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Musket Wars - NCEA Level 3 history

The Musket Wars - examine a significant situation in the context of change

These activities form part of a larger examination of New Zealand before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. It is a good opportunity to explore the issue of change in early 19th-century New Zealand and to consider some of the interpretations of historians about these wars.

War had a great impact on New Zealand in the 19th century. Firearms revolutionised warfare around the Pacific, and their acquisition became a feature of early contact between Maori and Pakeha. The intertribal wars waged between 1818 and the 1830s often involved the widespread use of muskets. These campaigns have become known as the Musket Wars. This label implies that the musket was the dominant feature of these wars. Those who supported the notion of fatal impact argued that Europeans had introduced the musket so it was contact with Europeans and their technologies that were to blame for these wars.

The historiography of the Musket Wars

One definition of historiography is that it is the study of the way history has been and is written – in effect the history of historical writing. When you study 'historiography' you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of historians.

In recent years there has been considerable historiographical debate on the Musket Wars. Traditional interpretations were that muskets represented a negative impact of contact with Europeans that Maori had little control over. Maori acquired as many muskets as they could and embarked on devastating campaigns against rivals. This interpretation maintained that muskets were the cause of these wars.

Angela Ballara revisited this argument and asserted that Maori were not merely passive bystanders but sought to incorporate muskets into traditional warfare. They decided how the musket would be used, and Maori society itself was the cause of the wars, not the muskets. Warfare was endemic in Maori society, and the musket and other aspects of European technology contributed to, but did not determine Maori history. Before contact with Europeans, war was the ultimate sanction in resolving disputes. These wars were about tikanga (custom) as iwi sought to redefine their boundaries in the wake of contact with Europeans. Ballara's argument is that the Musket Wars would have occurred whether muskets were available or not and whether Pakeha contact had taken place or not. The technology made the conflict more destructive, but it was not the cause of fighting.

James Belich described the process by which Maori selected which aspects of European culture they would adopt and which they would reject. How they responded and adapted to new ideas has been referred to as Maori agency or, as Giselle Byrne described it, dual agency – the blending or mixing of two worlds according to Maori criteria. In 1815 John Nicholas, an associate of Samuel Marsden, described a meeting with Te Puhi, a Maori chief, who had beaten an iron bar into the form of a patu. Te Puhi's adaptation of European materials to fit Maori needs is the embodiment of Maori agency.

The incorporation of the musket (ngutu parera) into Maori society is perhaps a more extreme example of this. Muskets became an important trade item for Maori, and considerable economic changes occurred to enable iwi to acquire them in sufficient numbers. These weapons did not come cheap. Around 1820, one musket could cost Maori as much as 200 kete (baskets) of potatoes, so Maori now had to produce surplus food for trade. Slaves captured during the musket wars were often put to work increasing cultivation so as to fund further arms deals. Tribes changed their economy to supply traders with the flax, pigs, potatoes or timber required to acquire guns.

The musket and Maori warfare

Tom Brooking has questioned the value of this new weapon in the heat of battle. The musket was awkward, slow to reload and unreliable when under pressure over more than 50 metres. On a large scale it could guarantee success, but Brooking believed that the musket's greatest value was as a mechanism for utu when executing prisoners. Trained warriors armed with traditional hand-held weapons, such as taiaha and patu, were more effective than those armed with muskets, as when Ngati Whatua defeated Nga Puhi in 1807. 

As the greatest point of contact took place initially in the Far North, Nga Puhi were able to get muskets before their rivals and became the dominant iwi between 1818 and 1825. Brooking argues that Hongi Hika acted from Maori motives such as utu – two of his brothers had been killed in the battle with Ngati Whatua in 1807. This period of Nga Puhi dominance certainly advanced the mana of his iwi as well as him as a leader.

As other iwi acquired muskets, Nga Puhi dominance declined, and it ended by 1825. Iwi increasingly struggled to maintain warfare on such a large scale with part-time warriors and the pressure to produce more to trade for muskets with Europeans. Maori also adapted their pa to accommodate the use of muskets and to minimise their impact. With these changes, a stalemate situation was reached. Within a few years of the death of Hongi in 1828 large-scale battles became a rarity.

Results of the wars

Brooking argued that the Musket Wars coincided with a phase of intense competition in Maori society. Campaigns in Auckland, the Waikato and Bay of Plenty drove many tribes out of their traditional areas and into exile and resulted in confused issues of ownership of land. Those forced to flee faced resistance from tangata whenua (local peoples) and in this way the conflict spread further afield and introduced other reasons for fighting.


Ballara, Angela, Taua: 'Musket Wars', 'Land Wars' or tikanga? Warfare in Maori society in the early nineteenth century, Penguin, Auckland, 2003

Brooking, Tom, Milestones: turning points in New Zealand history, Mills Publications, Wellington, 1988

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