Musket Wars

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The Musket Wars
Date 1807–1842
Location New Zealand
Result Territory gained and lost between various tribes
Casualties and losses
Up to 40,000 Māori
1,636 Moriori
30,000 enslaved or forced to migrate

The Musket Wars were a series of as many as 3000 battles and raids fought throughout New Zealand as well as the Chatham Islands among Māori between 1807 and 1845, after Māori first obtained muskets and then engaged in an intertribal arms race in order to gain territory or seek revenge for past defeats.[1] The battles resulted in the loss of between 20,000 and 40,000 lives and the enslavement of tens of thousands of Māori and significantly altered the rohe, or tribal territorial boundaries, before the imposition of colonial government in the 1840s.[2][3] The wars are seen as an example of the "fatal impact" of indigenous contact with Europeans.[4]

The increased use of muskets in intertribal warfare led to changes in the design of fortifications, which later benefited Māori when engaged in battles with colonial forces during the New Zealand land wars.

Responsibility for the beginning of the musket wars is usually attributed to Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika, who in 1818 used newly acquired muskets to launch devastating raids from his Northland base into the Bay of Plenty, where local Māori were still relying on traditional weapons of wood and stone. In the following years he launched equally successful raids on iwi in Auckland, Thames, Waikato and Lake Rotorua,[2] taking large numbers of his enemies as slaves, who were put to work cultivating and dressing flax to trade with Europeans for more muskets. His success prompted other iwi to procure firearms in order to mount effective methods of defence and deterrence and the spiral of violence peaked in 1832 and 1833, by which time it had spread to all parts of the country except the inland area of the North Island later known as the King Country and remote bays and valleys of Fiordland in the South Island. In 1835 the fighting went offshore as Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama launched devastating raids on the pacifist Moriori in the Chatham Islands.

Historian Michael King suggested the term "holocaust" could be applied to the Musket War period;[5] another historian, Angela Ballara, has questioned the validity of the term "musket wars", suggesting the conflict was no more than a continuation of Māori tikanga (custom), but more destructive because of the widespread use of firearms.[4]

Origin and escalation of warfare[edit]

Māori began acquiring European muskets in the early 19th century from Sydney-based flax and timber merhants. Because they had never had projectile weapons, they initially sought guns for hunting. Their first known use in intertribal fighting was in the 1807 battle between Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua at Moremonui in Northland near present-day Dargaville. Although they had some muskets, Ngāpuhi warriors struggled to load and reload them and were defeated by an enemy armed only with traditional weapons—the clubs and blades known as patu and taiaha. Soon after, members of the Ngāti Korokoro hapū of Ngāpuhi suffered severe losses in a raid on the Kai Tutae hapu despite outnumbering their foe ten to one, because the Kai Tutae were equipped with muskets.[5]

Under Hongi Hika's command, Ngāpuhi began amassing muskets and from about 1818 began launching effective raids on hapu throughout the North Island against whom they had grievances. Rather than occupy territory in areas they defeated their enemy, they seized taonga (treasures) and slaves, who they put to work to grow and prepare more crops—chiefly flax and potatoes—as well as pigs to trade for even more weapons. A flourishing trade in the smoked heads of slain enemies and slaves also developed. The custom of utu, or reciprocation, led to a growing series of reprisals as other iwi realised the benefits of muskets for warfare, prompting an arms race among warring groups.[5] In 1821 Hongi Hika travelled to England with missionary Thomas Kendall and in Sydney on his return voyage traded the gifts he had obtained in England for between 300 and 500 muskets, which he then used to launch even more devastating raids, with even bigger armies, against iwi from the Auckland region to Rotorua.[5][4]

Conflict and consequences[edit]

The violence brought devastation for many tribes, with some wiped out as the vanquished were killed or enslaved, and tribal boundaries were completely redrawn as large swathes of territory were conquered and evacuated. Those changes greatly complicated later dealings with European settlers wishing to gain land.

