The Māori Wars, now more commonly being referred to as The Land Wars and also as the New Zealand Wars, refers to a series of conflicts that happened in New Zealand between 1845 and 1872. Ostensibly they involved the original natives of New Zealand, the Māori, and the new European settlers, known as the Pakeha, who were assisted by hundreds, later thousands, of experienced British or imperial troops.
The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, meant the Māori tribes should have had undisturbed possession of their lands, forests, fisheries and other Taonga (treasures). Some early colonial land deals were dubious, to say the least, and were hurried through before the treaty was signed. To prevent this happening again, all Māori land had to be sold to the Government first. However, the settlers did not appreciate that Māori land was owned communally and that permission to settle on land did not always mean the land was being sold to them. Under pressure from settlers the Colonial Government gradually ignored the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi and permitted settlers to settle in areas that had uncertain ownership. Eventually the Māori reacted with violence.
The first skirmish of the Land Wars was the 1843 Wairau Affray at the north end of the South Island. It was an isolated incident caused by the Nelson settlers trying to seize land they didn't own, an extra-legal vigilante action that resulted in 22 of them being killed.
The First Māori War, the Flagstaff War, took place in the far north of New Zealand, around the Bay of Islands, in March 1845 and January 1846. This was about mana—tribal prestige—and customs duties. It was really a war between rival Māori chiefs with the British fighting on one side for the prestige of the British Empire.
This was followed almost immediately by the Hutt Valley Campaign, March to August 1846, and the Wanganui Campaign, April to July 1847, in the south west of the North Island. Both of these conflicts were about the encroachment of the European settlers onto Māori land.
In the first three wars the Māori fought the British to a standstill each time. They had no wish to beat the British or to drive them from New Zealand. From the engagements emerged an understanding, British Law prevailed in the townships and settlements and Māori Law and Custom elsewhere. There followed a period of relative peace and economic cooperation from 1848 to 1860.
During this time European settlement accelerated and in about 1859 the number of Pakeha came to equal the number of Māori at around 60,000 each. By now the Pakeha had largely forgotten the painful lessons of the earlier conflicts. They tried to use military might to push through a very dubious land sale that one their own courts later repudiated. The result was the First Taranaki War. Once again the British military machine found itself more than evenly matched by the Māori and after 12 months both sides were happy to settle for a draw.
However this was clearly just a preliminary. The Pakeha were not prepared to countenance the Māori controlling and ruling most of the territory of the North Island. War broke out again in 1863 with the Invasion of the Waikato. The Waikato War, including the Tauranga Campaign, was the biggest of all the New Zealand Land Wars. The outcome of this war was the major confiscation of Māori land which quickly provoked the Second Taranaki War. By the mid-1860s the conflict had forced the closing of all the Native Schools.
The period from the second half of 1864 until early 1868 was relatively quiet. Possibly the most notorious incident during this time was the murder of the missionary, Carl Volkner. There were also two serious intra-tribal conflicts, civil wars in Māori tribes, between adherents and non-adherents of the Pai Marire or Hau Hau sect—a vehemently anti-Pakeha religious group who were intent upon destabilizing the developing cooperation between the Māori and Pakeha. These are sometimes known as the East Cape War but that label oversimplifies a complicated series of conflicts.
The last major conflicts were Te Kooti's War and Titokowaru's War. These were fought at the same time but were not related to each other and should be considered as separate conflicts.
This virtually ended the major, violent, conflicts between the new colonial government and the original occupants of the land.
There were other conflicts and incidents, subsequently, that were a part of the overall conflict but are not usually seen in the context of the New Zealand Wars. The invasion of Parihaka in 1880 was certainly one of these. There was an incident in the 1890s that became known as the Dog Tax War. Another was the arrest of Rua Kenana in 1916. It is even possible that events at Bastion Point in the 1970s should be considered as part of the same scenario.
The legacy of the New Zealand—Māori—Wars continues, but these days the battles are mostly fought in the courtrooms and around the negotiation table. A number of major historical treaty claims have been settled since the 1980s, generally with a formal apology by the government, the exchange of money and return of Crown-owned land. (See: Waitangi Tribunal, Maori Land Court, Waitangi Treaty Claims and Grievances)
Sometime in 1859 the Europeans in New Zealand reached numerical parity with the Māori, at about 60,000 each. However neither population was stable. The Māori population was declining so fast that some people saw their extinction as a distinct possibility. Meanwhile immigrant ships were arriving from Britain on an, almost, weekly basis. As early as 1841 one Māori asked if the whole British tribe was moving to New Zealand.
