Military Wiki
The Musket Wars
LocationNew Zealand
Result High Casualties
Territory to be won and lost between various tribes
Casualties and losses
18,500+ Māori
1,636 Moriori
30,000 enslaved or forced to migrate

The Musket Wars were a series of three thousand[1] or more battles and raids fought in New Zealand and the Chatham Islands amongst Māori between 1807 and 1842, after Māori obtained muskets. 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.[2]

The first occasion [of the use of the musket] appears to have been the defeat of a Ngāpuhi war party by Ngāti Whātua at Moremonui near Maunganui, between Hokianga and Kaipara harbours in 1807. In this instance, it was the Ngāpuhi who were equipped with muskets. But the Ngāti Whātua ambushed them with traditional weapons before Ngāpuhi 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.[3]

Hongi Hika actively sought muskets and other technology from the west. In 1814, as leader of the Ngāpuhi, Hongi went to Sydney and encouraged missionaries to establish themselves on his land. He went to England in March 1820 with the missionary Kendall. He met many people at Cambridge, including French adventurer "Baron" de Thierry, with whom he completed a land-for-guns transaction. On his return to New Zealand, with the aid of a large musket-based army, Hongi Hika captured many slaves. They were put to work producing cash crops that could be traded for muskets from passing ships. This gave the Ngāpuhi a huge advantage in subsequent wars, until other tribes also acquired muskets of their own. It is estimated that more than 18,500 Māori were killed along with about 1,636 Moriori who died on the Chatham Islands,[4] from a population of only about 100,000.[5]

These early inter-tribal conflicts caused much territory to be won and lost between various tribes, which complicated dealings with European settlers wishing to gain land. It also 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.[6] Historian Angela Ballara says that new foods made some aspects of the wars different.[6] Māori adopted potatoes which were introduced 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.[8] 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 come 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 the Battle of Hingakaka in either the late 18th or early 19th century (probably 1807) near Ohaupo, when about 8,000 warriors were killed by traditional weapons. Slaves captured during 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, starting at around one hundred and reaching one to two thousand within a few years. 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 warriors in five waka went to attack Maungatapu Pa.(Crosby P 338) Additionally, 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,[9] 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, without 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[10] as in earlier times.

The account of a musket war expedition by Henry Williams

The most comprehensive written account of a war expedition or heke was written by missionary Henry Williams.[11] This heke was a consequence of the so-called Girls' War, which was a fight that occurred on the beach at Kororareka, Bay of Islands in March 1830 between northern and southern hapū within the Ngāpuhi iwi. Hengi, a chief of Whangaroa, was shot and killed while he attempted to stop the fighting.[12] The duty of seeking revenge had passed to Mango and Kakaha, the sons of Hengi; they took the view that the death of their father should be acknowledged through a muru (war expedition to honour the death of an important chief),[13] against tribes to the south. It was within Māori traditions to conduct a muru against tribes who had no involvement in the events that caused the death of the chief.[12]

Mango and Kakaha did not commence the muru until January 1832.[11] Henry Willams accompanied the first expedition, without necessarily believing that he could end the fighting, but with the intention of continuing to persuade the combatants as to Christian teaching of peace and goodwill. The journal of Henry Williams provides an extensive account of this expedition,[14] In this expedition Mango and Kakaha were successful in fights on the Mercury Islands and Tauranga, with the muru continuing until late July 1832.[11]

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, and 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 1 March 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 7 March the 80-waka-strong fleet went to attack a at Otumoetai and exchanged long range fire with the pā. 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.[14] Ballara points out that most of the traditional rituals used in pre-musket days were in everyday use.[15]

Chatham Islands

The Musket Wars extended past a Māori vs Māori conflict when the culturally distinct Moriori inhabitants of the Chatham Islands were invaded in 1835 by displaced Taranaki Māori from Wellington. The Chathams were chosen by the Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama because of the known pacifist nature of Moriori society.

Use of the musket by Māori

The largest battle by far in this period, Hingakaka in 1807, was fought between two opposing Maori alliances near modern Te Awamutu, with about 16,000 warriors estimated to have taken part in the battle.[16] it can be considered the last of the non musket wars, but as late as about 1815 conflicts were mainly fought with traditional weapons, though very small numbers of muskets were present - often on just one side.

