Case 5: Maketū Wharetōtara (DEATH PENALTY – PART I)

RUSSELL, BAY OF ISLANDS. In the Bay of Islands, about four kilometres northeast of Russell, you will find Motuarohia Island. A small island of only two kilometres in length. Today, the island exists mostly as a tourist attraction, selling itself with promises of crystal clear waters, sandy beaches and stunning walking tracks. 

Although in 1841, when Aoeteroa was still in its infancy, the island which directly translates to ‘beloved island’ was more infamous than famous. Infamous, for it was the island at the centre of an incident, an event that one newspaper of the time described as a ‘most shocking and inhuman atrocity’.

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The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but we make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.

RUSSELL, BAY OF ISLANDS. In the Bay of Islands, about four kilometres northeast of Russell, you will find Motuarohia Island. A small island of only two kilometres in length. Today, the island exists mostly as a tourist attraction, selling itself with promises of crystal clear waters, sandy beaches and stunning walking tracks. 

Although in 1841, when Aoeteroa was still in its infancy, the island which directly translates to ‘beloved island’ was more infamous than famous. Infamous, for it was the island at the centre of an incident, an event that one newspaper of the time described as a ‘most shocking and inhuman atrocity’.


In 1839, a fresh wave of European settlers were arriving to NZ. Among them were John and Elizabeth Roberton and their son 6-year-old Gordon. Arriving from Britain, the Robertons settled in the Bay of Plenty and purchased Motuarohia island from a consortium of Ngāpuhi Māori chiefs for £213, paying about half upfront. They renamed it to Roberton Island. John Roberton was a former whaling ship captain that was looking for a change in career. With the purchase of the formerly named ‘beloved island’, the Robertons were wanting to try their hand at farming. The Robertons built a small wooden house on the eastern side of the island and soon their family grew. They welcomed a daughter. 

With the birth of the nation of NZ in 1840, a change in capital followed. The capital city soon moved from Russell, 4km from Roberton Island, to Auckland, approximately 180km away. With this move, an exodus of settlers followed, harming the Roberton’s financial prospects. Slowly, the area fell into an economic slump. Even if the Roberons wanted to sell their property, the colonial government was in the slow process of investigating all land purchases that had occurred prior to 1840. This process had the effect of freezing any land transactions in the interim. 

Further hardship was ahead. Sometime in 1840, John Roberton went out sailing ‘merely for his own amusement’ as his wife put it. A gust of wind capsized John’s boat, he drowned that day leaving behind his now widowed wife, Elizabeth. She wrote home to Britain to inform her inlaws of the terrible news “Your only son and my dear and affectionate husband died on the 17th day last month. He was unfortunately drowned opposite our house and island… What to do I cannot tell I am here on an inhospitable island in a cannibal country with only one servant in the house”. 

To make matters worse, some Māori were now demanding the return of the land. Traditional Māori custom dictated that with the death of the landowner; the land be returned to its former owners. Elizabeth had to go to court to prove that the land was left to her in her husband’s will to try to mitigate the continued ‘threats’.


Struggling to maintain the farm on her own, Elizabeth enlisted the help of another settler, 50-year-old farmer, Thomas Bull. Bull joined Elizabeth and her two children on Roberton Island. Soon afterwards, she procured additional assistance from the local Māori. She hired ‘…a remarkably powerful’ 16-year-old, Maketū Wharetōtara, the son of Māori Chief Ruhe

On the 6th of February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, bringing together two different cultures, the Europen and the Māori people. Not everyone was happy with this union that day. Ruhe, a Ngāpuhi chief from Kaikohe, although signing the treaty earlier that day, protested the signing with another chief. As T. Lindsay Buick writes in his 1914 book ‘The Treaty of Waitangi: or, how New Zealand became a British colony’ “Both warriors delivered themselves in the style characteristic of their people when they have serious business on hand, running sharply up and down a beaten avenue, gesticulating energetically, stamping their feet, and pouring out their denunciations with a volubility that was difficult to follow.” Ruhe had a son, Maketū Wharetōtara. An early missionary to NZ, George Clarke jr. wrote of Ruhe and his families temperament “There was madness in [the] family of a homicidal character… His brother and sister were both deranged, his aunt strangled herself in a paroxysm of rage, and his father Ruhe was subject to fits of frenzy, that made it dangerous for his best friends to go near him”. 

