Hōne Heke didn’t just cut flagpoles – he cut taxes
A survey by Today FM has ranked Hōne Heke as the second greatest New Zealander of all time, behind Sir Edmund Hillary.
Heke’s ranking is well-warranted. He iconically cut down the British flag at Kororāreka (Russell) three times, a rebellion that has become a cornerstone of our national history. However few New Zealanders are aware of what specifically motivated the famous warrior.
Hone Heke was an anti-tax campaigner. In 1841 he was angered by the new Government’s introduction of tariffs on tea, sugar, flour, grain, spirits, tobacco, and all other foreign goods. As James Cowan writes in The New Zealand Wars (1922):
And when the storekeeper had passed on the increases to his customers, with no doubt a considerable extra margin of profit for the Maori trade, the warrior [Heke] who came in to renew his supply of whin, or twist tobacco, to purchase a new blanket or a musket, or to lay by a store of lead for moulding into bullets, received the clearest proof that the Treaty which he had signed had not improved his condition of life.
Moreover, Heke was inspired to rebellion by the way America had responded to British-imposed taxes with full-blown revolution:
[US Consul] Mayhew had helped to instil into the minds of Pomare and Heke a dislike to the British flag, consequent on the imposition of Customs duties. From him and other Americans the discontented chief had heard of the successful revolt of the American colonies against England, and the lesson was not forgotten; he burned to do likewise.
Heke went so far as to fly the American flag as a symbol of his anti-tax, anti-colonial crusade – an image that tends to be excluded from modern illustrations of Heke’s protest.
From [former US Consul] Smith he obtained an American ensign, and paddled on to Kororareka; and when the flagstaff fell to a Ngapuhi axe for a second time up went the foreign colour on the carved sternpost of Heke's war-canoe. The warrior crew paraded the harbour, their kai-hauta, or fugleman, yelling a battle-song, Heke at the steering-paddle, the American flag over his head.
Heke’s anti-tax rebellion wasn’t just provocative – it was effective. In exchange for Ngapuhi surrendering a token number of muskets and Heke offering to erect a new flag mast, the Government declared the Bay of Islands a free port, and abolished all customs duties.
The truth of Hōne Heke’s rebellion deserves to be more widely-known. His story was the beginning of a proud lineage of anti-tax protest that is today carried on by the Taxpayers’ Union (even if we prefer to use arguments over axes).
So congratulations to Hōne Heke for rightfully being recognised as one of the greatest New Zealanders. If it were up to us, he might even be ranked number one. How many taxes did Sir Ed cut, after all?