The New Zealand wars were a series of 19th-century campaigns involving some Māori tribes and government forces, which included British and colonial troops and their Māori allies. The two major periods of conflict were the mid-1840s and the 1860s.
Though ‘New Zealand wars’ is the most common collective name for these campaigns, a number of others have been used. Originally Europeans called them the Māori wars. This echoed the tendency of the British to name wars after their enemies – as in Boer War and Zulu War. In the late 1960s thought was given to renaming the wars. One popular suggestion was land wars, due to the importance of land in the disputes. Another was Anglo–Māori wars to indicate the two major groups involved. Other less common suggestions included New Zealand civil wars and sovereignty wars. Māori names for the wars have included Ngā pakanga o Aotearoa (the great New Zealand wars) and Te riri Pākehā (the white man’s anger).
The first series of wars took place in the 1840s, when Māori were still a majority of the population, although Pākehā dominated the towns. A precursor to the wars was the 1843 Wairau incident, in which Nelson settlers clashed with Ngāti Toa at Tuamarina over a land dispute. The 1840s wars began with fighting between Ngāpuhi and government troops at Kororāreka (Russell) in 1845. A series of battles were fought in the Bay of Islands until early 1846. Later that year there was fighting between government and Māori in Wellington, and there were battles in Whanganui in 1846 and 1847.
The most sustained and widespread campaign was the clash between the British Empire and the Māori king fought in Taranaki, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty between 1860 and 1864. The last period of the wars, from 1864 to 1872, was largely fought by colonial troops and their Māori allies against followers of Māori prophetic leaders. These wars occurred in Taranaki, East Coast and the central North Island.
After the wars significant areas of Māori land in the North Island were confiscated by the government. Reactions against the confiscations saw a period of continued tension. In Taranaki peaceful protests against land confiscations were led by prophets Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi at Parihaka. Parihaka was occupied by government forces on 5 November 1881 and the settlement was partially destroyed. Protests against land confiscation continued.
After the wars the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) established an aukati (boundary) which prevented Pākehā crossing into the King Country. The King Country was autonomous until negotiations saw it opened up from 1883.
In the 1890s Tūhoe people opposing surveying in Te Urewera were forcibly arrested in actions described by Māori politician Āpirana Ngata as a small war. In the late 1890s some Ngāpuhi led by Hone Tōia who opposed council dog taxes were arrested by a military force and imprisoned.
The last skirmish between the government and Māori occured in 1916 with the arrest of Rua Kēnana at Maungapōhatu. Two Tūhoe men were killed during a firefight.
The New Zealand wars began with fighting between Ngāpuhi and government troops at Kororāreka (Russell) in the Bay of Islands. The major causes were the concern of some Ngāpuhi that the moving of the capital from the Bay to Auckland had hurt them economically, and that the Crown was exceeding its authority in the area. Hōne Heke Pōkai and his supporters cut down the flagstaff at Kororāreka four times to make this point. Other Ngāpuhi hapū led by Tāmati Wāka Nene sided with the British.
On 11 March 1845 Heke, Te Ruki Kawiti and Pūmuka led an attack on Kororāreka, which was defended by English settlers and British naval forces led by Acting Commander David Robertson of HMS Hazard. Pākehā were evacuated from the town after a powder magazine blew up.
Following the attack on Kororāreka, British forces in the colony were reinforced. In late March 162 officers and men of the 58th Regiment arrived in Auckland. By mid-April a further 300 men had arrived and an Auckland volunteer militia had been established. On 27 April 470 officers and men, with 50 volunteers, were sent from Auckland under Lieutenant-Colonel William Hulme to reclaim the ‘Queen’s sovereignty at Kororareka’.1
After arriving at Kororāreka on 30 April 1845, the British ships shelled nearby Māori settlements, including Ōtuihu pā, which was mistakenly thought to be harbouring Heke sympathisers. However, most of Heke’s supporters had long since moved inland.