In 1820 missionary Thomas Kendall took Hongi Hika to Britain. Hongi Hika met the French adventurer Baron de Theirry in Cambridge and traded land in New Zealand for an estimated 500 muskets, plus shot and powder, swords and daggers. He uplifted the muskets at Port Jackson, Sydney on their return voyage on the Westmoreland, and Kendall himself was later involved in the musket trade and may have been party to the land /musket swap. The muskets may have been manufactured in Sydney which was making muskets at this time.[17]

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 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. It can be contrasted with the death of Te Hiakai who, like many, was shot 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,[18][19] leader of Ngāti Hauā, was particularly innovative in his use of musket-armed troops in the attack. Tactics he employed at the battle of Taumatawiwi (1830),[20] such as covering fire, would be recognisable to a modern soldier.

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 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 black powder. 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 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. (p129 Cannibal Jack)

As well as using Pakeha-Maori as traders, some chiefs, such as Hongi Hika, used them as gunsmiths, as trade muskets in particular needed regular maintenance. Some, such as Jacky Marmon, became influential members of the hapū and participated in several wars such as the attack by Ngāpuhi on the twin Tamaki strongholds in what is now 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[21] 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.[22] 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.[9] 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. This figure may have been as high as 80,000.[23] 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. In addition there were over 40 major migrations forced on iwi by conflict. Lands between Whangarei and Auckland isthmus was uninhabited in 1840 and to European eyes ownerless.[24]

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 brought back 60 basket-loads of human flesh to eat.[2] The missionaries and Christian Maori were sickened and moved out of the pā to establish a separate missionary village. The last battle was at Tauranga in 1842, when a Hauraki Iwi raiding toa attacked a pā. 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.

Prohibition Measures

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. 13 Dec 1845. On 12 November 1846 the Arms Ordinance was passed. This was followed by the Gunpowder Ordinance Act August 1847. Penalties were severe with fines of 100-200 pounds for selling a musket to a native in 1848. These laws combined to put a stop to gunrunners selling muskets to Maori. To undermine the law the sellers spread rumours that it was a government plot to disarm Maori. Some chiefs however such as Tamati Ngapora of Ngati Mahuta at Mangere wanted the law passed in April 1856, to stop Maori killing each other. In June 1857 the government passed a law allowing people to have guns and powder for sporting purposes. This appears to have opened a flood of firearms into Maori communities. In November 1857, 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 Whero whero, 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 or 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.[25]


  1. Climates of War.p32. Edmund Bohan. Hazard Press. 2005.
  2. 2.0 2.1 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.
  3. "The Te Roroa Report 1992". Waitangi Tribunal. 1992. Retrieved 3 Oct. 2011. 
  4. Moriori. M. King. Penguin. 2000. p. 69.
  5. Ministry for Culture and Heritage (31 May 2011). "Overview - Musket Wars". New Zealand History Online. Retrieved 23 May 2012. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 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. A Savage Country. P. Moon.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Traditional Maori Concepts, Utu" Ministry of Justice website
  10. Tainui /Pei Te Hurinui Jones.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Carleton, Hugh (1874). "Vol. I". The Life of Henry Williams. Early New Zealand Books (ENZB), University of Auckland Library. pp. 106–126. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Carleton, Hugh (1874). "Vol. I". The Life of Henry Williams. Early New Zealand Books (ENZB), University of Auckland Library. pp. 78–87. 
  13. "Traditional Maori Concepts, Muru" Ministry of Justice website
  14. 14.0 14.1 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)
  15. Ballara, Angela, "Taua: Musket Wars, Land Wars or tikanga? Warfare in Maori society in the early nineteenth century", Penguin, Auckland, 2003, pp 147-152
  16. Tainui. Leslie G. Kelly. P287-296. Cadsonbury. 2002.
  17. R Bennet. Treaty to Treaty. p. 137, Muskets. 2007. Auckland
  18. "Te Waharoa, ? - 1838, Ngati Haua leader", Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
  19. "TE WAHAROA (1776–1838)", "An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand", 1966
  20. "The Waterloo of the Waikato", W. Welch, F.R.G.S., 1909
  21. "Gunfighter Pa", Historic Places Trust website
  22. Belich, James (1986. The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. Auckland, N.Z., Penguin.
  23. Climates of War.p32. E. Bohan.
  24. Climates Of War.p32.E. Bohan.
  25. R Bennett. Treaty to Treaty. 2007. Page 139-140.

Further reading

  • New Zealand government article
  • Carleton, Hugh (1874) - The life of Henry Williams, Archdeacon of Waimate. Auckland NZ. Online available from Early New Zealand Books (ENZB).
  • 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 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

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