Between 1821 and 1823 Hongi Hika attacked Ngāti Pāoa in Auckland, Ngāti Maru in Thames, Waikato tribes at Matakitaki, and Te Arawa at Lake Rotorua, heavily defeating them all. In 1825 he gained a major military victory over Ngāti Whātua at Kaipara north of Auckland, then pursued survivors into Waikato territory to gain revenge for Ngāpuhi's 1807 defeat. Ngāpuhi chiefs Pōmare and Te Wera Hauraki also led attacks on the East Coast, and in Hawke's Bay and the Bay of Plenty. Ngāpuhi's involvement in the musket wars began to recede in the early 1830s.[2]

Waikato tribes expelled Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha from Kāwhia in 1821, defeated Ngāti Kahungunu at Napier in 1824 and invaded Taranaki in 1826, forcing a number of tribal groups to migrate south. Waikato launched another major incursion into Taranaki in 1831-32.[2]

Te Rauparaha, meanwhile, had moved first to Taranaki and then to the Kapiti coast and Kapiti Island, which Ngāti Toa chief Te Pehi Kupe captured from the Muaupoko people. About 1827 Te Rauparaha began leading raids into the north of the South Island; by 1830 he had expanded his territory to include Kaikoura and Akaroa and much of the rest of the South Island.[2]

In 1835 Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Toa warriors hijacked a ship to take them to the Chatham Islands where they slaughtered about 10 percent of the Moriori people and enslaved the survivors, before sparking war among themselves.[2]

The final South Island battles took place in Southland in 1836-37 between forces of Ngāi Tahu leader Tuhawaiki and those of Ngāti Tama chief Te Puoho, who had followed a route from Golden Bay down the West Coast and across the Southern Alps.


Historian James Belich has suggested "Potato Wars" as a more accurate name for these battles, due to the revolution the potato brought to the Māori economy.[6] Historian Angela Ballara says that new foods made some aspects of the wars different.[6] Potatoes were introduced in New Zealand in 1769[7] and they became a key staple with better food-value for weight than kūmara (sweet potato), and easier cultivation and storage. Unlike the kūmara, potatoes were tillable by slaves and women and this freed up men to go to war.[2]

Belich saw this as a logistical revolution, with potatoes effectively fuelled the long range taua that made the musket wars different from any fighting that had come before. Slaves captured in the raids were put to work tending potato patches, freeing up labour to create even larger taua. The duration of the raids was also longer by the 1820s; it became common for warriors to be away for up to a year because it was easier to grow a series of potato crops.

Use of the musket by Māori[edit]

The 1807 Battle of Hingakaka, fought between two opposing Maori alliances near modern Te Awamutu, with an estimated 16,000 warriors involved,[8] can be considered the last of the non-musket wars, although as late as about 1815 some conflicts were still being fought with traditional weapons.

The musket slowly put an end to the traditional combat of Māori warfare using mainly hand weapons and increased the importance of coordinated group manoeuvre. The legendary one-on-one fights such as Potatau Te Wherowhero's at the battle of Okoki in 1821 became rare.

Initially, the musket was a tool that inflicted "shock and awe" and enabled traditional and iron weapons to be used to great effect against a demoralised foe. But by the 1830s equally well-armed taua engaged each other with varying degrees of success. Māori learnt most of their musket technology from the various Pākehā Māori who lived in the Bay of Islands and Hokianga area. Some of these men were skilled sailors well experienced in the use of muskets in battles at sea. Maori were not beyond customising their muskets; for example, some enlarged the touch holes which, while reducing muzzle velocity, increased rate of fire.

Initially Māori found it very hard to obtain muskets as the missionaries refused to trade them or sell powder or shot. The Ngāpuhi put missionaries under intense pressure to repair muskets even at times threatening them with violence. Most muskets were initially obtained while in Australia. Pakeha-Maori such as Jacky Marmon were instrumental in obtaining muskets from trading ships in return for flax, timber and smoked heads. Most muskets sold were low quality, short barrel trade muskets, made cheaply in Birmingham with inferior steel and less precision in the action. The range and accuracy of a trade musket (40m range) could not be compared with that of a proper military musket such as a Brown Bess or the later standard issue Enfield which required the less common fine grain black powder.

Often Maori preferred the double-barreled tupara (two barrel) as they could fire twice before reloading. In some battles women were used to reload muskets while the men kept on fighting. Later this presented a problem for the British and colonial forces during the New Zealand Land Wars, when iwi would habitually keep women in the pā. Northern Maori, such as Ngāpuhi, learnt to speed load their muskets by holding three lead balls between the fingers of the left hand. The powder was premeasured in paper twists. When the powder was poured down the barrel, instead of using the ramrod which was slow and awkward, they thumped the butt on the ground. As the barrel was fouled by partly burnt powder residue, the warriors used progressively smaller balls. The muzzle velocity dropped as a result but the large balls could still cause severe wounds at close range.

