(1800-1913) The Royal Navy and early New Zealand History

The history of New Zealand has an intimate link with that of the Royal Navy. As a maritime nation we have been defined by the sea and the ships that have reached our shores. Read information about the early navigators, Treaty of Waitangi and the New Zealand Wars.


The history of New Zealand has an intimate link with that of the Royal Navy. As a maritime nation we have been defined by the sea and the ships that have reached our shores. Our national history has been defined by the actions of Royal Navy officers.

The Navigators

Although Abel Tasman was the first European to sight New Zealand, James Cook is the one figure in our history that placed New Zealand firmly on the map of the world. James Cook is one of the greatest navigators in history. He commanded three Royal Navy expeditions to New Zealand and the Pacific, the first in 1769 and others in 1773 and 1777 His 1769 survey of the whole coastline is remarkable for its accuracy, especially for the time and conditions under which it was compiled.  He also brought with him pigs and potatoes and muskets, three items that would have a dramatic influence on the course of Maori history up until 1840.

Why come to New Zealand?

Cook came to the Pacific for two reasons. In Tahiti he was to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun and secondly, on secret orders from the Admiralty, to search for the Great Southern Land, Terra Australis Incognita, which was believed to lie in the South Pacific.

He reached New Zealand in October 1769 and spent six months on the coast, charting not just the overall outline of the country but also several ports and harbours. The chart is remarkable for its accuracy, with only three significant errors; Stewart Island is deemed to be part of the mainland, Banks Peninsula is shown as an island and Cook did not explore the Hauraki Gulf and thus missed the Waitemata Harbour, although he noted that the islands might be concealing a harbour.

Many of the place names bestowed by Cook during this survey remain in use today For example, Cape Kidnappers where local Maori tried to kidnap a young Tahitian who was in HMS Endeavour.

Other explorers followed Cook to New Zealand along with whalers and sealers. There developed a thriving economy based on the supply of potatoes, pork, flax, and timber for spars that was run and operated by the tribes throughout New Zealand. It was this rapid development of the potential colony that made the British government send Captain William Hobson in 1836 to inspect the settlements of New Zealand and the state of the aborigines (as Maori were known). His report and lobbying by committees for the protection of aborigines lead to the decision to complete a treaty between the Crown and Maori.

Treaty of Waitangi and the Navy  

Captain William Hobson was appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand in 1840, with the task of negotiating for British sovereignty over the territory.  He arrived in the Bay of Islands on 30th January 1840 in the frigate HMS Herald, commanded by Captain Joseph Nias, RN.  One of Hobson’s first duties was to conclude a treaty with Maori, the indigenous people.

Using the HMS Herald as his initial base, Hobson consulted with the British Resident, James Busby, and resident missionaries.  Busby’s proposed changes were accepted with some modifications, and the English language version of the treaty was drafted.  The Reverend Henry Williams translated it into Maori.

By the time the huihuienga began in front of Busby’s residence at Waitangi on 5th February, HMS Herald’s ship’s company had raised a large marquee ashore made from sails and decorated it with international flags.  HMS Herald‘s officers accompanied Hobson during the negotiations.  The first signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi were affixed on 6th February 1840.  Bad weather intervened, so it was the 8th before HMS Herald could dress ship and fire a 21-gun salute.  Hobson went south to the Waitemata Harbour on HMS Herald to negotiate with tribal leaders further south.

Marking the Event

The first national observance of the Treaty of Waitangi marked the 50th Anniversary, on 6th February 1890.  There was a gathering at Waitangi and on the Te Tii Marae, and a Grand Ball in Russell that night.  The band from HMS Opal supplied the music.  HMS Opal was a Royal Navy warship that was stationed in Australian and New Zealand waters.

A naval officer supervised the rigging and erection of a 93-foot flagstaff for the Treaty ground prior to the ceremonies on 6th February 1934, when Lord Bledisloe officially gifted the land to the nation.  The Prime Minister, MPs, King Koroki Te Rata Mahuta, and 5,000 Maori from local and southern tribes, and a delegation of ariki from Rarotonga attended the occasion. The two cruisers of the New Zealand Division HMS Dunedin and Diomede provided shore parties for the event. A 21-gun salute was given by HMS Dunedin in honour of the occasion. On the 6th bands from Dunedin and Diomede playing a stirring tune and leading a company of sailors marching with fixed bayonets led the guests onto the site. Lord Bledisloe immediately proceeded to the flagstaff, where the naval guard, now drawn up in parade order, presented arms, and the band played the time-honoured National Anthem.  In 1937 a party from HMS Achilles affected ‘certain repairs to the flagpole’, but no other maintenance was done over following years.

The Centenary celebration in 1940 was a subdued affair because of the war, but the Governor-General Lord Galway was present and the ship’s company of HMS Leander participated in a simple ceremony.  A detachment from the Maori Battalion attended, shortly before their departure overseas.  This is the only time an Army unit has paraded at Waitangi.

In 1946, after the Navy took responsibility for erecting and maintaining a replacement flagstaff, the Waitangi National Trust resolved that the Navy ‘be invited to carry out any naval ceremonies at the flagpole which it deems’. A team from the Naval Base erected the flagstaff and rigged it naval style with a gaff of 12 feet.  The crown from the ensign staff of the veteran cruiser HMNZS Philomel was placed at the truck, 112 feet high.  The mast has been maintained annually by the RNZN from that time.