The first major engagement of the northern campaign occurred at Heke’s new pā at Puketutu, near Lake Ōmāpere, 3 kilometres from his old pā of Te Kahika. Four hundred soldiers, seamen and marines disembarked at Onewhero on 3 May 1845 and took four days to march to Lake Ōmāpere. On arrival, Hulme ordered a barrage using Congreve rockets, which his marines believed capable of demolishing any Māori stockades. When the rockets had little effect, Hulme ordered 200 men to attack Puketutu. After making little progress in four hours of fighting, Hulme ordered his men to retreat, leaving 13 dead soldiers on the battlefield.
Heke withdrew to nearby Te Ahuahu. When he left the pā temporarily in search of provisions, it was occupied by Ngāpuhi forces allied with the British, led by Tāmati Wāka Nene and Makoare Te Taonui. Heke returned with up to 500 warriors, but could not dislodge Wāka Nene from Te Ahuahu. Heke was badly wounded in this battle.
A pā was built near Ōhaeawai under Kawiti. On 1 July 1845 a 600-strong force of soldiers, seamen and militia commanded by Colonel Henry Despard attacked it. Kawiti’s men repelled the assault and Despard ordered a retreat, having lost 41 men.
There has long been controversy about the end of the Ruapekapeka battle. 11 January was a Sunday, and for many years it was believed that Ngāpuhi had been at prayer outside the pā when the less pious British took advantage and captured it. However, there were few provisions left inside, so it is likely that the occupants had intended to withdraw. The pā had served its purpose by forcing the British to spend nearly a month carrying supplies uphill so they could attack a position with no intrinsic strategic value.
In January 1846 the British began shelling a new Māori fortification at Ruapekapeka. On 11 January, when Māori scouts signalled that it was empty, troops rushed the pā. Fighting continued in the bush behind the pā for several hours as Kawiti tried to lure the British into an ambush.
After the battle of Ruapekapeka, the northern war ended wihen Kawiti and Heke agreed peace terms with Wāka Nene. The flagstaff was not put back up in Heke’s lifetime and Ngāpuhi suffered no confiscation of land.
From the time that British settlers arrived in the Wellington area in 1839, land disputes had caused friction between Māori and settlers. British troops exchanged fire with Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Rangatahi near Fort Richmond in the Hutt Valley on 3 March 1846, leading Governor George Grey to declare martial law in Wellington. Māori retreated but on 2 April 1846 killed Lower Hutt settlers Andrew Gillespie and his son, heightening tensions. Several weeks later, on 16 May 1846, Māori attacked the redoubt at Boulcott’s farm, killing eight of its defenders.
Further military posts were then constructed along the Wellington–Porirua road. Barracks were built at Paremata for British reinforcements, initially 20 men of the 58th Regiment commanded by Major Edward Last. On 18 June, hearing that a war party was approaching from the north, Grey extended martial law to include Whanganui. He also travelled to Waikanae to urge Te Āti Awa to intercept the war party as it moved south, which they agreed to do.
Grey decided to arrest Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha, whom he blamed for the Hutt Valley attacks. On 23 July 1846 a naval party raided Te Rauparaha’s village, Taupō (near Porirua), and took the elderly chief into custody, along with other key allies. When news of these arrests reached his nephew, Te Rangihaeata, a rescue attempt by 50 warriors was mounted but easily driven off.
The remnants of Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Rangatahi and their allies then retreated into the hills above Pāuatahanui, pursued by the British army and their Māori allies from Wellington. Te Rangihaeata’s people eventually reached Poroutawhao in Horowhenua where they were allowed to settle in peace.
Disputed land purchases around the settlement of Whanganui also caused tensions between Māori and settlers. The Ngāti Hāua-te-rangi chief Tōpine Te Mamaku had returned from fighting at Boulcott’s farm and warned settlers not to station troops at Whanganui. However, troops arrived in December 1846. Tensions were heightened on 16 April 1847 when Whanganui chief Hapurona Ngārangi was shot, supposedly accidentally, while working aboard the brig Calliope.
Possibly in reaction to Ngārangi’s wounding, some followers of Te Mamaku attacked the Gilfillan farm in the isolated Matarawa valley in April 1847, killing four members of the family. The perpetrators of these killings were apprehended and all but one were hanged on 26 April.
