Story: Musket wars

Page 1. Musket wars overview

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The musket-wars period

The musket wars were a series of Māori tribal battles involving muskets (long-barrelled muzzle-loaded guns, brought to New Zealand by Europeans). Most took place between 1818 and 1840, although one of the first such encounters was around 1807–8 at Moremonui, Northland, between Ngāti Whātua and Ngāpuhi. While Ngāti Whātua had only traditional weapons, their well-executed ambush defeated Ngāpuhi, who were armed with muskets. There were also intertribal wars involving muskets after 1840.

Before and after

The musket wars were preceded by traditional warfare between tribes, involving hand-to-hand fighting with traditional stone or wood weapons. The introduction of muskets meant fighting could be done at a distance. The change in weaponry and strategy was not immediate, but developed over a few decades.

The musket wars were followed by the New Zealand wars. Rather than intertribal warfare, fighting was now between tribal groups against the Crown and, at times, the Crown's tribal allies.

Geographical spread and effect

The musket wars were New Zealand’s most geographically widespread conflict. Almost all parts of the North and South islands, as well as the Chatham Islands, saw battles. One of the most significant results of the wars was the redrawing of tribal boundaries. These redrawn boundaries later became codified by the Native Land Court, which decreed that tribal boundaries should be determined as they were in 1840, after the musket wars, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.


The death toll from the musket wars was significant, although the actual number of casualties is not known. It is likely that there were around 20,000 deaths from direct and indirect causes. The high numbers reflect the decades of war and the fact that warfare affected all parts of the population, civilian and combatants. While the toll from the wars was considerable, the Māori population was to be affected much more by disease in the following decades.

Potato wars

Traditionally men had been both warriors and cultivators of the soil, and warfare was confined to summer months. The ritual aspects of growing kūmara (sweet potato) meant it had to be cultivated by men. Potatoes, introduced by Pākehā, did not have the same ritual needs and could be grown by slaves and women, allowing men more time for warfare. Potatoes also provided more food per hectare than kūmara. Surplus potatoes were used to purchase muskets, or could be carried by travelling war parties.

Long distances

Better economic production and surplus food allowed taua (war parties) to travel much greater distances. Also, a number of significant battles saw Māori using Pākehā ships to travel to distant places. North Island iwi travelled as far as the Chathams and the southern South Island.

Two significant expeditions were known as Amiowhenua (circle the land). One involved Hokianga and Kāwhia tribes who travelled down the west coast of the North Island and around to Wairarapa in 1820–21. Another left Hauraki in 1821 and was led by Kaipara and Waikato–Maniapoto chiefs to Rotorua, across to Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa and around the west coast to Taranaki, finishing up back in Waikato and Kaipara. Ngāti Tama chief Te Pūoho also travelled the length of the South Island.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Musket wars - Musket wars overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012