The Navy inaugurated a ceremony on 6th February 1947 that was not intended to commemorate the signing of the Treaty, but instead the service of New Zealand’s first Naval Governor.  There was no Maori ceremonial and no government presence.  In a simple ceremony, sailors raised the Union Flag before some 1,200 spectators.  The Chief of Naval Staff made an address; this practice continued until 1959.From 1959 on t commemorations at Waitangi became a larger event but still had the strong link with the Royal New Zealand Navy. In 1963, 1974 and 1990 HM Queen Elizabeth II was present for the ceremony and on occasions, British and Australian warships joined the fleet at Waitangi.

The most important charter given to the RNZN is at Waitangi. On February 6 1990 at the 150th centennial for the Treaty of Waitangi, a Charter was presented to the RNZN that conferred on it ‘… the right and privilege, without further permission being obtained, of marching at all times with drums beating, bands playing, colours flying, bayonets fixed and swords drawn through the lands of the Tai Tokerau, especially the Treaty Grounds’. It cemented a relationship between the Navy and the Tai Tokerau which pre-dated nationhood. This honour was bestowed upon the Navy at a special ceremony conducted in 1990 which extends special privileges to naval visitors in the Far North.

Since then the event has grown in stature but it remains a unique part of New Zealand’s naval history and a event that the RNZN has fond memories of and our sailors always enjoy the privilege of marching at Waitangi in honour of our naval heritage. This is one of the highlights of the calendar for the men and women of the RNZN.

The Royal Navy and the New Zealand Wars

HMS North Star

With the tensions that came with the signing of the treaty and the influx of settlers it meant that the Royal Navy would have further involvement in the new colony. The role of the ships of the Royal Navy during the New Zealand Wars was to sustain the British forces ashore, to transport military units around the coasts, and to provide fire support during engagements, either directly with gunfire from the ships or by landing sailors and guns to join the military forces ashore. The ability of the Royal Navy to being supplies, land troops, transport men and armaments around the New Zealand coast was a crucial factor in the logistical support for the Government forces.

The Northern War 1845

The first engagement that naval personnel were involved in was the action at Kororareka on 11 March 1845. Governor Fitzroy ordered the warship HMS Hazard to the town to enforce government control. Heke and Kawiti’s warriors soundly defeated the militia and sailors.  In May 1845 the Royal Navy supported British troops in destroying coastal pa that made Heke and Kawiti seek to bring the British to battle inland away from Royal Navy support. On 1 July 1845 the British attacked a fighting pa at Ohaeawai. Sailors brought Congreve rockets which were fired into the pa.

In 1846 during the conflict around Wellington a long boat from the warship HMS Calliope was armed and crewed for action on Porirua Inlet. This was the first naval vessel to be purchased by the colonial government for combat action and was subsequently used on the Whanganui River in 1846.

Six Royal Navy warships were deployed to New Zealand during this period.

The Taranaki War 1860-61

After the initial engagements between March and June, the town of New Plymouth was effectively under siege by the Maori tribes. At this time the support of the Royal Navy was crucial in bring in men, food and supplies for the townspeople. Naval Brigades, comprising Marines and sailors landed from the warships, and played an important part during the campaigns.  Able Seaman Odgers won the Victoria Cross during the Naval Brigade’s assault on Waireka Pa.

The Waikato Campaign 1863-1864

The Waikato campaign of 1863-66 created the need for armed and protected vessels on the Waikato River this would mean that the Royal Navy would play a major role in the fighting in the Waikato.  Some coastal trading vessels were purchased by the New Zealand government and refitted for the campaign.  In addition, three gunboats were specially designed and built in Sydney.  They were all shallow draught stern paddle-wheelers and were manned by a mixture of personnel from the Royal Navy, the Waikato Regiments and some civilians. In addition, the Auckland and Onehunga Naval Volunteer units saw active service in the Waikato.

The first steam-powered vessel on the Waikato River was a gunboat crewed by Royal Navy sailors. The gunboat Pioneer was able to bypass the major Maori pa at Meremere and force its evacuation. Armoured barges could be towed upriver protected from musket shots from the Waikato warriors on the banks of the river. Having control of the river also allowed the advancing army to be supplied with food and ammunition.

At the Battle of Rangiriri 20 November 1863 the gunboats Avon and Pioneer bombarded the pa. As the infantry attacks failed, the commanding officer of the force General Cameron called upon the naval brigades to attack. Because the sailors were armed with a cutlass and pistol he thought that they could easily climb into the centre redoubt and successfully conclude the attack.  After two brave attempts, the sailors were withdrawn.

As the Waikato tribes withdrew upriver, the gunboats followed them up and landed the British forces at the Kingite capital of Ngaruawhaia.  For the rest of the campaign the gunboats patrolled the river and towed barges upriver to keep the land forces supplied.

Tauranga Campaign 1864

In 1864, other tribes decided to support the Maori King movement.  The warriors gathered at Tauranga and constructed a fighting pa (known as Gate Pa) in an effort to entice the British to attack. The Royal Navy swiftly moved soldiers to the area.  In addition, a Naval Brigade and artillery were landed, comprising over 400 sailors and Royal Marines from four warships.  Captain Hamilton RN, commanding officer of HMS Esk, commanded the Naval Brigade.  A bombardment was carried out by artillery manned by sailors and soldiers with the ammunition being supplied by the warships.

A general assault on the pa was ordered and Commander Hay of HMS Harrier led the first assault and was wounded. Coxswain Mitchell carried him from the pa, earning the Victoria Cross for his actions.  Captain Hamilton brought the reserve force in support, and was killed (the city of Hamilton is named after him).  The battle of Gate Pa was a tactical victory for the Maori, but that night they evacuated the fortification and five days later were defeated at Te Ranga.