Wooden walls and convicts – the naval skirmish in the hell hole of the Pacific

wooden walls and convicts
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Matthew Wright

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I'm a New Zealand historian with a life-long interest in matters military, particularly naval engineering. My books have principally been published by Penguin Random House. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.
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One of the least-known naval skirmishes in the world broke out in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in January 1827 – a ‘wooden walls’ punch-up in a place known as the ‘hell hole of the Pacific’ – Kororareka. [1]

At the time New Zealand was on the frontier of western expansion, and a key point of contact with indigenous Maori was the Bay of Islands, where a small town – Kororareka – sprang up, dubbed the ‘hell hole of the Pacific’ on repute of its wild lawlessness. Here, whalers from both the United States and Britain joined traders from Sydney and trans-Pacific shipping using the place to resupply.

hell hole of the pacific
Kororareka beach in 1838, artwork by Augustus Earle. Earle, Augustus 1793-1838 :Kororadika Beach, Bay of Islands. London, lithographed and published by R. Martin & Co [1838]. Ref: PUBL-0015-06. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23229276
The nearest ‘civilisation’ was Australia – Sydney – across the Tasman, where a former convict colony was fast becoming a full-developed settlement. On 11 December 1826, the ship Wellington left Sydney for the convict prison on Norfolk Island, with 66 convicts and guards aboard. She never got there; they were well out to sea when the convicts seized control. The ship’s new commanders – John Walton, Thomas Edwards, Charles ‘Todhunter’ Clay, James O’Neal and William Brown – were only interested in escaping to civilisation and tried to keep order, setting up a council and threatening any who beat the former guards with exile in New Zealand.[2]

Legally, though, they were now not merely escaped convicts but also pirates – having seized the ship – and their problem was that Wellington was short of water. That forced them to divert to the Bay of Islands for a top-up, a journey of around 1000km.[3] They dropped anchor off Kororareka on 5 January 1827. Two whalers were already anchored there, the Harriet under Captain Clarke or Clark, and The Sisters under Robert Duke.

The convicts tried to keep everything looking as normal as possible. Some went ashore, staying with Maori. Others bought goods from local traders. But next day, winds blew the Wellington towards the two whalers and The Sisters’ mate Hans Falk, who went under the assumed name Philip Tapsell, grew suspicious of the number of men on deck. That was confirmed when a note arrived from Harwood, reporting that the ship had been taken and he was prisoner aboard.

Exactly what followed depends on which of the accounts you choose to believe, although the main thrust is undisputed. Tapsell kept the note secret until Duke invited Walton aboard for dinner. Here Walton spun a tale; they were heading to New Zealand to set up a new colony. At that point Tapsell confronted him with the note and – to everyone’s surprise – Walton agreed; they had stolen the ship. But, of course, they were not going to give it up.

naval skirmish
A 12-pounder carronade. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Duke’s problem was simple: he and his fellow commander on board The Sisters, as ship captains, were the only effective representatives of British law in the area. Like most ships of her day, The Sisters was armed with carronades and swivel-gun – essential weapons for self-defence in a potentially lawless southern ocean. So was the Harriett. And so, of course, was the Wellington.

The issue was that both whaler captains were businessmen. This was less than 25 years after Trafalgar, and neither were keen to start a naval battle, particularly as ship-to-ship battles in those days often devolved to hand-to-hand fighting on the decks. The Wellington appeared to be bursting with men. ‘Who is to recompense me,’ the Harriett’s Captain Clark wailed, ‘for the probable loss of my ship?’ Duke also ‘trembled for the consequences’, despite the fact that his crew wanted justice done.[4]

Tapsell decided to engineer the encounter. The moment came when Duke was visiting the Wellington. Tapsell had springs put on The Sisters’ anchor cable to swing the whaler broadside on, bringing the Wellington within the firing arcs of her guns. The move was provocative by period standards; it surprised Duke, who told Walton he would not stop the Wellington proceeding to sea, jumped into a boat and crossed back to his own command.  Here he had a furious argument with Tapsell.

