Musket Wars

Musket Wars

The Musket Wars were a series of five hundred or more battles mainly fought between various hapū (subtribes—a group of about 200-400 people), sometimes alliances of pan-hapū groups and less often larger iwi (tribal groups) of Māori between 1807 and 1842, in New Zealand.

Northern tribes such as the rivals Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua were the first to obtain firearms, and inflicted heavy casualties upon each other and on neighbouring tribes, some of whom had never seen muskets. The wars were characterised by their brutality and ruthlessness - with treachery, the burning of villages, killing of prisoners, torture, slavery, and cannibalism being commonplace.[1]

"The first occasion [of the use of the musket] appears to have been the defeat of a Ngapuhi war party by Ngāti Whātua at Moremonui near Maunganui, between Hokianga and Kaipara harbours in 1807. In this instance, it was the Ngapuhi who were equipped with muskets. But the Ngāti Whātua ambushed them with traditional weapons before Ngapuhi had sufficient opportunity to load or reload." - Michael King.

Hongi Hika, who was later to lead Ngāpuhi raids across most of the northern North Island, saw two of his brothers killed in this debacle.[2]

These early inter-tribal conflicts gave Māori experience in fighting with and defending against muskets, and may help explain why rebel Māori felt so confident in taking on the combined British and New Zealand forces in the New Zealand Land Wars in the 1860s .



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.[3] Historian Angela Ballara says that new foods made some aspects of the wars different.[citation needed] Māori adopted potatoes which were introduced in 1769,[4] 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.[citation needed] Belich saw this as a logistical revolution; potatoes effectively fuelled the long range taua that made the Musket Wars different from any fighting that had gone before. However it has been pointed out by Ballara that in many respects it was a continuation of traditional inter iwi feuding that had produced such massive slaughter as at the Battle of Hingakaka (about 1780-90 but possibly 1807) near Ohaupo when about 8,000 warriors were killed by traditional weapons. Slaves brought back from massive Musket war raids were put to work tending potato patches, freeing up labour to create even larger taua. This can be seen in the progressive size of the war parties which started at around a hundred but within a few years were often a thousand toa (warriors) and up to two thousand. After 1832 the average size of the taua declined, until by 1836 they were as small as 120-200. The missionaries at Tauranga in 1839 recorded that 170 Ngati Haua Toa in five waka went to attack Maungatapu Pa.(Crosby P 338) As well, the duration of the raids were longer by the 1820s; it was common for men to be away for up to a year. Because potatoes are not as sensitive to temperature in the "winterless" north as kūmara, it was easy to grow a series of crops. Also American sailors had reintroduced the much larger fist-sized, American sweet potato, which quickly replaced the thumb-sized Māori kūmara. The availability of the potato and its ease of growing in a wide variety of climatic and soil conditions may have led to a rise in population, putting increasing pressure on a traditional Māori tribal structure that was geared towards a very tiny increase in population, i.e., far more healthy vigorous young men in the to challenge for positions of leadership.

Historian Angela Ballara presents evidence that the wars simply continued the traditional conflicts between and within the many hapū of New Zealand waged from about the mid 18th century. Ballara, in Taua, says the musket wars were fought for essentially the same reasons as pre-musket wars—mainly to do with mana, tapu and utu, only the weapons changed.[citation needed] Even at the end of the period in the mid 1840s Māori essentially followed the same tikanga or cultural war traditions as in the pre-musket 1700s. Both the earlier 1700 wars and the musket wars show that it was possible for various hapū to combine into a much larger taua under one or more leader for very long lengths of time—over a year, with out regard to planting seasons or food supply for those left behind. Ballara commented that missionaries observed that in the north the warriors would leave the old and the young at home with very inadequate food—they had to forage for food as best as they could. As they had traditionally done, the warriors could expect to obtain food, weapons and other supplies from those defeated in attacks. The only new resource they sought in the musket wars were male slaves, rather than the traditional quest for female or child slaves in earlier times.[citation needed]

The account of a musket war expedition by Henry Williams

The most comprehensive written account of a musket war expedition or heke was written by missionary Henry Williams. It took place between Dec 1831 and ended in Nov 1832. The heke set off from the Bay of Islands and went to Tauranga. The stated purpose of the heke was utu for the killing of three Ngāpuhi men of rank, who had previously been killed at Motiti Island near Tauranga. Many others had been killed but the utu was only for the men with status, as was normal practice. Before the heke set out there was a series of long debates, as not all the kin of the slain wished to take part.