The complement of people on the farm was completed with the arrival of three-year-old Isabella Brind, the illegitimate granddaughter of Rewa, a Māori chief and head of the Ngāpuhis. It is probable that this inclusion to Elizabeth’s family was designed to earn favour with the Māori community closest to her farm.

Bull and Maketū, from the beginning; clashed. As Paul Moon writes in a paper on the subject “Bull and Maketū possessed characters that were inflamed almost every time they came into contact with each other. Bull allegedly provoked Maketū on several occasions, and threatened the latter that ‘he should have little or no food unless he worked better for Mrs. Roberton’. Bull threatened Maketū’s source of employment, and belittled his mana as the son of a chief. In return, Maketū became sullen, which Bull mistook for laziness, thus exacerbating the ill-will between them.”

Maketū felt his mana, his ‘spiritual power’ had been jeopardised. He felt ‘utu’ was necessary. Utu is commonly cited as revenge. It is more accurate to describe utu as a type of realignment of karmic balance. The Ministry of Justice describes utu in their report on ‘Māori Perspectives on Justice’ as “The general principles that underlie utu are the obligations that exist between individuals and groups. Utu is concerned with the maintenance of balance and harmony within society, whether it is manifested through gift exchange, or as a result of hostilities between groups. The aim of utu is to return the affected parties to their prior position.” 


Thomas Bull continued to mistreat Maketū for the better part of a year. The final straw for Maketū came in the form of being kicked by Bull during a dispute over payment. Maketū’s interpretation of utu was acted out on the night of the 30th of November, 1841. He silently approached a sleeping Bull, using an axe, he plunged the weapon into Bull’s skull, splitting it open.

The events that followed are chronicled in Bronwyn Sells book ‘Law Breakers & Mischief Makers’. When Elizabeth Robertson stumbled upon the murder, she “flew into a rage and screamed at him that he would be hanged for murder. Maketū lost it. He had considered his slaying of Bull an understandable act of utu for the insults to which he had been subjected. Roberton’s outburst pushed him further into a rage. He violently attacked the woman, killing her and leaving her body horribly mutilated. Then he butchered the two little girls. Roberton’s terrified seven-year-old son, Gordon, escaped through the back door. Maketū pursued him to the top of a hill, punched him repeatedly and hurled him over a cliff, [he fell 200ft] to his death. The young murderer returned to the house and set it on fire before leaving the island in a canoe with some of the family’s possessions including a bloodstained sack of rice, a watch and an umbrella.”

‘Mrs Roberton was well known and respected at the Bay of Islands, and her frightful fate has created there feelings of the deepest horror, and [a] universal sadness’ wrote the New Zealand Gazette a couple of days later. Upon escaping the island, Maketū returned to his father, Ruhe. There, he confessed to the murders. Reports of his actions, quickly spread throughout the region. Fearing reprisal from the Crown, as well as Rewa for the murder of his granddaughter, Isabella. Ruhe surrendered his son to the government.


Ngāpuhi leaders, among them Rewa, and Ruhe, met at Paihia on 16 December 1841. They were called to discuss the situation with Maketū. Only Hōne Heke, another influential Māori Chief, spoke against handing him over to the government. Heke was already disillusioned by the failure of colonisation to bring his people economic fortune and by the increased control of the British government over Māori affairs. In the mind of Heke, this was a Māori issue, therefore should be dealt with by Māori, not the British Government.

The interesting part is, Heke, might have had a point. British rule, and therefor its laws, at that time in NZ only applied to the British settlers. Paul Moon explains in his paper on the subject “During 1839, when the final touches were being put on the British policy to annex New Zealand, consideration turned to the issue of over whom would British sovereignty would apply. The decision boiled down to two options: either the sovereignty of the Crown would blanket everyone in the country, or it would apply just to British subjects living there. The Colonial Office went for the latter (cheaper) option… [the] decision to put Maketū on trial stretched the elasticity of Colonial Office policy to an extreme degree, making the law that was supposed to govern settlers now apply to the country’s Māori population.”