There were other inequalities. The imperial troops were supplied and paid for by Britain and not by the fledging colony. So the Māori were fighting against the economic base of industrial Britain. The Māori, on the other hand, had an agrarian economy, their warriors were also their farmers and food gatherers. As such they were limited to periods of only two or three months campaigning each year before they had to return to their home base. They developed a system of rotating shifts for the longer conflicts but were never able to deploy their entire force.
The Invasion of the Waikato was, by far, the largest conflict. The Colonial side mustered some 18,000 men, with a peak deployment of possibly 14,000. Opposing them were between four and five thousand Māori, of whom only about half were actively involved at any one time.
None of the wars were simple two-sided conflicts. To some degree there were four sides to each war.
There were always Māori on both sides of the conflict—fighting for and against the British. In the Flagstaff War the Māori allies were wholly independent of the British command. Waka Nene was at war with Hone Heke. Indeed, the only really serious engagement of the war, the Battle of Waimate Pa where the two forces met and fought with determination, did not involve the British at all.
By the 1870s, in Te Kooti's War, there were Māori fighting as part of the Colonial Forces. The Ngati Porou formed their own regiment. In the latter stages—the hunt for Te Kooti through the Urewera Ranges—some incidents were once again Māori fighting Māori. Usually, though, the Māori fought as allies, not as subordinates. When their interests diverged from Pakeha interests they tended to go their own way.
The Māori were fighting the Pakeha. They too can be divided into two groups. One was the British imperial forces—the combined forces of the British Empire including Australians going overseas to war for the first time. The other was the various militia formed from the settlers, answerable to the New Zealand Government and not to London. (These units eventually evolved into the New Zealand Army). The first war was fought by imperial forces, probably assisted informally by a few settlers. The Taranaki War involved organized units of settler militia. The imperial government was increasingly reluctant to become involved in New Zealand Wars. To get their support for the Invasion of the Waikato, Governor George Grey had to present a false picture of the seriousness of the situation to the Colonial Office in London. What became known as the Second Taranaki War was basically the reaction of the Māori to the wholesale confiscation of their land by the colonial government who, originally, used imperial troops for this but the commander, General Duncan Cameron, resigned in protest. Shortly after this the last British troops were withdrawn from the country.
There were a few Pakeha who fought for the Māori; not many but there always were some arrivals in New Zealand who identified completely with the Māori. They were know as Pakeha Māori, meaning strangers who have become Māori. Perhaps the most notorious was Kimble Bent who acted as Titokowaru's armourer and later became a noted tohunga (priest).
A group or category that is seldom mentioned and never considered in the histories is the half-castes, the people of mixed Māori and Pakeha descent of which there would have been several thousand in New Zealand at the time of the Wars. That is probably because then—as now—they did not constitute an identifiable, separate, group. They saw themselves as either Māori or Pakeha and chose their sides according to other criteria.
Strategy and tactics
The British Army were professional soldiers who had experienced fighting in various parts of the Empire, many from India and Afganistan. They were led by officers who were, themselves, trained by men who fought at Waterloo. The Māori fighters were warriors from many generations of warrior—survivors of the Musket Wars, 20 years of bitter inter-tribal fighting. It has to be said that one of the reasons for the First Māori War was curiosity by the Māori warriors to see what kind of fighters these Pakeha soldiers were.
Both sides found their opponent's way of waging war totally incomprehensible. The British set out to fight a European-style war, one that had worked for them almost everywhere else in the world. When you find an enemy strongpoint or town you attack it. Your enemy feels obliged to defend the strongpoint. Either there is a battle or you besiege and then capture the strongpoint. Theoretically you win and the enemy loses. Conversely the Māori fought for mana and economic advantage—originally slaves and goods or control of lands—and for the challenge of a good battle.
The first British action of the Flagstaff War was the capture and destruction of Pomare's Pa near Kororareka. This was a substantial Māori settlement so it seemed like a British victory but all the Māori warriors escaped with their arms so they didn't see it as defeat.
