Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

New Zealand Wars

by Danny Keenan

In the 1840s and 1860s conflict over sovereignty and land led to battles between government forces and some iwi Māori. The largest campaign was the clash between the Kīngitanga and the Crown. Land confiscations to punish iwi that fought against the Crown left a legacy of grievance.

New Zealand Wars overview

The New Zealand Wars were a series of mid-19th-century campaigns involving some iwi Māori 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.

Naming the wars

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 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 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 Tuamarino (now known as Tuamarina) over a land dispute. The 1840s wars began with fighting between Ngāpuhi and government forces 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 forces and Māori in Wellington, and there were skirmishes in Whanganui in 1847.

1860s and 1870s

The most sustained and widespread campaign was the clash between the British Empire and the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) in Taranaki, Waikato and 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.

Confiscations and impact

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 the prophets Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi at Parihaka. After Parihaka was occupied by government forces on 5 November 1881, the settlement was partially destroyed. Protests against land confiscation in Taranaki continued.

After the wars the Kīngitanga established an aukati which prevented Pākehā crossing into the King Country. The King Country was autonomous until negotiations saw it opened up from 1883.

Final confrontations

In the 1890s, Ngāi Tūhoe opposing surveying in Te Urewera were forcibly arrested in actions later described by Māori politician Apirana Ngata as a small war. In the late 1890s some Ngāpuhi led by Hōne Tōia who opposed council dog taxes were arrested by a military force and imprisoned.

The last skirmish between the government and Māori occurred in 1916 with the arrest of Rua Kēnana at Maungapōhatu in Te Urewera. Two Tūhoe men, including Rua’s son Toko and close friend Te Maipi, were killed during a firefight with police.

Northern War, 1845–1846

Origins of the wars

The New Zealand Wars began with fighting between Ngāpuhi and a government force 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 hapū of Ngāpuhi 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 a British naval force led by Acting Commander David Robertson of HMS Hazard. Pākehā were evacuated from the town after a powder magazine blew up.

Increased presence

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, left Auckland under Lieutenant-Colonel William Hulme to reclaim the ‘Queen’s sovereignty at Kororareka’.1

The northern campaign

After arriving at Kororāreka on 30 April, the British ships shelled nearby Māori settlements, including Ōtuihu, which was mistakenly thought to be harbouring Heke sympathisers. Most of the supporters of Heke had long since moved inland.


The first major engagement of this campaign was fought at Heke’s new at Puketutu, beside 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 strong stockade. 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 on the battlefield. Māori dead were about twice that number.

Te Ahuahu

Heke withdrew to nearby Te Ahuahu. When he left this 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 fighters but could not dislodge Wāka Nene from Te Ahuahu. Heke was badly wounded in this battle.


A pā near Ōhaeawai was remodelled by 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 killed.

Sabbath victory?

There has long been controversy about the end of the battle at Te Ruapekapeka. 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 of their absence 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 carry supplies and drag heavy weapons uphill to attack a position with no intrinsic strategic value.

Te Ruapekapeka

In January 1846 the British began shelling a new Māori fortification at Te Ruapekapeka. On 11 January, when Māori scouts signalled that it was empty, troops rushed into the pā. Fighting continued in the bush behind the pā for several hours as Kawiti tried to lure the British into an ambush. About 12 British and up to 20 Māori were killed.

After the battle of Te Ruapekapeka, the Northern War ended when Kawiti and Heke agreed peace terms with Wāka Nene. The flagstaff was not put back up in Heke’s lifetime and no Ngāpuhi land was confiscated.

    • Quoted in James Cowan, The New Zealand wars: a history of the Māori campaigns and the pioneering period. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1922, p. 35. Back

Wellington and Whanganui Wars, 1846–1848

Martial law in Wellington

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 Hutt Valley on 3 March 1846, leading Governor George Grey to declare martial law in Wellington. Māori withdrew but on 2 April killed Lower Hutt settlers Andrew Gillespie and his son, heightening tensions. On 16 May, Māori attacked the redoubt at Boulcott’s farm, killing eight of its defenders.

Extending martial law

Military posts were 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 taua was approaching from the north, Grey extended martial law to Whanganui. He also travelled to Waikanae to urge Te Āti Awa to intercept the taua as it moved south, which they agreed to do.

