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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At first muskets made little impact on Māori warfare. The ones that were sold to Māori were often old and of poor quality. They were also extremely expensive – for example, in 1820 one musket cost 200 baskets of potatoes or up to 15 pigs (potatoes and pigs were used as currency at the time). However, the price fell over time.
The wars led to an ‘arms race’ among tribes. Tribes needed to focus on economic production in order to pay for muskets.
The acquisition of muskets occurred in different stages.
Tribes also went through a number of phases in the use of guns.
During the musket wars Māori found that they had to adapt pā to better protect against firearms. These pā designed for musket fighting were known as gunfighter or musket pā.
The gunfighter pā had only two stockades. The outer one was simply a screen designed to impede the charge of an assault force at close range to the defenders. Behind the inner stockade, through which the defenders fired their own weapons, was a trench and firing parapet. Later innovations included angling slopes to allow flanking fire at attackers who made it to the main stockade, and bundles of green flax to deaden the fall of enemy shot.
Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika’s name is almost synonymous with the musket wars. His people had some muskets in the early 1800s. In 1807–8 they fought against Ngāti Whātua of Kaipara, led by Murupaenga, but were defeated despite having firearms. During the battle, two of Hongi's brothers were killed. In 1819, despite access to muskets, an internal tribal battle involving northern Ngāpuhi led by Hongi and southern Ngāpuhi led by Te Morenga was fought using traditional weapons due to the close kin ties, in order to avoid large numbers of deaths.
By around 1818 Ngāpuhi had acquired significant numbers of muskets, and Hongi Hika and Te Morenga led a successful raid into the Bay of Plenty. In 1821 Hongi returned from Sydney with a shipment of hundreds of muskets. That year he attacked Ngāti Pāoa at Mauinaina in Auckland. The following year he attacked Ngāti Maru in Thames and Waikato tribes at Mātakitaki, heavily defeating them all. In 1823 Hongi attacked and defeated Te Arawa on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua.
In 1825 Hongi defeated Ngāti Whātua at Te Ika-a-ranganui, Kaipara. He pursued the survivors into Waikato territory, fighting them at Nohoawatea. By the following year, Ngāpuhi had gained revenge for their 1807–8 defeat by Ngāti Whātua at Moremonui in 1807–8. Ngāti Whātua were defeated in battle and their famous fighting chief, Murupaenga, was killed. In 1827 Hongi Hika was shot in a battle in northern Hokianga. He survived into the next year, but eventually died from his wound.
Ngāpuhi chiefs Pōmare and Te Wera Hauraki fought a number of battles on the East Coast and in Hawke’s Bay and the Bay of Plenty. Their first battle was in 1820 where they fought iwi at Māhia. Pōmare was best known for attacking and defeating Ngāti Porou at Te Whetūmatarau pā at Te Araroa in 1820. In 1822 he attacked Tūhua (Mayor Island).
Te Wera later made peace with Ngāti Kahungunu and lived at Māhia, helping to defend Kahungunu against tribal attacks. In 1834 Te Wera allied with Ngāti Porou to fight Te Whānau-ā-Apanui in the battle of Toka-a-kuku.
After the death of Hongi Hika, Ngāpuhi had less impact. They could no longer raise the large numbers of warriors that Hongi had been able to inspire. In 1830 an inter-hapū war within Ngāpuhi in the Bay of Islands became known as the girls’ war because it was sparked by conflict among some women. In 1832 a Ngāpuhi group that invaded Waikato was repulsed. The early 1830s largely saw the end of significant Ngāpuhi involvement in the musket wars.
In 1821 Waikato expelled Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha from Kāwhia after much intertribal fighting between Ngāti Toa and Waikato peoples. A number of times peace had been made, but broken afterwards as war resumed. The same year Waikato defeated Ngāti Tama at Pārāwera.
Later that year Waikato under Te Wherowhero sought to attack Te Rauparaha at Ōkoki in North Taranaki. Te Rauparaha sent out a decoy party which led Waikato into a trap and they were defeated. Te Wherowhero was about to be shot but Te Rauparaha kicked the musket aside, allowing him to engage in one-on-one combat.
In 1824 Waikato allied with Te Heuheu of Ngāti Tūwharetoa to defeat Ngāti Kahungunu at Te Pakake (Napier). Waikato took captive some of the most important Hawke's Bay chiefs, Takamoana, Tareha, Pāora Kaiwhata, Te Hapuku, Tiakitai and Kurupō Te Moananui. They were released around 18 months later by Te Wherowhero.
In 1826 Waikato invaded Taranaki, forcing a number of tribal groups to move south. In 1828 at Te Pane o Horoiwi, Ngāti Tipa of Waikato and Ngāti Pāoa of Hauraki defeated a Ngāpuhi war party led by Rangituke. That same year Paiaka of Waikato, along with Te Heuheu and Te Whatanui, attacked Te Wera Hauraki and Te Pareihe at Kaiuku pā, Māhia. Te Wherowhero invaded the Whāngārei area and fought at Ōparakau.