Under the leadership of Te Mamaku, Whanganui Māori gathered upriver, and on 19 May 1847 several hundred warriors attacked Whanganui town, looting and destroying property and raiding outlying farms. A British gunboat entered the fray from the river but had negligible impact. British troops and Whanganui settlers took refuge within the Rutland stockade and withstood the attacks, which came to within 300 metres of the fortification.
On 20 July 1847 the British moved out of the stockade to engage Te Mamaku at St John’s Wood. The inconclusive battle left Māori with few options but to withdraw. Governor Grey immediately pressed for peace and on 21 February 1848 announced that he had reached agreement with Te Mamaku, bringing peace to Whanganui.
During the 1850s the European population in New Zealand came to exceed the Māori population. As newcomers flooded in there was increasing pressure to obtain more of the land still under Māori control. By 1860 nearly all of the South Island was in Pākehā hands, but in the North Island Māori began to organise in order to resist further loss of land.
Land disputes caused tension in New Plymouth. Settlers urged Governor Thomas Gore Browne to open up access to Māori land. Māori generally resisted sales, though some hapū were bitterly divided on the issue.
On 7 March 1859 Gore Browne visited New Plymouth and encouraged Māori to sell. A young Waitara chief, Te Teira, offered 600 acres (240 hectares) at the mouth of the Waitara River, despite the objections of a more senior chief, Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke. Gore Browne accepted Te Teira’s offer, subject to his title being confirmed by officials.
Surveying of the Waitara purchase commenced on 20 February 1860 but was interrupted by Wiremu Kīngi’s supporters. The British army based at New Plymouth immediately occupied the disputed block. A blockhouse was erected, commanded by Colonel Charles Gold, who observed Te Āti Awa building a fortification at Te Kohia, on a ridge overlooking the British position.
On 17 March 1860 Gold ordered an attack upon Te Kohia pā. Cannon and rockets were fired, inflicting heavy damage upon the palisades. Te Āti Awa returned fire, causing the British to take cover. At dawn they found the pā had been abandoned.
The first European into Kaipopo pā was William Odgers, the coxswain to Captain Peter Cracroft of HMS Niger. Cracroft had offered £10 to the first man over the stockade. Odgers won his £10 and for good measure was also awarded the first Victoria Cross in the New Zealand wars.
In early 1860 settlers had built a protective stockade at Ōmata, about 6 kilometres south-west of New Plymouth. Ngāti Ruanui and their supporters moved towards the stockade and built their own pā, Kaipopo, overlooking it. Gold decided to relieve the stockade and rescue settler families. On 28 March 1860 two forces, about 120 British regulars and 150 volunteers and militia, approached, and the local force came under attack from Māori. The regulars, with orders to return to New Plymouth by nightfall, retreated. So eventually did the locals. It was left to a group of about 60 naval men to attack Kaipopo pā and eventually take it, although some historians claim it had already been abandoned. Two Europeans and between 20 and 50 Māori were killed.
While the strengthening of the Waitara garrison continued, Te Āti Awa gathered at Puketakauere pā, overlooking the Waitara River valley in full view of the British camp. They threatened Devon Road, which linked Waitara to New Plymouth, conducting raids and firing upon the camp at will. On the morning of 27 June 1860 the British launched an attack against Puketakauere. Māori were positioned outside the pā, firing from a series of trenches. When the British attacked these trenches, concealed Māori opened fire, catching the attackers unawares. A withdrawal was ordered, and British survivors staggered back to Waitara, having sustained a major defeat. 30 British died at Puketakauere, with 34 seriously injured. Māori casualties could not be calculated, though it was estimated that Te Āti Awa had at least 800 men in the field, including a war party from Ngāti Maniapoto.
Following the defeat at Puketakauere, Major General Thomas Pratt took command of the British army in Taranaki. Pratt launched well-timed raids on Te Āti Awa strongholds along the upper Waitara River throughout September 1860. On 6 November Pratt marched out of New Plymouth and defeated a war party of Ngāti Maniapoto hurriedly digging in at Māhoetahi.
Major General Pratt’s strategy in attacking the pā of Pukerangiora was to build a long sap (covered trench) along which artillery could be wheeled. The total length of his sap, painstakingly dug out, was almost 1,500 metres. Its remains can still be seen.
