Between 1818 and the early 1830s thousands of Māori were killed in what have been called the Musket Wars. Many more were enslaved or became refugees. Although estimates vary, the deaths caused by these conflicts may have exceeded the 18,500 New Zealand lives lost in the First World War. At a time when the total population was perhaps only 100,000 (compared to around a million in 1914-18), the Musket Wars had a massive impact on these islands.
Unlike the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, the Musket Wars were New Zealand-wide. They began because of rivalry between the northern iwi Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua, but all the tribes were soon trading to obtain muskets. Some of the heaviest fighting took place in the South Island between Ngāti Toa and Ngāi Tahu. Sometimes, as in the kai huanga (eat relations) dispute on Banks Peninsula in 1826–27, the fighting was even closer to home. Only the threat from Te Rauparaha and Ngāti Toa attacks on the region ended this bitter internal feud. In 1835 Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama took the fighting offshore when they devastated pacifist Moriori during their invasion of Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands.
These wars have been described as a prime example of fatal impact theory in practice. In the wake of contact with Europeans, Māori are said to have grabbed as many guns as they could and killed as many of each other as they could. The assumption was that the introduction of European technology alone was responsible for these wars.
In her book Taua, Angela Ballara questions the validity of the term ‘musket wars’. The musket could be seen as having contributed to Māori history rather than determining it. These wars were about tikanga (custom) and often involved the settling of old scores. Ballara argues that they would have occurred regardless – the musket was merely a new tool. The new technology made conflict more destructive but did not cause it.
Ballara and fellow historian James Belich point out that muskets contributed less to the bloodbaths of the early 19th century than the ‘humble spud, which created the food surpluses war parties (taua) needed to supplement captured supplies and human bodies.’ As Gavin McLean points out, neither ‘Potato Wars’ nor ‘Taua’ stuck, so Musket Wars they became.
Māori had always fought rival kin groups. Historian Gavin McLean observes that men fought for ‘land, for resources, for women and for the sheer hell of it.’ Warfare was both ‘an integral part of the Maori political system’ and a ‘legitimate cultural response to offences or crimes of any kind’. Conflict increased as the population grew. Resources were depleted and insults demanding a response multiplied. Wars were fought in autumn – after food for winter had been stored – using hand-to-hand weapons such as mere and patu. They were often ritualised affairs that caused relatively few deaths. The victors gained land and booty and increased their mana (status). The losers sometimes had to migrate to a less desirable, unpopulated area.
The first muskets peddled by European traders were unreliable and slow to reload. Trained warriors armed with taiaha and patu (long and short clubs) were more effective than those armed with muskets. When Ngāpuhi used muskets in battle for the first time, around 1807, they were overwhelmed by conventionally armed Ngāti Whātua. Tom Brooking suggests that the musket was of greater value as a mechanism for utu when executing prisoners.
Ngāpuhi sought to buy as many of these costly weapons as they could. From 1815 Ngāpuhi taua armed with muskets wreaked havoc across the North Island. Their victims faced death, slavery or exile. Fighting escalated in 1821 when the Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika acquired 300 muskets. Over the next few years he led huge musket armies against iwi from Tāmaki (Auckland) to Rotorua. Ngāpuhi suffered heavy casualties, but their opponents were crushed despite retreating into fortress pā.
Once all tribes had muskets there were no more easy victories. Pā that had been adapted to withstand musket fire were harder to capture. By the 1830s the strain of maintaining campaigns and the impact of European diseases were taking their toll. Warfare gave way to economic rivalry.