In 1830 Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Hauā under the great Waikato general Te Waharoa attacked Ngāti Maru at Taumatawiwi in Waikato. Ngāti Maru left the region as a result. In 1831 a Ngāpuhi war party led by Te Haramiti was beaten by Ngāti Hauā and Ngāi Te Rangi following an attack on Tūhua (Mayor Island).
In 1831–32 Te Wherowhero of Waikato captured Pukerangiora, a Te Āti Awa pā in north Taranaki. At Ngāmotu pā, at present-day New Plymouth, Te Āti Awa managed to hold out against Waikato. In 1832 Te Wherowhero attacked Ngāpuhi at Tutukākā, north of Whāngārei. The same year he again attacked Taranaki at Mikotahi pā (New Plymouth). At Te Namu, on the Taranaki coast, Waikato were beaten back by Taranaki forces under Te Makatea. In 1834 Te Wherowhero attacked Te Ruaki in southern Taranaki. In 1836 Te Waharoa attacked Te Arawa pā at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty. He died in 1838.
Waikato ended the wars successfully, having largely defended their territory against northern incursions. They had also expelled Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Maru and a significant number of Ngāti Raukawa. Their chief, Te Wherowhero, was renowned as a military leader.
Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha gained fame during the musket wars. More biographies have been written of Te Rauparaha than of any other New Zealander. He was known as the Napoleon of the south due to his campaigns and his short stature.
Te Rauparaha and his people lived in Kāwhia, on the Waikato coast. The Kāwhia harbour was fertile with many resources, so it was highly desired and the cause of many clashes. After a number of battles Te Rauparaha was defeated at Te Kakara in 1821 and expelled. His safe passage was negotiated and he was able to leave Kāwhia.
The first migrations of Ngāti Toa were known as Te Heke Tahutahuahi (the fire-lighting migration). Ngāti Toa went down to Taranaki and cultivated land belonging to Te Āti Awa. In 1822 Ngāti Toa headed south to Kapiti, a journey known as Te Heke Tātaramoa because of the many obstacles (tātaramoa are bramble bushes) they encountered travelling through enemy territory in the company of some Te Āti Awa allies. Te Rauparaha took revenge on Muaūpoko for their attack on Ngāti Toa.
The Kapiti coast, north of Wellington, was seen as desirable due to European trade opportunities and space. Ngāti Toa chief Te Pēhi Kupe captured Kapiti Island from the Muaūpoko people, and Ngāti Toa moved to the island fortress. A number of battles against the local people culminated in the battle of Waiorua in 1824. A fleet of various tribal groups attacked the island in darkness but were defeated. Later groups from Taranaki and Ngāti Raukawa came and joined Ngāti Toa in Wellington.
Te Rauparaha had a significant trading station on Kapiti Island, and wanted to extend his trading strength by controlling the pounamu (greenstone) in the South Island. Around 1827 he attacked Rangitāne at Wairau, then fought Ngāti Kuia in Pelorus Sound, while his Te Āti Awa allies attacked Queen Charlotte Sound. Following this Ngāi Tahu were attacked and killed at Kaikōura. A war party then went to Kaiapohia pā, where Te Pēhi Kupe was killed while bartering for pounamu.
In 1830 Ngāti Toa persuaded Captain John Stewart to take them to Akaroa aboard his ship, the brig Elizabeth. Local chief Tama-i-haranui (Te Maiharanui) and his wife and daughter were captured, and he was eventually tortured and killed. In 1831 Ngāti Toa successfully attacked Kaiapoi pā and then Ōnawe pā at Akaroa. Te Rauparaha and his allies were able to conquer much of the South Island. However, much of Ngāi Tahu now had muskets and were much more difficult to fight.
The last of the South Island battles between northern and southern iwi took place under Ngāti Tama chief Te Pūoho. He led a war party from Golden Bay in the South Island along the West Coast, and then crossed the Southern Alps, finally reaching Tuturau in Southland in late 1836 or early 1837. On hearing of Te Pūoho’s arrival, experienced Ngāi Tahu war leader Tūhawaiki gathered a war party and attacked the party. They were surprised, and Te Pūoho was killed while the others were taken prisoner.
In 1835 a group of Ngāti Toa allies, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama, launched the furthest attack by invading the Chatham Islands. As well as conquering the Moriori, they also ended up warring against each other.
Ballara, Angela. Taua: 'musket wars', 'land wars' or tikanga?: warfare in Maori society in the early nineteenth century. Auckland: Penguin, 2003.
Crosby, R. D. The musket wars: a history of inter-iwi conflict, 1806–45. Auckland: Reed, 1999.
Wright, Matthew. Guns and utu: a short history of the musket wars. Auckland: Penguin, 2011.
NZHistory’s section on the musket wars.