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The Musket Wars were a series of 500 or more battles fought between various iwi (tribal groups) of Māori in the early 1800s, in New Zealandmarker. While the conflicts were directly influenced by the acquisition of muskets by Māori, they essentially added to an already volatile situation. Northern tribes, such as the rivals Ngapuhi 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 characterized by their brutality and ruthlessness with treachery, the burning of villages, killing of prisoners, torture, slavery and cannabalism being common place .

"The first occasion appears to have been the defeat of a Ngapuhi war party by Ngāti Whātua at Moremonui near Maunganui, between Hokianga and Kaiparamarker 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 Ngapuhi raids across most of the northern North Island, saw two of his brothers killed in this debacle.

Potato Wars

Some Historians have suggested a more accurate name for these battles should be the Potato Wars. This is due to the revolution the humble "spud" brought to the economy of Maori. Potatoes were introduced to Maori in 1794, becoming a key staple with better food value for weight than kumara, easier to cultivate and store. Unlike the kumara (sweet potato) potatoes were tillable by slaves and women and this freed up men to go to war. The result was a logistical revolution; potatoes effectively fuelled the long range taua that made the 'Musket Wars' so different from any fighting that had gone before. Slaves brought back from these massive 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 100 but within a few years were often 1000 toa (warriors)and up to 2000. After 1832 the average size of the taua declined, until by 1836 they were as small as 120-200. The missionaries at Tauraunga in 1839 recorded that 170 Ngati Haua Toa in 5 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 so temperature sensitive as kumara in the "winterless" north 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 size "Maori" Kumara.The availability of the potato and its ease of growing in a wide variety of climate and soil conditions may have led to a rise in population putting increasing pressure on traditional Maori tribal structure which were geared towards a very tiny increase in, far more healthy vigorous young men in the pa to challenge for postions of leadership.

Use of the Musket by Maori

Generally, the musket did not affect the strategic aims of hapu in the 19th century. However, the tactics used were influenced especially where there was significant imbalance in the numbers muskets being employed by one side against another. The musket largely put an end to the individual combats of traditional Maori warfare and increased the importance of co-ordinated 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 wreck bloody slaughter on a demoralised foe. However By the 1830’s equally well armed taua engaged each other with varying degrees of success. Te Waharoa, leader of Ngati Haua, was particularly innovative in his use of musket armed troops in the attack. The tactics he employed at the battle of Taumatawiwi (1830) such as covering fire would be recognizable to a modern soldier.Maori were not beyond customizing their muskets, for example some enlarged the touch holes which, while reducing muzzle velocity, increased rate of fire.

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. This type of pā was later widely used in the New Zealand Land Wars. The experience in combat with modern weaponry given by the Musket Wars may help explain why Māori fared far better in their wars against the British 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 tribes. The wars themselves generally resolved themselves for various reasons. As Maori sought a way out of the cycle of violence the door was opened to Christianity. Some Maori 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 Williams and Fairburn were able to carry out negotiations beween 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.

Crosby says over half of all iwi suffered major population loss through battle casualties, cannabalism or enslavement eg 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 hapu and iwi mistrust stemming from the exteme 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.Missionaries had been able to gain the trust of many iwi, while Maori remained wary of other iwi outside their rohe (area). This was the immediate background to the signing of the treaty of Waitangi in 1840.


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 int he early nineteenth century, Penguin, Auckland, 2003

Best, Elsdon, Te Pa Maori, Government Printer, Wellington, 1975 (reprint)

Waitangi Tribunal, Te Raupatu o Tauranga Moana- Report on Tauranga Confiscation Claims, Waitangi Tribunal Website, 2004

Belich, James. The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. Auckland, N.Z., Penguin, 1988.

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