Arresting Te Rauparaha

Grey decided to arrest Te Rauparaha, rangatira of Ngāti Toa, whom he blamed for the Hutt Valley attacks. On 23 July a naval party raided Taupō (near Porirua), the village of Te Rauparaha, and took the elderly chief into custody, along with other key allies. His nephew, Te Rangihaeata, mounted a rescue attempt by 50 fighters, but this was easily driven off.­

End of Wellington war

In August, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Rangatahi and their allies retreated into the hills above Pāuatahanui, pursued by British troops and their Māori allies from Wellington. Te Rangihaeata and his people eventually reached Poroutawhao in Horowhenua, where they were allowed to settle in peace.

Whanganui: tensions rise

Disputed land purchases around the settlement of Whanganui also caused tensions between Māori and settlers. When Ngāti Hāua-te-rangi chief Tōpine Te Mamaku returned from fighting at Boulcott’s farm, he 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, apparently accidentally, while working aboard the brig Calliope.

Attack on Gilfillan farm

Possibly in reaction to the wounding of Ngārangi, followers of Te Mamaku attacked the Gilfillan farm in the isolated Matarawa valley a few days later, killing four members of the family. The perpetrators of these killings were apprehended and all but one were hanged on 26 April.

Whanganui attack

Under the leadership of Te Mamaku, Whanganui Māori gathered upriver, and on 19 May several hundred fighters attacked Whanganui town, looting and destroying property and raiding outlying farms. A British gunboat fired shells from the river but had negligible impact. British troops and Whanganui settlers took refuge inside the Rutland stockade and withstood the attacks, which came to within 300 metres of the fortification.

Peace terms

On 20 July, the British moved out of the stockade to engage Te Mamaku at nearby St John’s Wood. An inconclusive battle left Māori with few options but to withdraw. Governor Grey pressed for peace and on 21 February 1848 announced that he had reached an agreement with Te Mamaku.

North Taranaki War, 1860–1861

In the late 1850s, the European population of New Zealand overtook the Māori population. As newcomers flooded in, there was increasing pressure to obtain land still under Māori control. By 1860 nearly all of the South Island was in Pākehā hands, but North Island Māori had organised themselves to resist further loss of land.

Land issues at Waitara

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 land. A young rangatira of Waitara, Te Teira, offered 600 acres (240 hectares) at the mouth of the Waitara River, despite the objections of a more senior rangatira, Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke. Gore Browne accepted the offer of Te Teira, subject to his title being confirmed by officials.

Surveying of the Waitara purchase commenced on 20 February 1860 but was interrupted by supporters of Wiremu Kīngi. British troops commanded by Colonel Charles Gold who were based in New Plymouth immediately occupied the disputed block. A blockhouse was erected, from which Gold observed Te Āti Awa building a fortification at Te Kohia, on a ridge overlooking the British position.

Outbreak of war

On 17 March 1860, Gold ordered an attack on Te Kohia. Cannon and rocket fire damaged the palisades. Te Āti Awa returned fire, causing the British to take cover. At dawn they found the had been abandoned.

10 quid and a VC

The first European into Kaipopo 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 the money and for good measure was also awarded the first Victoria Cross of the New Zealand Wars.

Battle of Waireka

In early 1860 settlers built a protective stockade at Ōmata, about 6 kilometres south-west of New Plymouth. Ngāti Ruanui and their supporters then built a pā, Kaipopo, overlooking it. Gold decided to relieve the stockade and rescue settler families. On 28 March two separate forces, about 120 British regulars and 150 volunteers and militia, approached Kaipopo, 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 and take it, although some historians claim it had already been abandoned. Two Europeans and between 20 and 50 Māori were killed.

Puketakauere pā

While the strengthening of the Waitara garrison continued, Te Āti Awa gathered at Puketakauere, 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, 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 straggled back to Waitara, having sustained a major defeat. 30 British died at Puketakauere, and 34 were seriously injured. Just five Māori were killed. It was claimed that Te Āti Awa now had at least 800 men in the field, including a taua from Ngāti Maniapoto.

Pratt attacks

Following the defeat at Puketakauere, Major-General Thomas Pratt took command of the British troops in Taranaki. Pratt launched well-timed raids on Te Āti Awa strongholds along the upper Waitara River throughout September 1860. On 6 November, Pratt defeated a Ngāti Hāua war party that was hurriedly digging in at Māhoetahi, about halfway between New Plymouth and Waitara.