Prohibition measures[edit]

From 1845 after the rebellion of Hone Heke, the government enacted a number of laws to attempt to slow or stop the flow of muskets, gunpowder and other warlike stores into New Zealand. The first was the Arms, Gunpowder and other Warlike Stores Act 1845. On 12 November 1846 the Arms Ordinance was passed, followed by the Gunpowder Ordinance Act 1847. Penalties were severe with fines of ₤100-200 for selling a musket to a native in 1848. These laws combined to put a stop to gunrunners selling muskets to Maori. In June 1857 the government passed a law allowing people to have guns and powder for sporting purposes, but in November that year Lt Colonel Wynyard wrote to Governor Brown expressing his concern that this was allowing large quantities of weapons going to Maori, far beyond what was required for sporting purposes. He expressed concern that iwi would use the weapons to settle tribal squabbles with arms. Te Wherowhero, the first Maori king, came to see to the governor at the same time and expressed his concern that so many weapons could be sold to volatile Maori.

A Maori veteran of the Battle of Orakau 1864 told Members of Parliament that Maori had been collecting large quantities of weapons for years prior to the battle to protect their land against other tribes, not with the intention of fighting Europeans. After the land wars the government passed the Firearms Amendments Act 1869 making it illegal for any person to sell weapons to a Maori in rebellion. The only punishment was the death sentence.[9]


  1. ^ Bohan, Edmund (2005). Climates of War: New Zealand Conflict 1859-69. Christchurch: Hazard Press. p. 32. ISBN 9781877270963. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Keane, Basil (2012). "Musket wars". Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 4 November 2015. 
  3. ^ Sinclair, Keith (2000). A History of New Zealand (2000 ed.). Auckland: Penguin. pp. 41—42. ISBN 0-14-029875-4. 
  4. ^ a b c Watters, Steve (2015). "Musket wars". New Zealand History. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 5 November 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d Michael King (2003). The Penguin History of New Zealand. Penguin Books. pp. 131—139. ISBN 0-14-301867-1. 
  6. ^ a b Overview - Musket Wars, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Updated 15 October 2009. Retrieved 23 September 2010.
  7. ^ Potato history, Spread of the potato, Eu-Sol, (European Commission) Updated 15 September. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
  8. ^ Tainui. Leslie G. Kelly. P287-296. Cadsonbury. 2002.
  9. ^ R Bennett. Treaty to Treaty. 2007. Page 139-140.

Further reading[edit]

  • New Zealand government article
  • Crosby, Ron, The Musket Wars - A History of Inter-Iwi Conflict 1806-45, Reed, Auckland, 1999
  • Ballara, Angela, Taua: Musket Wars, Land Wars or tikanga? Warfare in Maori society in the early nineteenth century, Penguin, Auckland, 2003
  • Belich, James, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. Auckland, N.Z., Penguin, 1986
  • Bentley, Trevor, Cannibal Jack, Penguin, Auckland, 2010
  • Best, Elsdon, Te Pa Maori, Government Printer, Wellington, 1975 (reprint)
  • Carleton, Hugh, The Life of Henry Williams, Archdeacon of Waimate (1874), Auckland NZ. Online available from Early New Zealand Books (ENZB).
  • Fitzgerald, Caroline, Te Wiremu - Henry Williams: Early Years in the North, Huia Publishers, New Zealand, 2011 ISBN 978-1-86969-439-5
  • Moon, Paul, This Horrid Practice, The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism. Penguin, Auckland, 2008 ISBN 978-0-14-300671-8
  • Moon, Paul, A Savage Country. The untold story of New Zealand in the 1820s Penguin, 2012 ISBN 978-0-14356-738-7
  • Rogers, Lawrence M. (editor) (1961) - The Early Journals of Henry Williams 1826 to 1840. Christchurch : Pegasus Press. online available at New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (NZETC) (2011-06-27)
  • Ryan T and Parham B, The colonial NZ Wars", Grantham House, 2002
  • Waitangi Tribunal, Te Raupatu o Tauranga Moana - Report on Tauranga Confiscation Claims, Waitangi Tribunal Website, 2004
  • Wright, Matthew, Guns & Utu: A short history of the Musket Wars (2012), Penguin, ISBN 9780143565659

External links[edit]