When the heke set out it had no leader and each group of toa set out with its own chief at its own pace and acted independently with no common leader or plan. Henry Williams accompanied the heke with the idea of preventing bloodshed so was able to document the haphazard and leisurely progress of the warriors going south. Much time was spent fishing and collecting fern root and by various hapū going off by themselves to carry out minor attacks. Although the first group had set off on 10 Dec, by March 1 the following year the heke had only reached Tairua. Henry Williams estimated there were 600 fighting men plus a small number of women and children. Many of the waka carried cannon. On March 7 the 80 waka strong fleet went to attack a at Otumoetai and exchanged long range fire with the . Henry Williams noted the casualness of the women and children in particular who paid little heed to the flying lead. Children dug up spent lead bullets as they fell. Traders in the cutter Fairey sold cannons, shot and powder to the Māori on credit.

On 3 April 1832 there was more fighting on a beach at Otumoetai and Ngāpuhi were victorious. After this the heke spluttered to a close with the majority groups returning to the north by the end of July though Titore did not return until 27 November 1832. Henry Williams noted that he returned with the heads of 14 enemy and three of his own kin. Henry Williams also noted that the Ngāpuhi had stopped fighting on Sunday, even though none of those taking part were Christian. Henry Williams wrote that the number of dead of attackers and defenders was about equal and that no people of rank had been killed. Ballara points out that most of the traditional rituals used in pre-musket days were in everyday use.[5]

Use of the musket by Māori

Missionary Samuel Marsden had tried to ban the sale of muskets to the Māori, but when in 1820 missionary Thomas Kendall took Hongi Hika to Britain, Hongi Hika traded many of the presents he had been given by King George for muskets as they stopped at Port Jackson on their return voyage, and Kendall himself was later involved in the musket trade.

Generally, the musket did not affect the strategic aims of hapū in the 19th century. However, the tactics used were influenced especially where there was significant imbalance in the numbers of muskets being employed by one side against another. The musket largely put an end to the individual combat of traditional Māori warfare 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. It can be contrasted with the death of Te Hiakai who, like many, was gunned down in the same battle.

Initially, the musket was a tool which inflicted "shock and awe" and enabled traditional and iron weapons to wreak bloody slaughter on a demoralised foe. However by the 1830s equally well-armed taua engaged each other with varying degrees of success. Te Waharoa,[6][7] leader of Ngāti Haua, was particularly innovative in his use of musket-armed troops in the attack. Tactics he employed at the battle of Taumatawiwi (1830),[8] such as covering fire, would be recognisable to a modern soldier.

Māori were not beyond customising their muskets; for example, some enlarged the touch holes which, while reducing muzzle velocity, increased rate of fire. Initially Maori 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. Hongi Hika obtained 500. 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 (40 m 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 blackpowder. Often Maori preferred the double barreled tupara (2 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 NZ forces during the New Zealand Land Wars, when iwi would habitually keep women in the pa. Northern Maori,such as Nga Puhi, 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.(p129 Cannabil Jack)

As well as using Pakeha-Maori as traders, some chiefs, such as Hongi Hika, used them as a gunsmith as trade muskets in particular needed regular maintenance. Some, such as Jacky Marmon became influential members of the hapu and participated in several wars such as the attack by Nga Puhi on the twin Tamaki strongholds in what is now modern day Panmure, in late September 1820.