The British then set out to do the same to Kawiti's Pa at Puketapu. But this was not a residential settlement, it was a purpose-built strong point with only one objective; to invite attack by the British. It was several kilometres inland, across very difficult country—steep gullies, dense, bush clad hills and mud; thick, sticky, mud. Getting there was a major expedition. The British troops were already exhausted when they arrived in front of the Pa. The next day they tried a frontal attack and discovered that the bush and gullies they were advancing through and across were full of hostile warriors. Some of the British troops reached the palisade and discovered that attacking thick wooden walls with muskets was not effective. After several hours of costly, but indecisive skirmishing, the British withdrew. Fortunately their Māori allies were able to feed them and they were not attacked by their Māori enemies on the retreat back to the coast.
The attack on Puketapu Pa was typical of Māori-British warfare. The Māori would build a fortified Pa, sometimes provocatively close to a British fort or redoubt, and the British would feel they had to attack it. Their aim was always to bring the Māori to battle where they knew they could inflict a decisive defeat. In European warfare besieging an enemy fortress usually provoked a battle. However the Māori also knew that they would probably lose heavily in open conflict—indeed they did the few times it happened. Generally they were successful in avoiding it.
A Māori Pa was not the same as a European fortress but it took the British years to appreciate the difference—not until after the First World War. The word “Pa” meant a Māori village or community. They were always fortified and built with a view to defence, but primarily they were residential. Puketapu Pa and then Ohaeawai Pa were the first of the so-called “Modern Pa”. They were built to engage enemies armed with muskets and cannon. A strong wooden palisade was fronted with woven flax leaves (Phormium tenax) whose tough, stringy foliage took a lot of penetrating. The palisade was probably lifted a few centimetres from the ground so that muskets could be fired from underneath it rather than over the top. Sometimes there were apparent gaps in the pallisade that lead to killing traps. There were trenches and rifle pits to protect the occupants and, later, very effective bomb shelters. They were usually built so that they were almost impossible to surround completely but usually presented at least one exposed face to invite attack from that direction. They were cheap and easily built—the L-Pa at Waitara was built by 80 men overnight—and they were completely expendable. Time and again the British would mount an elaborate, often lengthy, expedition to besiege an annoying Pa which would absorb their bombardment and possibly one or two attacks and then be abandoned by the Māori. Shortly afterwards a new Pa would appear in another inaccessible site. Pa like this were built in their dozens particularly during the First Taranaki War where they eventually formed a cordon surrounding New Plymouth.
For a long time the modern Pa effectively neutralized the overwhelming disparity in numbers and armaments. At Ohaeawai Pa in 1845, at Rangiriri in 1864 and again at Gate Pa in 1864 the British and Colonial Forces discovered that a frontal attack on a defended Pa was both ineffective and extremely costly. At Gate Pa during theTauranga Campaign in 1864 the Māori withstood a day-long bombardment in their bomb shelters. One authority calculated that Gate Pa absorbed in one day a greater weight of explosives per square metre than did the German trenches in the week-long bombardment leading up to the Battle of the Somme. The palisade being destroyed, the British troops rushed the Pa whereupon the Māori fired on them from hidden trenches, killing 38 and injuring many more in the most costly battle for the Pakeha of the Maori Wars. The troops retired and the Maori then abandoned the Pa.
The British troops and then later the colonial forces never captured a completed and defended Pa but they did learn how to neutralise the problem. Although cheap and easy to build a modern Pa did require a significant input of labour and resources. By the wholesale destruction of the Māori economic base in the area around the Pa, causing the destruction of the tribal society, they were sometimes able to render them unaffordable. This was the reasoning behind the bush-scouring expeditions of Chute and McDonnell in the Second Taranaki War.
The biggest problem for Māori, however, was that their society was ill-adapted to supporting a sustained campaign. The Māori warrior was a civilian part-time fighter who could not afford to be away from home for too long. The British force consisted of professional soldiers supported by an economic system capable of sustaining them in the field almost indefinitely. While the British found it difficult to defeat the Māori in battle, they were able to outlast them in war.
The two final Māori Wars, those of Te Kooti and Titokowaru, present an interesting contrast. Titokowaru used the Pa system to devastating effect, at one stage the New Zealand Government thought they had lost the war. See Titokowaru's War. Te Kooti, on the other hand, was a good guerilla leader but showed little or no skill in fighting from a fixed position. His Pa were ill-built, inadequately supplied and he held on to them for too long. Te Kooti's War was lost at Nga Tapa and Te Porere.
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