On 18 January 1861 Pratt attacked Huirangi pā, causing Te Āti Awa to fall back upriver. Pratt kept the pressure on Te Āti Awa by constructing small redoubts in succession, as staging posts for the advancing British. A major midnight attack launched by Māori against redoubt no. 3 on 23 January 1861 ended disastrously for them, with perhaps 50 Māori dead and 60 wounded. Te Āti Awa set up a defensive line of pā protecting the historic hill pā at Pukerangiora, overlooking the Waitara River.
By February 1861 Māori had fallen back and were defending Te Ārei, literally ‘the barrier’ protecting Pukerangiora. Winter was approaching, placing pressure upon seasonal supplies of food. Heavy artillery fire was directed at Te Ārei, with British regulars digging threatening saps (trenches) closing in on the pā. Attacks against the trenches were repulsed. The last shot was fired on 19 March 1861, when the war in North Taranaki finally ended with a truce negotiated by senior Kīngitanga (King movement) figure Wiremu Tāmihana, who did not want the war to extend into the Waikato.
The Waikato was the home of the Māori king. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero had been proclaimed the first king in 1858, and in 1860 he was succeeded by Tāwhiao. Some of the king’s followers had participated in the Taranaki war. The government was keen to punish them, despite the truce in Taranaki, and to satisfy European land ambitions in the Waikato region.
In 1861 Thomas Gore Browne was replaced by as governor George Grey. On 1 January 1862 construction of the Great South Road southward from Drury began in order to move men and military supplies into the Waikato in preparation for the intended government invasion. On 9 July 1863 Grey issued a proclamation directing Waikato Māori living in the government-controlled area south of Auckland to swear allegiance to the Queen or return to the Waikato. Two days later Grey issued a second proclamation, warning those ‘in arms’ that they had forfeited their right to lands.
On 12 July 1863 the British army, commanded by Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, crossed the Mangatāwhiri Stream, which marked the aukati (boundary) between the Kīngitanga lands and the government-controlled area to the north. The army entered the Waikato, taking up positions below the Koheroa ridge and scouring the area for hostile Māori. Five days later, on 17 July, British regulars attacked a war party on the ridge, firing and instigating a bayonet charge which caused Māori to retreat. Thirty Māori, including Waikato chief Te Huirama, died during the engagement.
Māori attacks behind the lines slowed British progress. Cameron tried to establish water-based transport but his forward depot at Camerontown was destroyed by Māori. Advance parties were ordered to drive on to the Waikato River in order to secure British supplies through the use of gunboats. Waikato Māori retreated to Meremere pā, which overlooked the river, blocking Cameron’s advance. Meremere seemed impregnable.
On 12 August 1863 the gunboat Avon fired on Meremere, then slipped past to conduct reconnaissance. The Pioneer followed, exchanging fire with concealed riflemen. On 31 October, 600 men from the 40th and 65th regiments were towed past the pā on barges and landed 8 kilometres upriver, beating off an attack from the pā. With the British now at their rear, Waikato abandoned Meremere.
Attention now moved to the Kīngitanga pā at Rangiriri, east of the Waikato River and fringed by swamp and Lake Waikare. The pā comprised massive earthworks dug into a ridge. Some of the 500 defenders were concealed in forward rifle pits. On 20 November 1863 the British army assembled a land force of 850 men with three field guns supported by cannon aboard the Pioneer and Avon. Following a two-hour bombardment, Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron launched a frontal assault upon the pā. Defending Māori in the forward rifle pits were quickly overrun, but the main parapets held firm. Intense fighting occurred in the forward trenches, but the British could not break through the parapets. Cameron then ordered a retreat.
Three more assaults on the main redoubt were also repulsed. However, assault forces landing to the rear occupied the rifle pits and trenches, blocking the main line of retreat and preventing the reinforcement of the pā during the night, though many defenders escaped to the rear.
As dawn broke, a white flag was seen flying from the parapet. Interpreting this as notice of surrender, British officers entered the pā to discover that Māori wished to negotiate a truce, not surrender. When Cameron insisted that Waikato lay down their arms, they offered no further resistance. About 40 men on each side had lost their lives during the battle, and nearly 200 Māori were taken prisoner.