Heke did not persuade the other Ngāpuhi leaders to accept his stance. The meeting concluded with Hōne Heke and his supporters conducting a Haka, a ceremonial war dance, on the beach and firing their muskets into the air. 

The result of this meeting was a document signed by around twenty Ngāpuhi chiefs. The document seemed to endorse the extension of British criminal law into their communities, addressing the Governor it read “Sir, Maketū’s work is his alone, his own; we have nothing to say for him. That man is with you; leave him there. Do not bring him back here to us, lest there be a disturbance: leave him there. Governor, do not listen to the reports that have flown about in the wind….Sir, Governor, let your regard be great for us, the children of the Queen Victoria, the Queen of England, of Europe also. Now, this is the word of the book: “Love one another.” This is a good word. Shew us the greatness of your regard to us and our children, and we shall all turn without one exception to Victoria to be her children. But if not, what shall we do? Governor, here we are sitting in ignorance; we have no thoughts; you are our parent”.


On the 1st of March 1842. Maketū appeared in the new Supreme Court building in Auckland, before Chief Justice William Martin. He plead not guilty. Although he had previously on several occasions admitted his guilt and witnesses were called to confirm his presence on the island the day of the murders. He was found guilty. The Judge handed down his sentence, the words were translated into Māori “Maketū! It has been declared in front of this Judging Panel, that you deliberately murdered [Thomas Bull]; this case has been thoroughly investigated and the laws regarding this have been disclosed to you. The charges brought against you have been found to be true, and so the last thing left for this Judges Panel to do is to discuss the extent of the law in terms of the this terrible crime you have committed this is also the law of England, who still reigns over the people of this land, no matter whether some are Pakeha and some are Māori, if the blood of an innocent person is deliberately spilt by someone, this panel will hand out the harshest sentence possible under the law; anyone whose hands are covered with the blood of the innocent should never be allowed to live if the victim is a child, and they shouldn’t be allowed to live because they are a chief either; the law that this Judges Panel is applying is not a new law, you may believe this law only applies within England, – no that is not the case this is a law applies to all, the death sentence being discussed by this Judges Panel; is one that has been agreed to by your own people… This is the harshest sentence possible under the law. Therefore it will decided that he be executed in a place suitable to the Governor and his committee members, on a day that also suits them, and it will be said, may god have mercy on his soul.”

The morning of the 7th March 1842. An apparently extremely repentant Maketū asked for the presence of a Christian minister. A reverend baptised Maketū that day, christening him William King. At noon, the prison bell tolled, a few thousand people showed up on Queen Street in Auckland for the public hanging. A large military guard was present, in case of an attempt at rescue from any sympathetic Māori. Maketū was escorted up the hastily erected gallows. A few minutes later, Maketū was cast off, his neck snapped, and he died ‘almost instantly’

The British legal process was seen as drawn-out and cold-blooded by the observing Māori. Their custom would have resulted in almost immediate death and, as the son of a chief, Maketū  could have expected to receive a blow from a mere, a short, broad-bladed weapon, to the back of his head. The execution being public was seen as a great source of shame and humiliation. Sometime after, Ruhe asked for his son’s body, which was then exhumed. His bones were scraped according to traditional custom before he was reburied by his family. 

It is said that Ruhe, still mourning his son, sang a lament for Maketū, “Kaore te aroha mohukihuki ana, Te panga mai ki ahau, me he ahi e tahu”. Translating to “Alas, this all-devouring grief, That burns within me like a flame”. Hōne Heke, witnessed his pain. This only deepened his negative feelings towards the government. 


In 1840, when Lieutenant Governor William Hobson arrived in NZ to negotiate an agreement with Māori chiefs, the agreement that would become the Treaty of Waitangi. The Māori believed that the treaty protected their rights, recognised their trusteeship of the land and gave them the rights and privileges of British subjects, in exchange for their allegiance to the Crown. 

