Story: Ngā pakanga ki tāwāhi – Māori and overseas wars

Page 1. Māori and the South African War

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Māori and overseas wars

Māori have taken part in every international theatre of war that New Zealand has been involved in. From the first they eagerly devoured the war news, the elders making the young people read aloud to them. On marae Māori debated the justification for each war, considering their collective responses given their obligations as citizens of the British Empire. It was little wonder that Māori, with their own history of warfare, should take a deep interest in the struggles in South Africa, Europe and South-East Asia, and wish to join in when volunteers were called for.

Māori response to the South African War

Tena ra e tama ma e! E tapa i o koutou ingoa!1
Well done boys! Go and make a name for yourselves!

Fighting on, ever

Walter Callaway of Coromandel was one of the first to volunteer for South Africa. He served with three of the contingents, was commissioned as an officer and was mentioned in dispatches. Callaway’s Māori war cry, ‘Kia kaha Niu Tireni! Whawhai maia mo to Kuini, to kainga! Ake! Ake! Ake!’ (Be strong New Zealand! Fight bravely for your Queen, your country! Ever! Ever! Ever!)2 was adopted by the contingents and appeared on patriotic envelopes used by the troops.

The South African War, often known as the Boer War, broke out in October 1899. In the weeks before the outbreak of the war Māori, including many serving in the country’s part-time Volunteer Force, offered to do their part in defending the British Empire. Some prominent identities proposed to personally lead a ‘native’ contingent to South Africa. When Lord Roberts, the commander-in-chief of British troops in South Africa, lost his only son in the fighting, Ngāti Porou chief Tuta Nihoniho sent him a handsome ancestral mere pounamu (greenstone club), along with the offer of 500 troops. The soldiers were ‘to ornament [his] feet or to accompany [his] dear son on his journey’.3

Offers of troops were declined – British policy at the time was not to employ ‘native’ troops in wars between white groups. The New Zealand authorities unofficially turned a blind eye to the ban. About 20 Māori, generally of mixed ethnicity, managed to join up as part of the contingents that went abroad. They enlisted under European surnames such as Arthur (Aata), Boyd, Callaway (Karawe), Ferris (Wherihi), Joseph (Hohepa), Pitt (Piti), Poynter, Thorpe (Taapu), Vercoe, Walker (Waaka) and Withers. The Māori press applauded their efforts, patriotically supporting the war.

Ngāpuhi nursing sisters

In 1901 a party of Ngāpuhi women of chiefly descent established a group known as the Ngāpuhi nursing sisters or Ngāpuhi Sisters of Mercy. They trained in first aid and carried out fundraising activities for the South African War. They were all good horsewomen and appear to have travelled around the Whangārei area treating the sick. The sisters wore a uniform based on that of the Mounted Volunteers in South Africa.

Pro-Boers and patriots

There were some Māori communities who sympathised with the Boers, feeling that responsibility for the war lay with the British who wanted more land. Patriots thought that these Māori communities had been encouraged by pro-Boer Dutch and German priests exploiting Māori land grievances.

Some iwi, keen to express their patriotism, were active in raising funds to support New Zealand troops overseas and to provide for the families of servicemen killed or wounded during the war. Waiata and haka were also composed and performed by civilians and servicemen alike, the best-known being ‘Kikia te Poa’ (Kick the Boer).

  1. Pipiwharauroa: he kupu whakamarama, 1 April 1900, p. 5. Back
  2. Mike Dwight, Walter Callaway: a Māori warrior of the Boer War. Thames: M. Dwight, 2010, p. 33. Back
  3. Manawatu Standard, 31 March 1900, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Monty Soutar, 'Ngā pakanga ki tāwāhi – Māori and overseas wars - Māori and the South African War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2023)

Story by Monty Soutar, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 May 2016