Cameron occupied the Māori King’s village at Ngāruawāhia on 8 December 1863, and moved 3,000 men south of the settlement in January 1864. Mindful of the need to defend villages and sources of supply, Kīngitanga forces began constructing a massive line of fortifications centred upon Pāterangi pā. Behind this fortification line were food-producing villages such as Hairini and Rangiaowhia. Cameron realised these fortifications could only be taken with very high casualties. With assistance from local Māori friendly to the British, Cameron’s men were guided around the pā’s southern flank.
The only colonial soldier to be honoured after the war with a memorial statue was Colonel Marmaduke Nixon. A former professional soldier, he migrated to New Zealand in 1852 and became a strong advocate of settling on ‘waste’ Māori land in the Waikato. He organised the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry and led his force on General Cameron’s invasion of the Waikato. Nixon was shot in the chest during the attack on Rangiaowhia in February 1864 and died several months later. The statue was put up soon after at the junction of Great South and Māngere roads in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland.
On 21 February 1864 a combined force comprising British regular infantry and two colonial units, Captain Gustavus von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers and Colonel Marmaduke Nixon’s Cavalry, attacked Rangiaowhia after dawn. Rangiaowhia's defenders engaged the approaching British. Houses were set on fire, with defenders shot as they sought to escape. When news of Rangiaowhia reached Pāterangi, the pā was abandoned, allowing Cameron’s army to occupy the fortifications unopposed. Kīngitanga forces sought to establish a defensive line along the Hairini ridge. Cameron rushed his forces to engage Māori at Hairini, forcing their further retreat.
In March 1864 war parties from Pāterangi, Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Raukawa gained Ngāti Maniapoto leader Rewi Maniapoto’s agreement to fight the British at Ōrākau. Under his direction 300 men began constructing defensive earthworks. On 30 March a survey party observed the pā under construction and Brigadier General Robert Carey organised forward columns which arrived at Ōrākau the next day. Initial attacks were repulsed. The next day, artillery continued to bombard the pā. Forward trenches built by British Engineers were close enough for grenades to be thrown into the pā. Cameron offered the defenders a chance to surrender, or safe passage for the women and children; they refused this.
The most famous incident of the New Zealand wars was the Ōrākau defenders’ response to the offer of surrender and safe passage. The popular version is that they responded: ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke, āke!’ – ‘we shall fight on, for ever, and ever, and ever!’ There are several versions of the exact response and it is unclear whether it was Rewi Maniapoto or another who spoke. Whatever, ‘Rewi’s last stand’ became a legendary expression of Māori courage. The story was made into a film of the same name by Rudall Hayward in 1925.
With Rewi’s people suffering heavy casualties, and with a British incursion into the pā seeming imminent, Māori decided to abandon the pā by fighting their way through the cordon of British troops. On 2 April the defenders of Ōrākau crossed the south-eastern parapet in a tight group, moving quickly towards the refuge of nearby swamps. The British rushed into the pā and fired on the retreating Māori.
Seventeen Europeans and up to 160 Māori were killed during the Ōrākau engagement, most during the escape. It was the greatest loss of life in one battle of the wars. Whilst the battle represented a clear victory for the British, it involved only a fraction of the Māori King’s forces. After Ōrākau, the Kīngitanga withdrew behind a defensive line along the Pūniu River. With its work done, and unwilling to pursue the king’s forces into Ngāti Maniapoto territory, the British army returned to Auckland.
In January 1864 Governor George Grey reassigned several British contingents to Tauranga in order to impede the flow of arms and men of Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Ranginui to the Waikato. Upon hearing that British troops had arrived in Tauranga, the men, led by Rāwiri Tuaia Puhirake, immediately returned home from the Waikato. By April 1864 Puhirake had assembled 250 Māori at Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), determined to resist further British encroachment.
On 29 April Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron ordered an attack upon Pukehinahina, commencing with an artillery barrage. Once shelling was seen to have breached the front palisade, an infantry assault followed. British assault parties broke through the palisades, engaging with concealed Māori who fired from a network of underground trenches. The British suffered heavy casualties, and were soon in retreat. A second assault proved equally unsuccessful.