Pratt’s long sap

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 this sap, painstakingly dug out, was almost 1,500 metres. Its remains can still be seen.

On 18 January 1861 Pratt attacked Huirangi, causing Te Āti Awa to retreat upriver. Pratt kept up the pressure by constructing a series of small redoubts as staging posts for the advance. A major midnight attack launched by Māori against redoubt no. 3 on 23 January ended disastrously for them, with perhaps 50 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.

End of the war

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) that were closing in on the pā. Attacks against the trenches were repulsed. The last shots were fired on 18 March 1861, when the war in North Taranaki finally ended with a truce negotiated by senior Kīngitanga figure Wiremu Tāmihana, who did not want the war to extend into Waikato.

Waikato War: beginnings

Preparing for war

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 his son, later known as Tāwhiao. Some of the king’s followers had participated in the Taranaki war. Despite the truce in Taranaki, the government was keen to punish them – and to satiate European land hunger in the Waikato region.

In 1861 Thomas Gore Browne was replaced as governor by George Grey. On 1 January 1862, construction of the Great South Road southward from Drury began. This road would enable men and military supplies to be moved to the Waikato River in preparation for an 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. A second proclamation dated two days later warned those ‘in arms’ that they had forfeited their right to their lands.


On 12 July 1863, British troops commanded by Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron crossed the Mangatāwhiri Stream, which marked the aukati between the Kīngitanga lands and the government-controlled area to the north. Troops took up positions below the Koheroa ridge and scoured the area for Māori fighters. Five days later, on 17 July, British regulars attacked a war party on the ridge, firing and mounting a bayonet charge which caused the Māori to retreat. About 15 Māori, including Te Huirama, a rangatira of Waikato, died during this engagement.


Māori attacks behind the lines slowed British progress. Cameron tried to establish water-based transport, but his forward depot at Camerontown on the lower Waikato River was destroyed by Māori. Advance parties were ordered to drive on to the river to secure British supplies through the use of gunboats. Waikato Māori retreated to Meremere, 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 of the 40th and 65th regiments were towed past the on barges and landed 8 kilometres upriver, beating off an attack from the pā. With the British now in their rear, Waikato abandoned Meremere.

Waikato War: major battles


Attention now moved to the Kīngitanga fighting at Rangiriri, on the eastern side 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 assembled a land force of 850 men with three field guns supported by cannon aboard Pioneer and Avon. Following a two-hour bombardment, Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron ordered a frontal assault on the pā. Māori in the forward rifle pits were quickly overrun, but the main redoubt held firm. Intense fighting occurred in the forward trenches, but the British could not scale the parapets. Cameron ordered a retreat.

Three more assaults on the main redoubt were also repulsed. However, assault forces landing in the rear occupied the rifle pits and trenches, blocking the main line of retreat and preventing reinforcement of the pā during the night, though many defenders escaped to safety.

White flag

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 actually wished to negotiate a truce. When Cameron insisted that Waikato lay down their arms, they offered no further resistance and nearly 200 men were taken prisoner. About 40 on each side had lost their lives during the battle.


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. Behind this defensive line were food-producing villages such as Rangiaowhia. Cameron realised these fortifications could only be taken with very high casualties. Local Māori friendly to the British guided Cameron’s men around the southern flank of the defences under cover of darkness on the night of 20 February.


On the morning of 21 February 1864, a force comprising British regular infantry and two colonial units, Captain Gustavus von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers and Colonel Marmaduke Nixon’s cavalry, attacked Rangiaowhia. The few defenders of the kāinga fought back. Houses were set on fire, with defenders shot as they tried to escape. When news of Rangiaowhia reached Pāterangi, the pā was abandoned, allowing Cameron’s army to occupy the fortifications unopposed. Kīngitanga forces then sought to establish a defensive line along the Hairini ridge in front of Rangiaowhia. Cameron rushed troops to engage Māori at Hairini, forcing their further retreat.


In March 1864 taua from Pāterangi, Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Raukawa gained the agreement of Ngāti Maniapoto leader Rewi Maniapoto to fight the British at Ōrākau, near Kihikihi. 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, but artillery continued to bombard the pā. Forward trenches built by British Engineers were close enough for grenades to be thrown into the pā. On 2 April, Cameron arrived and offered the defenders a chance to surrender, or safe passage for the women and children; both proposals were refused.

