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Opinion Piece by Mr C. Simons
PhD, is the Director of the New Zealand Wars Study Centre at the New Zealand Command and Staff College

“It is important to us as a nation, at least as important as our World War I commemorations, if not more so.”[i]

October 28 this year saw the nation officially commemorate the New Zealand Wars for the first time. This was a significant step in acknowledging our colonial wars and educating the public about them. Pressure on the government to mark the wars in some official way came primarily from Māori groups and had gained momentum following the recent 150th anniversary commemorations of a number of battles in various parts of the North Island. October 28 was chosen as the date because it was the day in 1835 when a gathering of chiefs at Waitangi titled themselves the Confederation of United Tribes and asked Britain to recognise the country’s independence. This day was chosen as a representative day. Significant battles took place in many regions; they are all considered important by the local people and are commemorated locally. Consequently it is not appropriate to bring to the fore any one particular battle in the way that we associate the Gallipoli landings with Anzac Day.

The wars spanned nearly 40 years from the Wairau Affray in 1843[ii] through to the occupation of Parihaka in 1881, although these start and finish dates are somewhat elastic depending upon which events are included. They have been known by several names and for years were referred to as The Māori Wars in line with the British penchant for naming their wars after their adversaries.  This habit tends to imply blame but they are still commonly known as the Land Wars or the Māori Land Wars, even by some Māori.  The reality, though, is that they were as much about sovereignty and the assertion of British institutions and authority as they were about land, and this is why the New Zealand Wars is a better name. They were our wars in our country, and they helped shape New Zealand to the extent that we all still live in their shadow today. Just as the American Civil War was a major turning point for that nation, our wars, at the same time in history, set the course for our young country.

As each of the chiefs at Waitangi on the morning of 6 February 1840 put their mark on the treaty manuscript, Captain Hobson R.N., who was soon to be the first governor of New Zealand, acknowledged them individually and uttered a phrase that he had just learnt: “He iwi tahi tatou; now we are one people”.[iii] It was a noble sentiment but it was unrealistic, and we have spent the last 177 years working out how the relationship should work. The two peoples could hardly have been more different in terms of culture, economic power and world view, and four decades of warfare was the result.  It was all very well declaring sovereignty over the country, but how was the new government going to implement or enforce it? What was to be the role for Māori in this new arrangement and how were the conflicting ideas of British sovereignty (kāwanatanga)[iv] and chiefly authority (te tino Rangitiratanga)[v] going to be resolved?

It quickly became obvious to Hobson just how fragile and vulnerable his new government was. Māori had just come through nearly two decades of intense inter-tribal warfare, were armed to the teeth and battle-hardened (and, because of this experience, many embraced the thought that British law could bring stability and peace). Hobson had been provided with four New South Wales mounted police constables but they were only there as his personal body-guard. He had no troops and no ship at his disposal and there were only intermittent visits by Royal Navy vessels. The colony of New South Wales provided 100 officers and men of the 80th Regiment on 16 April 1840 to help him assert his authority, and by the end of 1842 there were 200 ‘bayonets’ stationed in the country.

Problems began almost immediately after the signing of the treaty. A young chief was hanged under British law for murder- what message did that send about chiefs’ authority to deal with their own people? There was inter-tribal fighting in Tauranga- how should that be dealt with? The first real clash between the races happened at Wairau when ill-advised Nelson settlers tried to enforce their claim to land held by the Ngati Toa chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. A number of these settlers were executed by him after Te Rangihaeata’s wife died from a stray shot. Tensions in the Bay of Islands (Te Tai Tokerau) came to a head in March 1845 when the Nga Puhi chiefs Hone Heke and Kawiti sacked the former capital at Kororareka. British regiments from the Australian colonies and further afield and several Royal Navy warships arrived to fight a tough 10 month campaign.

By February 1846 the situation in the north had stabilised and the country’s third governor, George Grey, took the opportunity to use the considerable military force that had assembled to deal with an intractable problem of competing land claims in the Wellington region. In another demanding campaign, Te Rangihaeata was driven out of the region and Te Rauparaha was seized and held without trial for 18 months.  In both the Northern and Wellington Wars the government and British military formed coalitions with Māori allies who were crucial to helping them prevail.

The 1850s were a time of relative peace but growing tension, and the influx of settlers meant that the Māori and Pākehā populations were equal in size at approximately 58,000 each by 1858. The Māori response, in the middle of the North Island at least, was to establish the Kingitanga, a new concept of kingship centered on the Waikato and intended to unite tribes against European encroachment and halt the further loss of land. Māori had no voice in the governance of the country and Kingitanga was an expression of te tino Rangitiratanga: an attempt to establish Māori self-determination while remaining under the umbrella of the wider nation.

