Story: New Zealand Wars

Page 11. Long-term impact

All images & media in this story


There are no accurate casualty figures for the New Zealand Wars. Historian James Cowan suggested that over 500 men of the British and colonial forces and about 250 kūpapa (Māori allies of the government) died. The number killed on the other side is harder to estimate. Cowan suggested 2,000. In a population of about 60,000, this was a major loss of young men.

Māori who had fought against the Crown lost very substantial areas of land. Under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 and later legislation, about 1 million hectares (including land later returned) was confiscated by the Crown in Taranaki, Waikato, South Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Poverty Bay. Which hapū lost land and which did not was often decided arbitrarily and unfairly.

Māori memory

The New Zealand Wars left a long memory in the Māori community. Iwi which had fought against the Crown, especially if they suffered the confiscation of their land, remained pained and at times bitter. This was reflected in the unwillingness of Taranaki and Waikato Māori to enlist to fight in the First World War.

Kūpapa who fought for the Crown and iwi that fought against the Crown remembered these conflicts long after they had ended.

Reparations from the Crown for the land confiscations that followed the wars did not begin in earnest until the 1990s, with the settlement made between the Crown and Waikato-Tainui in 1995. Waitangi Tribunal inquiries and settlements for other iwi have followed.

Pākehā memory

Pākehā also did not remember the New Zealand Wars with any enthusiasm. There were few memorials to the wars until the early 20th century, when some were put up as 50th anniversary commemorations. Memorials were used to encourage enlistment during the First World War by providing an example of men who had fought for the British Empire.

In the 1920s James Cowan’s two-volume history of the wars, which in one sense was a pioneering work of oral history, painted an image of the wars as full of stirring stories. Cowan hoped the wars might in this way become central to the country’s identity. Rudall Hayward was advised by Cowan when he directed the film Rewi’s last stand (1925 silent, 1940 sound).

Revival since 1986

Historian James Belich’s 1986 book and subsequent television series on the New Zealand Wars helped to revive interest. Belich presented Māori as creative military strategists who came very close to defeating the British on several occasions. New books on the wars, both novels and historical works, were published.

Many people visit the sites where events in the wars occurred, and guidebooks and educational tours of some sites are available. Vincent O’Malley’s 2016 book about the Waikato War was a major landmark in scholarship about the wars. He has written other books about the wars, as well as a study with Joanna Kidman (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira) and other historians of how the wars have helped shape New Zealand identity. Another study led by Charlotte Macdonald investigated the lives of soldiers who travelled from throughout the British Empire to New Zealand to fight in the wars; many of them remained in the country and became settlers.  

The 150th anniversaries of the events of the 1860s in Taranaki and Waikato raised awareness of the wars in the 2010s. In 2011, New Plymouth museum Puke Ariki held a powerful exhibition detailing the events of the Taranaki War. The 150th anniversary of the Waikato War was marked by a series of commemorative events in 2013–14.

Conversations began about the idea of a national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars. A group of students at Otorohanga College campaigned to have the wars honoured with a special day, and their petition with almost 13,000 signatures was delivered to Parliament in 2015. In 2016 the government announced support and funding for an annual national commemoration day to be called He Rā Maumhara. Each year a different iwi would host a national events, with other regional events held around the country. The first official He Rā Maumhara was held in Kororāreka, hosted by Te Tai Tokerau, in March 2018, to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the Northern War. Subsequent events have been held on 28 October, which has been designated the official commemoration date.

Lasting presence

The remains of battle sites, roads and towns built to service the war and its troops, as well as street names and memorials, have left a record of the wars in the landscape. The wording and presence of some New Zealand Wars memorials have caused offence, and some have been vandalized over the years. The text on the New Zealand Wars memorial in Symonds Street Cemetery in Auckland reads: ‘In memory of the brave men belonging to the Imperial and Colonial forces and the friendly Maoris who gave their lives for the country during the N.Z. Wars 1845 - 72. Through war they won the peace we know’. No mention is made of those who fought against the Crown. The bronze female figure standing on the steps of the memorial was tarred and feathered in 1981 as a protest during the Springbok Tour, and later its head was removed. It was vandalized again in 2018.


For many decades, State Highway One ran directly through the site of Rangiriri, the large fighting built by Kīngitanga in 1863. The extensive surviving areas of historic earthworks and trenches were administered by the Crown as a historic reserve or were privately owned.

In the 2010s, the government returned much of the historic site to the Kīngitanga, and a Ngāti Naho whānau raised the funds to purchase adjacent parts of the site from a local farmer. At the same time, following the construction of the new Waikato Expressway, the road was moved away from the site.

Ngāti Naho then set out to reconstruct the trenches near the pā site and create a tourism venture. Thousands of school students, tourists and local people have visited the site to learn more about the history of the war.

On Waitangi Day in 1991, the statue of a soldier on top of the Taranaki War memorial on Pukaka (Marsland Hill) in New Plymouth was toppled and replaced with a large sign which read: ‘In remembrance of the Maori people who suffered in the military campaigns – honour the Treaty of Waitangi.’ The statute has not been replaced on the memorial. 

There have also been suggestions that the memorial statue to Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, who led the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry during the invasion of Waikato, be removed from its site in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland. Nixon is a controversial figure, as the events at Rangiaowhia remain raw for local people.

In 2020, a statue of Captain John Hamilton, who was killed at the battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), was removed from the city of Hamilton. The city was named after him although he had no connection with it. In 2022 the city changed the name of Von Tempsky St, named for Gustavus von Tempsky, a captain in the Forest Rangers, to Putikitiki St, a name gifted by Waikato-Tainui, and planned further name changes.

How to cite this page:

Danny Keenan, 'New Zealand Wars - Long-term impact', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Danny Keenan, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 29 Nov 2022