Āke, āke, āke!

The most famous incident of the New Zealand Wars was the Ōrākau defenders’ response to the offer of surrender or 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 other versions of the response and it is unclear whether it was Rewi Maniapoto or another rangatira who spoke. In any event, ‘Rewi’s last stand’ became a legendary expression of Māori courage. The story was made into a silent film of the same name by Rudall Hayward in 1925 and remade as a ‘talkie’ in 1939.


With Rewi’s people suffering heavy casualties, and with a British incursion into the pā seeming imminent, Māori decided to abandon the pā and fight their way through the cordon of troops. On the afternoon of 2 April the defenders of Ōrākau crossed the south-eastern parapet in a tight group and moved quickly towards 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 of the Māori during the escape. It was the greatest loss of life in one battle of the wars. Whilst the battle ended in 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 their work done, and unwilling to pursue the king’s forces into Ngāti Maniapoto territory, the British troops returned to Auckland.

Gate Pā, Tauranga

Troops to Tauranga

In January 1864, Governor George Grey ordered several British units to go 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, these men, led by Rāwiri Tuaia Puhirake, immediately returned home. By April 1864 Puhirake had assembled 250 Māori at Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), near Tauranga, 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 attackers suffered heavy casualties and soon retreated. A follow-up assault was 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 . Most of the 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 and 75 were wounded.

Te Ranga

The Māori who escaped from Pukehinahina decided to build another defensive pā and engage with the British once again. Work began on a new fortification at Te Ranga, inland from Pukehinahina. 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.

Pai Mārire, South Taranaki and Whanganui, 1864–1866

The war now entered a new phase. A number of Māori prophetic movements emerged, each imbuing its followers with a renewed commitment to expel the Europeans. Many iwi Māori, strongly committed to traditional Christianity, resisted these movements. There was an increase in the number of kūpapa. As the British government withdrew its troops, fighting on the Crown side was increasingly in the hands of colonial forces and kūpapa.

Pai Mārire in Taranaki

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 victory over the Pākehā. On 6 April 1864, a small British force was attacked by Hauhau at Te Ahuahu, near Ōakura. The severed head of Captain Thomas Lloyd was later taken round the North Island to assist Pai Mārire recruiting.

Island battle

When lower Whanganui Māori sought to prevent a Pai Mārire force 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 banks. After each side occupied one end of the island, 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 monument and a flag.

Battle of Moutoa

Pai Mārire influence soon spread to the upper reaches of the Whanganui River. A Pai Mārire taua intent on attacking Whanganui town, led by a prophet named Matene Te Rangitauira, was intercepted by Whanganui Māori at Moutoa Island on 14 May 1864. Led by Haimona Hiroti and Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi, the lower-river Māori were victorious.

East Coast

Despite the defeat at Moutoa Island, Pai Mārire influence continued to spread across the North Island. Kereopa Te Rau and Pātara Raukatauri were appointed as apostles to the East Coast tribes. Lutheran missionary Carl Völkner of Ōpōtiki was hanged outside his church on 2 March 1865 after being accused of spying by Pai Mārire adherents.

Other killings followed, including that of government interpreter James Fulloon several weeks later. Colonial troops sent to Ōpōtiki on 8 September 1865 forced Pai Mārire followers to retreat to the east and south. Their occupation of Waerenga-a-hika, near Gisborne, in November 1865 proved especially costly, with over 100 Pai Mārire adherents killed in the ensuing battle. Amongst those arrested after this battle was Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, who was accused of collusion with Pai Mārire and sent into captivity on the Chatham Islands in 1866. Two groups of Pai Mārire followers were intercepted near Napier on 12 October 1866, ending a Pai Mārire attack on the town.


On 5 January 1865, Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron arrived in Whanganui, having been ordered by Governor George Grey to attack ‘hostile’ Māori in South Taranaki. On 24 January a surprise attack launched by Māori against his encamped forces at Nukumaru was beaten off. Cameron later faced the of Weraroa, which sat atop a huge cliff-like embankment above Waitōtara. He decided against attacking the pā, preferring to isolate it. When Grey disagreed, Cameron resigned his commission. He was replaced by Major-General Trevor Chute in August 1865.

