Throughout the greater part of the settlement of New Zealand by the Maoris in the pre-European era, the only source of information on the movements and activities of the various tribes is tradition. In some districts where traditions have been recorded in detail, it is probable that archaeology will in future be able to reinforce or reject traditional material, but this is a line of research which has hardly begun.
In the proper sense of the word, history of the Maori tribes begins with material written down at the time of the events or recorded subsequently from eyewitness accounts. Thus the beginnings of history in New Zealand date from a little before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1769. This is not to say that traditional accounts of events prior to that time should be discounted. On the contrary, these traditions contain matter of such prime importance to Maori society that, even allowing for the high degree of partisanship arising from tribal pride, it is probable that they are reasonably accurate descriptions of actual events.
Tribal history is largely a story of intertribal warfare and, at the time at which written history begins, the whole aspect of warfare was about to be changed by the introduction of firearms and new methods of fighting. It is probable that in earlier times intertribal encounters were less serious affairs and that the number of fatalities was not very high. Moreover, the odds were more even in that combat was hand to hand; missiles were not greatly used and were not very effective.
Shortly after Europeans began to visit the country various Maori chiefs were quick to see the advantages of the musket and the power it gave them over enemies without such weapons. Chiefs who managed to acquire muskets by trading set out on a scale of slaughter and destruction quite unknown before. In the first 30 years of the nineteenth century thousands of Maoris must have died in the campaigns of Hongi Hika and Te Rauparaha alone.
It would be idle to attempt to give a comprehensive account of the complex pattern of intertribal relations in early historical times, but a summary of the campaigns of some of the outstanding Maori leaders will illustrate the conditions prevailing at that time.
One of the first Maori chiefs to take advantage of new weapons and new techniques of warfare was Hongi Hika, a chief of the Ngapuhi tribe of North Auckland. Ngapuhi were a numerous people of many subtribes mainly concentrated in the Whangarei, Bay of Islands, and Whangaroa areas. According to S. P. Smith (Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century), there are no traditions to indicate that Ngapuhi ever penetrated further south than the Hauraki Gulf until the early years of the nineteenth century. With the coming of firearms, however, when roving bands of well-armed men could move through large but ill-armed tribes, Ngapuhi war parties roamed the North Island even as far as Wellington. As early European settlement was mainly concentrated in the North Auckland area, Ngapuhi were thus well placed for the acquisition of muskets, and they were not backward in the use of these new weapons against their neighbours.