On 6 February 1840, after much debate, Heke said to 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.” Heke became the first of the 45 influential northern chiefs to sign.

The trial and hanging of Maketū, in 1842, in the mind of Heke, solidified that chiefly authority was becoming subservient to that of the British Crown. The Union Jack flag, the government proudly flew in Russell became his target. 

After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi the Union Jack had replaced the flag of the United Tribes as New Zealand’s official flag. Governor Hobson had the United Tribes flag removed from the flagstaff at Russell. Heke saw this as denying Māori equal status with the government. Adding to insult, Heke had originally gifted the flagstaff the Union Jack flew on, although he had gifted it under the assumption that the Māori flag would be flown there.

Heke cut the flagstaff down for the first time on 8 July 1844. Heke wrote a cryptic letter to the governor; saying he meant to improve his behaviour and replace the flagstaff. The flagstaff was replaced, but then cut down by Heke again, on the 10 January 1845; this happened a third time on 19 January.  

In early February, a military presence was established in Russell, with one blockhouse guarding the fortified flagpole and a second, with an artillery battery, placed further down the hill. On 11 March 1845 fighting began between the British and Heke. After a fierce battle, Heke cut down the offending pole for the fourth time.

The first NZ war had broken out, what historians refer to as the ‘The Northern War’ or ‘The Flagstaff War’. Many conflicts between Heke and government forces followed, led by Governor Fitzroy. Fitzroy, replaced Governor Hobson, when he passed away in 1843. Undermanned and running low on resources, Fitzroy appealed for peace. Heke replied in a letter “God made this country for us. It cannot be sliced … Do you return to your own country, which was made by God for you. God made this land for us; it is not for any stranger or foreign nation to meddle with this sacred country”. Fitzroy was replaced by Governor George Grey on 18 November 1845. Grey believed FitzRoy’s negotiations had been ‘inconsistent with the interests of the British Government’. 

The war climaxed at the Ruapekapeka pā; a fortified settlement located about 20km from the small town of Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands. Governor George Grey had convinced his superiors of the need for more men. A force of around 1300 British troops and 400 Māori loyal to Britain began to advance on Ruapekapeka in early December 1845. The British fired artillery at Heke’s forces, strength of 500, fortified in the pā. This assault continued for many weeks.

A full-scale bombardment on 10 January 1846 created three small breaches in the outer palistate. The following day, British scouts discovered that only around a dozen men were still inside. Heke and the rest of his followers had abandoned the pā. Later Lieutenant Balneavis, who took part in the siege, wrote in his journal; in regards to the fortitude of the pā. “Pā burnt. Ruapekapeka found a most extraordinary place,–a model of engineering, with a treble stockade, and huts inside, these also fortified. A large embankment in rear of it, full of under-ground holes for the men to live in; communications with subterranean passages enfilading the ditch. Two guns were taken,–a small one, and an 18-pounder, the latter dismantled by our fire. It appeared that they were in want of food and water. It was the strongest pā ever built in New Zealand”.

The unclear outcome at Ruapekapeka, brought up talk for peace once more. Hōne Heke, lacked the resources to continue the war, and for Governor Grey it was critical to bring the war to a hasty conclusion to reverse the exodus of settlers from Auckland. Mercy was shown by the Governor, Heke was pardoned and no land was confiscated. Governor Grey also chose not to re-erect the flagstaff at Russell. Although, Heke’s ultimate wish for partnership in government and control over his land was largely ignored. 

While fighting ceased, peace wasn’t formally brokered until 1848. When Heke met with Grey. During this meeting Heke presented Grey with a greenstone mere. According to Heke’s biographer, Freda Kawharu, this was ‘a token of acceptance of Grey’s right to be in New Zealand and of Heke’s expectation that the Queen’s representative would honour the treaty.’

The two, apparently stayed friendly until Hōne Heke’s death in 1850; from tuberculosis. In these latter years, Heke and Grey exchanged letters, and appeared to have a great respect for each other ”Salutation to you – I have received your kind letter to me. This is my letter expressing my love to you. My disease is great, but do not grieve about that. This is not the ever lasting abode of the body. Let God’s will be done to us two. I will not say many more words because I am very ill. Give my regards to your wife, Lady Grey.”