Outcomes of the Musket Wars

The wars gave Māori experience in fighting with and defending against firearms. One important innovation was the "gunfighter's ", which was designed to be defended with ranged weapons and to offer defenders protection against the firearms of the enemy[9] This type of pā was later widely used in the New Zealand Land Wars, with extensive modifications to deal with the heavy artillery, superior numbers and discipline in attack of British troops.[10] The experience in combat with modern weaponry given by the Musket Wars may help explain why Māori fared far better in the later New Zealand Land Wars than did most tribal peoples.

In time, all the tribes traded to obtain muskets and the conflict ultimately reached an uneasy stalemate after decimating the population of some tribes and drastically shifting the boundaries between areas controlled by various others. The wars themselves generally resolved themselves for various reasons. As Māori sought a way out of the cycle of violence the door was opened to Christianity. Some Māori were also willing to let the government bear the burden of seeking utu. In the latter stages, as in the Howick-Otahuhu area in 1835-36, missionaries such as Henry Williams and William Fairburn were able to carry out negotiations between warring factions and purchase disputed land to put an end to conflict. At least 20,000 people died in these conflicts. In addition another 30,000 were enslaved or forced to migrate, according to Crosby, using the data of noted New Zealand demographer Ian Poole. Some earlier historians claimed the deaths were much higher-about 50-60,000 but the evidence for this is not convincing. Ballara points out it was common even in traditional times for a defeated hapū to flee their best land temporarily for up to two years but they usually returned when utu was satisfied and peace returned.

Crosby says over half of all iwi suffered major population loss through battle casualties, cannibalism, or enslavement (for instance, the Moriori in the Chatham Islands). A few iwi, for example in Nelson, were exterminated. Perhaps the most important outcome of the musket wars was the bitter legacy of inter-hapū and -iwi mistrust stemming from the extreme violence with which they were fought. The constant use of treachery as a battlefield tactic, coupled with the enslavement of so many, left a long legacy of mistrust. The second to last battle of the Musket Wars was a few months before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. A taua (war party) from the Te Awamutu area attacked and slaughtered Arawa people (Rotorua area) and bought back 60 basket-loads of human flesh to eat.[1] The missionaries and Christian Maori were sickened and moved out of the pa to establish a separate missionary village. The last battle was at Tauranga in 1842,when a Hauraki Iwi raiding toa attacked a pa. Chief Taraia claimed this was utu (revenge) for encroachment on his land and other issues. The Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland carried out an investigation and found two bodies had been eaten. Te Mutu, the defeated chief, told Shortland that if he caught Taraia he would eat him. Missionaries had been able to gain the trust of many iwi, while Māori remained wary of other iwi outside their rohe (area). This was the immediate background to the signing of the treaty of Waitangi in 1840.


Further reading

  • 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)
  • 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 Realty of Traditional Maori Cannibalism." Penguin, Auckland, 2008. ISBN 978 014 300671 8
  • 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
  1. ^ a b Chapter 2: The Missionary Era, in Cowan, James (1922). The Old Frontier : Te Awamutu, the story of the Waipa Valley : the missionary, the soldier, the pioneer farmer, early colonization, the war in Waikato, life on the Maori border and later-day settlement. The Waipa Post Printing and Publishing Company Limited, Te Awamutu.
  2. ^ "The Te Roroa Report 1992". Waitangi Tribunal. 1992. Retrieved 3 Oct. 2011. 
  3. ^ Overview - Musket Wars, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Updated 15 October 2009. Retrieved 23 September 2010.
  4. ^ Potato history, Spread of the potato, Eu-Sol, (European Commission) Updated 15 September. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
  5. ^ Ballara, Angela, "Taua: Musket Wars, Land Wars or tikanga? Warfare in Maori society in the early nineteenth century", Penguin, Auckland, 2003, pp 147-152
  6. ^ "Te Waharoa, ? - 1838, Ngati Haua leader", Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
  7. ^ "TE WAHAROA (1776–1838)", "An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand", 1966
  8. ^ "The Waterloo of the Waikato", W. Welch, F.R.G.S., 1909
  9. ^ "Gunfighter Pa", Historic Places Trust website
  10. ^ Belich, James (1986). The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. Auckland, N.Z., Penguin.

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