Tapsell was not, however, alone; he had support from the former naval officer and now missionary Henry Williams – head of the Anglican Church Missionary Society station ashore – who quietly assembled around 200 Maori to storm the Wellington. This was an overwhelming force – Maori were capable combatants, many armed with muskets and all trained in indigenously-developed hand-to-hand combat arts. The tactical abilities of chiefs in the field had deeply impressed British observers, who regarded most as being easily able to lead a European-style army if taught on the details.[5] There was no chance of the Wellington escaping if a taua (war party) got on board.

Next morning, 7 January, the Wellington was still off Kororareka, and around 5.00 am the whalers sprang the trap. Maori began lining the shore and The Sisters opened fire on the convict vessel with her main armament, at Duke’s order,[6] while Duke cheered the crew on.[7] Later, Duke insisted he had ordered it all, with the exception of Tapsell’s spring on the anchor.[8]

The crew of the Harriet joined in, and over the next few minutes the whalers fired about a dozen rounds at the convict vessel, severing the foretop and rigging.

The battle was brief; Walton allowed Tapsell to board as Duke’s representative. The convicts agreed to surrender providing the Maori left the beach. Around 40 convicts managed to get ashore where they fell into Maori hands, who returned most of them to the British.  The problem then was how to get the rest to Sydney for a court hearing. Harwood did not want them all on the Wellington, and the number was split with The Sisters. Duke had his captives manacled, but one convict – Drummond – managed to get loose and free some of the others, ahead of a planned uprising. Drummond was caught, lashed to the rigging, and flogged – at which point he revealed the plot.[9] The two ships reached Port Jackson in early February.

Local authorities threw the book at the convicts. Twenty three were condemned after trial. Nine were sentenced to death, but the effort to civilise the seizure of the brig provoked clemency,[10]and only five were hung.

The battle had its commercial sequel.  The hero of the day was Tapsell, who had pushed his commander to act. When Duke tried to extract ‘between £5000 and £6000 of the Colonial Government for his late services in the piratical affair’ he was ridiculed by the Sydney papers. ‘We thought that £500 would have amply repaid the courageous skipper.’[11] The sarcasm was deliberate. ‘The merit of Captain Duke is accidental — the merit of his chief officer and crews is positive and characteristic of the brave Sons of Albion’.[12]

Tapsell – who had transgressed his authority – was suspended of duty and made ‘prisoner at large’ by his commander. Duke was well within his rights as captain, but that did not go down well with media who urged Duke, ‘to reinstate Mr Tapsell’.[13] There was no question that Tapsell was hero of the day: “…but for Mr Tapsell’s personal exertions subsequent to the recapture, the pirates might have been successful in eluding the condign punishment which justly awaits them, and for which the unfortunate but determined men should prepare themselves – for mercy, to most of them, on this side of the grave, is beyond all hope. They should therefore prepare to meet their GOD!”[14]

Duke was eventually awarded the estimated return on his lost catch, some £1800, after the Colonial Secretary checked with local authorities. That was still a significant sum in period terms. Tapsell left the ship a little later, and by September that year had his own command, the Darling.[15]

So ended the first – and last – ‘wooden walls’ era naval battle in New Zealand waters.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

[1]           For details see Matthew Wright, Convicts, Penguin, Auckland 2010.
[2]           Hughes, p. 214.
[3]           ‘John Southgate, Mariner’, http://petenicholl.me.uk/page22.html accessed 17 September 2011.
[4]           The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 February 1827
[5]           For details see Matthew Wright, Guns and Utu, Penguin, Auckland 2011.
[6]           The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 February 1827.
[7]           James Cowan, Hero Stories of New Zealand, Harry H. Tombs, Wellington 1935, pp. 26-29.
[8]           The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 27 February 1827.
[9]           Cowan, p. 29.
[10]         Hughes, p. 214.
[11]          The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 February 1827.
[12]          Ibid.
[13]          Ibid, 27 February 1827.
[14]          Ibid, 19 February 1827,
[15]          Ibid, 24 September 1827.


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