One thing that is evident, the execution of Maketū Wharetōtara in 1842 had major consequences in shaping the early years of Aotearoa. When following the chain of events from Maketū’s actions in 1841, it unfolds like a tale of Shakespearian tragedy. Horrific acts, leading to more cataclysm. A massacre, leading to an execution, leading to war. 

In 1841, five people were murdered on Roberton Island, in an act of utu. What followed was a butterfly effect of bloodshed, giving way to more bloodshed. Over the ten months of conflict during the Flagstaff War, it is estimated over two hundred people died, on both sides. 

Maketū’s utu, had numerous consequences, many he was never alive to see. The conclusion of the ‘Northern War’ did not bring any peace to Maketū’s father, Ruhe. He still mourned the loss of his son. 

In 1850, drowning in sorrow, he turned a firearm on himself, commiting suicide.


To the British settlers, utu may seem like an ancient, ‘uncivilised’ custom. Revenge, not so much a matter of feeling, as of duty, for breaking Māori laws that governed the land they walked on; or to put more simply ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’

When colonists first came to the Land Of The Long White Cloud, and brought ‘civilization’ with them. They brought with them a government, who in 1842, sought revenge on a 17-year-old for breaking of laws that governed their ‘civilised’ nation. In enacting their duty to those laws, they hanged a man for murder, ‘an eye for an eye’. They called it capital punishment. 


Maketu Wharetōtara became the first of 85 people over the next one hundred and fifteen years to be executed in NZ. This was part one of a three part look back on the death penalty in NZ. In part two, we will be remaining in the 19th century, investigating the circumstances surrounding the only woman to be executed in NZ, Minnie Dean.


NZ History, The death penalty,
Te ara, Ngāpuhi,
Te ara, Maketu, Wiremu Kingi,
Wikipedia, Wiremu Kīngi Maketū,
Wikipedia, Ruhe (Māori chief),
New Zealand Legal Information Institute, R v Maketu [1842] NZLostC 3 (1 March 1842),
100% Pure New Zealand, Discover a ‘beloved island’: Motuarohia in the Bay of Islands,
NZ History, Ruhe,
Te Ara, Heke Pokai, Hōne Wiremu,ōne-wiremu
Te Ara, Maketu, Wiremu Kingi,
Wikipedia, George Grey,
Ministry of Justice, A glimpse into the Māori World,āori.pdf
NZ History, The Northern War,
NZ History, Hōne Heke,ōne-hekeWikipedia, Flagstaff War,
Wikipedia, Ruapekapeka,
Wikipedia, Robert FitzRoy,
NZ History, The Death Penalty,

Paul Moon, Maketu’s Execution and the Extension of British Sovereignty in New Zealand,

Bronwyn Sell, ‘Law Breakers and Mischief Makers’, 2009
Carleton, H. The Life of Henry Williams,

RNZ, Death Sentence: the story of NZ’s executions,

3 thoughts on “Case 5: Maketū Wharetōtara (DEATH PENALTY – PART I)

  1. What a load of rubbish – How can you quote a dead women all the events leading up to the battle at Te Ahu Ahu are over their anger at the British enforcing their laws on one their own. And a breach of what the treaty was to their understanding.

    What a load of rubbish – He never pleaded guilty for the murders of Robertons & Isabella Bland because he didn’t kill them.

    Thomas Bull moved in on Elizabeth and tried to take over the household when she declined his advances – HE raped and killed her and the children his attempt to kill Maketu and blame him for the crime was his end as Maketu was trained in the art of warfare.

    And it wasn’t an axe you idiots !!! It was Tewhatewha a war weapon.
    Maketu didn’t admit to the murder, but he did admit to killing Thomas Bull.

    Why do I know… ??? Because Maketu went back to Te AhuAhu and told his people he didn’t care about British Law it was Maori Law – Utu the consequences of Isabella’s Death as a toa placed on Motuarohia to look after Rewa’s mokopuna.

    Colonial History is a load crap and slowly all the ugly truths are starting to come out you godless inhumane shits. (past folk)


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