During the night, British soldiers lying wounded in the field were tended by Māori, notably Hēni Te Kiri Karamū, a young woman from the pā. Under cover of darkness, most Māori escaped during the night. When the British resumed their assault next day, they found that the pā had been abandoned. Thirty-five British regulars died during the engagement, with another 75 wounded.
Māori who escaped Pukehinahina withdrew to rebuild another defensive pā, determined to engage the British once again. Construction began on a new fortification at Te Ranga. However, on 21 June 1864, Māori were caught unawares and ill-prepared for battle by a British contingent, leading to an almost total defeat. Among more than 100 Māori killed at Te Ranga was Rāwiri Puhirake.
The war now entered a new stage. A number of Māori prophetic movements emerged, each imbuing its followers with a renewed commitment to drive off the Europeans. Many Māori tribes, strongly committed to traditional Christianity, resisted these movements. There was an increase in the numbers of kūpapa (Māori fighting alongside the Crown). In addition the British government began to resent the costs of the New Zealand wars and started to withdraw its troops. The fighting on the government side was increasingly in the hands of colonial forces and kūpapa.
Taranaki was the first region to see the impact of the new religions with the emergence of the Pai Mārire (goodness and peace) or Hauhau faith. Founded by Te Ua Haumēne of Ōakura, Pai Mārire promised to deliver a victory over the Pākehā. On 6 April 1864 British forces were attacked by Hauhau at Te Ahu Ahu near Ōakura. The severed head of Captain Thomas Lloyd was taken round the North Island to assist Pai Mārire recruiting.
When lower Whanganui Māori (kūpapa) sought to prevent Pai Mārire forces sweeping down to wipe out Whanganui town, the two sides agreed to fight it out on Moutoa Island in the middle of the river. Several hundred supporters watched from the river banks. Each side occupied one end of the island, and the battle commenced. At first the Hauhau appeared to be winning but then Tamehana Te Aewa rallied his men and the kūpapa achieved victory. The relieved inhabitants of Whanganui honoured their Māori defenders with a memorial and a flag.
Pai Mārire influence soon spread to the upper reaches of the Whanganui River. A Pai Mārire war party intent upon attacking Whanganui town, led by a prophet named Matene, was intercepted by Whanganui Māori at Moutoa Island on 14 May 1864. Led by Haimona Hiroti and Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi, lower-river Māori successfully fought at Moutoa Island in defence of the town.
Though defeated at Moutoa Island, the Pai Mārire influence continued to spread across the North Island, reaching the East Coast by 1865. Kereopa Te Rau and Pātara Raukatauri were appointed as apostles to the East Coast tribes. On 2 March 1865 Lutheran missionary Carl Völkner of Ōpōtiki was accused of spying by Pai Mārire adherents and hanged outside his church.
Other killings followed, including that of government interpreter James Fulloon several weeks later. Colonial troops sent to Ōpōtiki on 8 September 1865 engaged Pai Mārire, forcing their retreat east and as far south as Napier. Their occupation of Waerenga-a-hika pā, near Gisborne, on 22 November proved especially costly, with over 100 adherents killed in the ensuing battle. Amongst those arrested after the battle was Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, who was sent into captivity on the Chatham Islands in 1866. Two groups of Pai Mārire followers were intercepted near Napier on 12 October 1866, ending the Pai Mārire incursion into the East Coast.
On 5 January 1865 Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron arrived in Whanganui, ordered by Governor George Grey to move north in order to engage hostile Māori in South Taranaki. On 24 January a surprise attack launched by Māori against his encamped forces at Nukumaru was beaten off. Cameron next faced Weraroa pā, which sat atop a huge cliff-like embankment above Waitōtara. He decided against attacking the pā, instead preferring to march around it. When Grey disagreed, Cameron resigned his commission. He was replaced by Major-General Trevor Chute in August 1865.
Chute brought new resolve to the final years of British army operations in New Zealand. On 30 December 1865 he commenced a route-march around Mt Taranaki, first striking inland and returning down the coast. The purpose of Chute’s march was to destroy the capacity of Taranaki Māori to wage war by burning villages and destroying livestock. By 26 January 1866 Chute’s force had reached New Plymouth and on 9 February his ragged and exhausted troops returned to Whanganui.