March around Mt Taranaki

Chute brought new resolve to the last phase of British military operations in New Zealand. On 30 December 1865 he left Whanganui to undertake a route march around Mt Taranaki, first striking inland and then 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. His ragged and exhausted troops reached New Plymouth on 26 January 1866. After being fed and watered, Chute’s men resumed their march and by 9 February they were back in Whanganui.

Tītokowaru’s War, 1868–1869

Land disputes in South Taranaki

Riwha Tītokowaru was a Ngā Ruahine Methodist lay preacher who was later influenced by Pai Mārire. Initially he was committed to peace, but as settlers moved into South Taranaki and land confiscations began, Tītokowaru vowed to defend 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 (colonial army) troops were recruited and posted to Taranaki, along with 100 Whanganui Māori.

The war begins

On 12 July 1868, Tītokowaru’s force attacked a small 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.

Te Ngutu-o-te-manu

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, when a 360-strong force under Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas McDonnell approached the village before Ngā Ruahine opened fire from concealed positions in the forest. McDonnell ordered a retreat, but not before 24 of his men, including Major Gustavus von Tempsky, had been killed. 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 (‘Major Kemp’). Whitmore’s frontal assault 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, a near Nukumaru, building massive earthworks. The Armed Constabulary approached the pā in late January 1869 and encamped some distance away, preparing for an assault in early February. However, when the assault was launched on 3 February, the pā was found to have been abandoned. The reasons are uncertain. According to Kimble Bent, an American ex-soldier now serving with Tītokowaru, a major disagreement had arisen on the evening before the expected battle. As a consequence, the decision had been taken to withdraw into the bush, effectively bringing Tītokowaru’s campaign to an end. Tītokowaru covered the retreat of his people as they fled inland from Waitōtara.

Pursuit of Te Kooti, 1868–1872

War on the East Coast

Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki belonged to the Poverty Bay iwi of Rongowhakaata. While fighting on the government side at Waerenga-a-hika in November 1865, he was suspected of aiding the Pai Mārire enemy. In June 1866 he was exiled to the Chatham Islands, where he founded a millennial religion that became known as Ringatū. On 4 July 1868, he seized the schooner Rifleman and forced its crew to sail for Tūranganui. On 10 July, he and 297 followers landed south of Poverty Bay, alarming the authorities, who were determined to recapture him.

Te Kooti moved inland, followed by a force 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, near Gisborne, and killed about 60 people, including about 30 Māori and the local resident magistrate, Reginald Biggs, who had exiled him to the Chatham Islands.

Siege of Ngātapa

Te Kooti then retreated inland to Ngātapa, skirmishing with his opponents 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 lack of an internal water supply made the position very vulnerable. On 5 December 1868 the fortress was attacked unsuccessfully by 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.

Pursuit continues

Following a siege lasting three days, Te Kooti’s people escaped down sheer cliffs behind Ngātapa early on 5 January, using 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 fugitives, all of whom were executed.

Te Urewera

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, when 60 locals, mostly Māori, were killed. Skirmishes followed as Te Kooti continued to elude his pursuers. Colonial troops were ambushed at Ōpepe, near Lake Taupō, on 7 June, with nine killed.

Te Pōrere

Te Kooti built a redoubt at Te Pōrere, on the edge of the bush north-west of Mt Tongariro. On 4 October 1869, this was attacked by Armed Constabulary and Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu and Whanganui Māori, Te Kooti escaped once again but lost 37 men – and two fingers. 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 trapped 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.

End of the wars

A major expedition into Te Urewera was mounted in January 1871, largely comprising a contingent of 300 Ngāti Porou led by Rāpata Wahawaha. Te Rakiroa of Ngāti Kōhatu guided the column in search of Te Kooti’s trail, but little evidence of his presence was found, despite extensive and wide-ranging searches, over several expeditions.

Te Kooti was engaged at Te Hāpua on 1 September 1871 and at Mangaone on 4 February 1872, again making good his escape but, by now, with very few adherents. On 15 May 1872, Te Kooti took refuge at Arowhenua, a settlement inside the King Country near the Waikato River west of Waotu. He then moved to Te Kūiti, taking refuge in the Māori king’s stronghold of Tokangamutu and bringing the wars to an end.

Long-term impact


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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Danny Keenan, 'New Zealand Wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Danny Keenan, published 20 June 2012, reviewed & revised 29 November 2022