Peruvian Navy including Socabaya on the 17 August 1838. The Socabaya then went into service with Chile’s Navy. After the war ended in 1840 Socabaya was sold for $13,100 to Chilean Merchants.

Chile was well known for its excellent horses, horsemen and cavalry, breeding and selling many horses internationally, this horse trade is also noted by Charles Darwin during his visit to Chile 1832‐1835.

 Socabaya sailed from Valparaiso, Chile with Sydney as its destination. Due to storm damage it arrived in Kororāreka in July 1841 carrying a cargo of horses, which were sold for £30 ‐ £70 each. Due to the storm damage she was deemed unseaworthy, sold to Ben Turner for salvage, & driven up onto the shore in Matauwhi Bay where her equipment (including a 12pdr cannon, 9 pdr cannon and a 12 pdr carronade) & ballast were unloaded.


In 1840, the Treaty was signed across the bay at Waitangi. Associated with this New Zealand’s capital was founded at nearby Okiato. This was a time prosperity and trade for the Maori people of the Bay of Islands.  All this changed a year later when the capital was relocated to Auckland.

In 1841 Customs Duties were imposed by the Crown on imported trading goods. These taxes were levied on basic food items at 5%, alcohol with a minimum of 15% and guns at 30%. The free trading port of Kororāreka was hit hard by this first sign of government authority, so feely accepted a little over a year previously.

Local displeasure at the Crown position reached a point in mid 1844 when a demonstration was made by Hone Heke as he cut down the British flag overlooking Russell. This was intended to show displeasure at the British government without threatening Pākehā settlers. Over the following months, the flagpole was re-erected and cut down again three times.

Each time the flag was cut, there was an escalation of tension and military presence in Russell. By February 1845 the Royal Navy ship “HMS Hazard” was stationed in Kororāreka Bay, with Royal Marines deployed onshore to protect the town and its flagstaff. The final cutting of the flag marked the start of the Northern War.

On the morning of 11 March 1845, Hone Heke assembled a force of 600 Ngapuhi which he split into three groups of 200. Using local knowledge and stealth, two groups moved by canoe in order to attack Russell from the sea. Heke landed at Oneroa (Long Beach) and creeped from the East up to the flagstaff. The Kapotai landed at Tapeka and moved toward the town from the North. Kawiti was tasked with the land approach from the South through Matauwhi Bay in order to divert the defending residents as the other forces made for the hilltop objective.

At dawn Hone Heke and his fighters surprised the soldiers on Flagstaff Hill. In short order they overran the peak and set to cutting down the flag.

The diversionary assault at the entrance to the town, however met the garrison of a well defended town.  Kawiti’s detachment of 200, met 45 sailors and Marines from HMS Hazard in the surrounds of the English Church. Bloody hand to hand fighting ensued with muskets, tupara, swords and fighting axes.

The guns of the Socabaya had been deployed to protect the town.  Volunteer artillerymen including Mr Hector manned two guns mounted at the central barracks and stockade. Under heavy fire throughout the morning these men worked the guns at close range, assisted by Hector’s young two sons who carried ammunition to the guns through the same incoming bullets.

A further gun was positioned to fire into the small valley that is now Matauwhi Road. The Socabaya’s gun was worked by sailors in support of the remaining soldiers of HMS Hazard. All morning Kawiti’s men were exposed to point blank fire from the Matauwhi cannon, as they were pushed back through the valley.

At this point Kawiti and his men changed tactics in order to avoid the carnage that had resulted from facing the British gunnery and musket fire. The retreating Maori took to the scrub on the hills and fired on the town from long range.

By mid morning the Kapotai joined the battle from the North. These warriors pushed on the central stockade and a defence of hastily armed civilians and their two cannon. Before long the attackers also pulled back into the relative safety of the Manuka bushes in the heights. From this position they enjoyed the confidence of long range sniping from a protected position.

By midday there was a strategic stalemate. Heke controlled Flagstaff Hill and had once again cut down its flag. While he held the high ground, the conflict in the town was fierce and no clear victor was apparent.

At this same time a careless pipe smoker at the stockade magazine changed the course of the conflict in Russell. One dropped spark hit barrels of powder and the entire magazine building exploded.

A British evacuation of the town was quickly ordered. As the defenders of the town boarded the nearby ships, naval guns opened up on the town.

Fresh from the carnage of battle, the victors found the stores of rum and food left behind. Small fires became big fires. In the worldwide tradition of battle, the celebration of victory evolved in to drunken looting. By the end of the day the fires of Russell could be seen throughout the Bay Of Islands.  It was a full week before the Rum soaked Sack of Russell was complete.

The Battle of Russell was not celebrated by the English historians. It appears that tactical surprise and local knowledge was used to good effect by Maori, combined with an abysmal failure of communications within the defending garrison. The days after the battle do not reflect well on the attackers, however they were commended for allowing people back into their homes in the following days to recover what little was left.

Flagstaff Hill


HMS Hazard

Mr Hector at the Blockhouse

Matauwhi Road & English Church

Three Cannon can be seen used by Gunners at Matauwhi Road and at the Blockhouse.

Settlers and officials demanded an explanation of how professional soldiers and sailors had allowed Kororāreka to fall. Some pointed to divine retribution. As a ‘Gomorrah, the scourge of the Pacific’, the ungodly settlement had finally got what it deserved.

The military also came in for criticism. Governor FitzRoy lambasted ‘the shameful conduct of those officers whose uselessness caused the loss and destruction of Kororāreka’. The decision to abandon the town was deemed to be too hasty.


Heke and Kawiti were reported to take the 12 pounder carronade and 9 pounder cannon, but left the heavy 12 pounder Socabaya cannon. This lay on the slope of Maiki Hill until 1888, when it was sent to the Southseas Exhibition in Dunedin. On its return it was placed in its present position in 1917 and in 1992‐3 the Russell Museum renewed the replica gun carriage.

After these troubled times, Kororāreka became “Russell”. To supply food to the town, in 1858 a small mill was built on Kaiaraara or what is now called Mill Island.

To moor boats at Mill Island, an old cannon from the Socabaya was used as a mooring. Later it was also used to secure the Mill and its sails. At some stage the mill was destroyed in a storm. This left the cannon under the waves… forgotten.

Illustrated London News

Mill Island with Mill:  John Tiffin Stewart: 1857, Russell From Flagstaff Hill, Whanganui Museum


As the Korora swam with the Socabaya Cannon, peace returned to Kororāreka. Like the aging sailor’s tattoo, Rum stayed close and visible. The town has seen a semi-graceful aging, but with a youthful pleasure is never far from any thought.

The ghosts of the Devils Missionaries and the Grog they lived on, has been much harder to cleanse from Russell. While no longer transported in barrels, there were very few bilges to visit Russell that were not stocked with an emergency bottle of Rum.

The taverns were rebuilt and grew graceful, but still serve Rum. Barrels and Blasphemy has made way for Weddings & White Fences. The brawling and fighting, has become singing and dancing. The sins of the flesh moved, but never really disappeared. The Rum drinkers now chase marlin instead of whales. Where once the Queens Flag was cut, the Queen would visit. But there were very few days when the rum disappeared. In a small cellar by the water’s edge we found a place to age our Rum. In early days these same shores saw the Grog Shops, the drunken whalers, the willing women, the trading, the muskets and the fighting.

Sunken Cannon is a taste of Russell and echoes the days when the rum flowed freely on the boats and beach.


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