Riwha Tītokowaru was a Ngā Ruahine leader who had been influenced by Pai Mārire and fought in the Taranaki wars. Initially he was committed to peace, but as settlers began moving into South Taranaki and land confiscations began, Tītokowaru became committed to defending Māori land. On 9 June 1868 a disagreement over cutting-rights near Māwhitiwhiti led to the killing of three sawyers. Māori accused of the killings took refuge among Ngā Ruahine led by Tītokowaru, who refused to turn them over to the government. Four hundred additional armed constabulary were recruited and posted to Taranaki, along with 100 Whanganui Māori who would also see action in the area.
On 12 July 1868 Tītokowaru attacked a redoubt at Turuturumōkai, 5 kilometres from the main armed constabulary redoubt at Waihī, near Hāwera. The early-morning assault lasted for two hours, with Māori unable to breach the redoubt walls. Ten members of the armed constabulary, including the officer in command, Captain Frederick Ross, were killed, before reinforcements arrived from Waihī.
In retaliation for this assault, Tītokowaru’s village, Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, was attacked on 21 August 1868, with inconclusive results. A second expedition was launched on 7 September, with a force of 360 constabulary under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas McDonnell marching to within 45 metres of the village before Ngā Ruahine opened fire from concealed positions within the forest. McDonnell called an immediate retreat, but not before many of his men had fallen, including Major Gustavus von Tempsky. Following this defeat, the armed constabulary abandoned Waihī redoubt and withdrew to Waverley. McDonnell was relieved of his command and replaced by Colonel George Whitmore.
On 7 November 1868 Whitmore attacked Tītokowaru at Moturoa, inland from Waverley, with over 300 men – including Māori from Whanganui under the leadership of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui. Whitmore’s frontal attack proved ineffective against well-constructed ramparts and concealed riflemen. With casualties mounting (19 of his men died, against only one of Tītokowaru’s) and the engagement clearly lost, Whitmore retreated to Waverley.
Following the engagement at Moturoa, Tītokowaru moved to Taurangaika pā, near Nukumaru, which building massive earthworks. The armed constabulary approached the pā in late January 1869, encamping some distance away, preparing for an assault in early February. However, when the assault was launched on 2 February 1869, the pā was found to have been abandoned. The reasons are uncertain. According to Kimble Bent, an American ex-soldier serving with Tītokowaru’s party, a major disagreement had arisen during the evening before the battle. As a consequence, the decision had been taken to withdraw the entire army into the bush, effectively bringing Tītokowaru’s campaign to an end. Tītokowaru covered the retreat of his people as they fled inland from Waitōtara.
Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki was from the Poverty Bay iwi of Rongowhakaata. While fighting on the government side at Waerenga-a-hika he had been suspected of aiding the enemy and was imprisoned on the Chatham Islands. There he developed a new millennial religion, Ringatū. On 4 July 1868 he captured the schooner Rifleman and escaped from captivity. On 10 July he and 298 followers landed south of Poverty Bay, alarming the authorities, who were determined to recapture him.
Te Kooti fled inland, pursued by the armed constabulary commanded by Colonel George Whitmore, who suffered his first setback at the hands of Te Kooti at Ruakituri on 8 August. Two months later, on 10 November, Te Kooti attacked Matawhero and killed about 54 people, including 20 Māori and the resident magistrate, Reginald Biggs, who had originally exiled him to the Chatham Islands.
Te Kooti then fled inland to Ngātapa, skirmishing with the constabulary as he went. Ngātapa was a hilltop fortress that appeared unassailable. Te Kooti’s people had constructed defences on a precipitous ridge 600 metres above sea level. However, the pās lack of a water supply made it very vulnerable. On 5 December 1868 the fortress was attacked unsuccessfully by the armed constabulary and Ngāti Porou with Wairoa allies led by Rāpata Wahawaha and Hōtene Porourangi. A second attack was mounted on 1 January 1869 against a greatly strengthened Ngātapa by the armed constabulary with Te Arawa and Ngāti Porou allies.
Following a siege lasting three days, at early dawn on 5 January under cover of darkness Te Kooti’s people escaped down sheer cliffs behind Ngātapa, using bush vines cut from nearby trees. The escape was soon detected by Ngāti Porou and Te Arawa, who followed in pursuit, apprehending about 120 of the severely weakened escapees, all of whom were executed.
Te Kooti escaped into Te Urewera, closely followed by units of Māori and armed constabulary. In March and April 1869 he raided Whakatāne and Mōhaka. Losses were heavy, especially at Mōhaka on 10 April where 60 locals, mostly Māori, were killed. Brief skirmishes followed as Te Kooti continued to elude his pursuers. Nine colonial troops were killed at Ōpepe, near Lake Taupō, on 7 June.
Te Kooti’s last defence of a fixed position occurred at Te Pōrere, at the edge of the bush north-west of Mt Tongariro, on 4 October 1869. Confronted by contingents of armed constabulary supported by Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu and Whanganui Māori, Te Kooti escaped once again but lost 37 men. He was not able to defend a fixed position again, instead staying ahead of determined pursuers like Captain Gilbert Mair and the Arawa Flying Column, which almost entrapped him at Earthquake Flat, Rotorua, on 7 February 1870. Once again, Te Kooti managed to flee, as he would do again from Maraetahi in the Waioeka Gorge on 23 March.
A major expedition into Te Urewera was mounted in January 1871, largely comprising a contingent of 300 Ngāti Porou men led by Rāpata Wahawaha. Te Rakiroa of Ngāti Kōhatu guided the column in search of Te Kooti’s trail, but little immediate evidence of his presence was found, despite extensive and wide-ranging searches being undertaken, over several expeditions.
Te Kooti was however engaged at Te Hāpua on 1 September 1871 and, finally, at Mangaone on 4 February 1872, again making good his escape but, by now, with very few adherents still alive. On 15 May 1872, Te Kooti took refuge in Arowhenua in the King Country, a settlement near the Waikato River west of Waotu. He then moved to Te Kūiti, taking refuge at the Māori king’s stronghold of Tokangamutu and bringing the wars to an end.
There are no accurate figures for those killed in the New Zealand wars. Historian James Cowan suggested that over 500 British and colonial forces and about 250 kūpapa (Māori supporting the government) died. The number killed on the other side is even harder to estimate. Cowan suggests 2,000. In a Māori population of under 80,000 this was a major loss of young men.
Those Māori who had fought the Crown lost very substantial areas of land. Under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 and later legislation, about 1 million hectares (including lands later returned) were confiscated by the Crown in Taranaki, Waikato, South Auckland, the Bay of Plenty and Poverty Bay. Which hapū lost land and which did not was often arbitrary and unfair.
The New Zealand wars left a long memory in the Māori community. Those tribes which had fought against the Crown, especially if they suffered from land confiscation, remained pained and at times bitter. This was reflected in the unwillingness of Taranaki and Waikato Māori to enlist in the First World War.
Kūpapa Māori who fought for the Crown and tribes that fought against the Crown remembered their historical conflicts long after they had passed.
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).
Historian James Belich’s 1986 book and subsequent television programme on the New Zealand wars helped to revive interest. Belich presented Māori as creative military strategists who came very close to defeating the British. New books on the wars, both novels and historical works, were published. New Plymouth museum Puke Ariki recognised the 150th anniversary of the Taranaki war with a powerful museum exhibition in 2011. The 150th anniversary of the Waikato war was marked by a series of commemorative events in 2013–14.
Belich, James. The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict. Auckland: Penguin, 1986.
Green, David. Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: a visitor’s guide. Auckland: Penguin, 2010.
Ryan, Tim, and Bill Parham. The colonial New Zealand wars. Wellington: Grantham House, 2002.
Sinclair, Keith. The origins of the Maori Wars. Auckland: Auckland University Press, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Wright, Matthew. Two peoples, one land: the New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Reed, 2006.
NZHistory’s extensive section on the New Zealand wars.
The first volume of James Cowan’s history of the wars, originally published in 1922.
The second volume of James Cowan’s history of the wars, originally published in 1923.
This multi-media site created by the Department of Conservation and Te Ruapekapeka Trust is an excellent introduction to both the Northern War and the Ruapekapeka site.