War erupted in the Taranaki in 1860 over the joint issues of land and sovereignty. The settlers had a desperate need for land and Te Ᾱti Awa paramount chief Wiremu Kingi would not sell. Governor Gore Browne declared martial law to enforce the dubious purchase of the Waitara Block. There was a larger permanent British military presence in New Zealand at the time and some frontier communities had formed militias, but once again British troops crossed the Tasman Sea and the empire’s warships were diverted for duty in New Zealand. As the war progressed many taua (war parties) from the Waikato journeyed south to join in the fighting. An unsatisfactory truce was eventually agreed in early 1861 but the underlying issues remained unresolved.

It was clear to the government that the heart of Māori resistance lay in the Waikato, and plans were developed to emasculate the Kingitanga and confiscate land for settlement (and to pay for the war). There were also genuine fears that the capital at Auckland was vulnerable to attack from the south and that Pākehā settlers in isolated rural communities were in danger. Governor Grey and the commander the British troops, Lieutenant General Cameron, spent two years building up a formidable force and putting in place a sophisticated logistics system to support it. A key capability was the fleet of armoured war-steamers built for use on the Waikato and Waipa Rivers.  These boats, New Zealand’s first warships, were the key to the well-organised campaign, and by March 1864 Cameron was established at Te Awamutu and the Maori King had been driven into exile in the ‘King Country’. The fighting then spread to the Tauranga area where the major battles of Gate Pa and Te Ranga were fought.

War broke out again in Taranaki and guerrilla-style campaigns spread throughout the central parts of the North Island in the mid 1860s. By 1868 separate insurgencies by Titokowaru in southern Taranaki and Te Kooti on the east coast stretched the government’s military resources to the limit. The British regiments had left the country by then and the campaigns were fought by the nation’s first regular army, the Armed Constabulary. Again, the support of Māori allies (kupapa) was a key aspect of the fighting.

The final act of the wars was the government’s occupation of the pacifist village of Parihaka on the western slopes of Mount Taranaki in 1881. The 2,000 occupants of the largest Māori community in the country were resisting settlers who were breaking-in nearby confiscated land. The government disbanded the community and many of the men were interned without trial in prisons in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin where they laboured on road gangs and in other public works, many dying in the process.

Military defeat was devastating for Māori communities. Large scale confiscation and compulsory purchase of their land occurred in the Waikato, Tauranga, Taranaki and several other parts of the North Island. The loss of leaders, land and resources and the marginalisation of their culture led to severe and on-going economic and social dislocation.

Military professionals can learn many lessons from our wars. They were the origin of our first warships, our first regular army, our first citizen soldiers and our first special forces, and our greatest maritime disaster. The British forces were operating on the very frontier of the empire, far from bases and support, so co-operation and initiative were essential in a challenging and unfamiliar environment. Joint operations were the norm and were practiced on a scale not dissimilar to that envisaged by NZDF’s 2035 concept. The wars were fought at the height of the Industrial Revolution and there were operational field trials of revolutionary new artillery, and rapid developments in weaponry. Innovations were made in the evacuation and treatment of the wounded and in public health and soldiers quarters. Percussion cap rifles replaced flintlock muskets, telegraph replaced semaphore and steam began replacing sail. The logistical challenges were enormous. New Zealand had few industries. Almost all war supplies were shipped along a supply chain that originated from Britain on the other side of the world, or the Australian colonies, and included such basic stores as fodder for the animals, coal for the steamers and firewood for the soldiers’ cooking fires.

The wars provide opportunities to study command, communications, logistics, intelligence, warfare in tribal settings, riverine and other naval operations, the challenges of language and culture; the list goes on. The fighting was between a western-style regular military that had to adapt its tactics and methods to alien conditions, and a subsistence-based warrior society that had to find ways to resist overwhelming firepower, logistics, resources and manpower. Māori refined the tactics that they had developed during the earlier musket wars, built formidable fortifications and entered into political and military coalitions against a common enemy that would not have been previously imaginable.

New Zealanders embark on pilgrimages to overseas battlefields to see places of sacrifice, heroism and family connection. It is a wonderful thing to do and such travel has become a common rite of passage item in Kiwis’ bucket-lists. Here in New Zealand we also have battlefields that tell the story of our country and they are right on our back door. We live among them and drive through them, but most New Zealanders don’t know that they are there or the momentous stories that they tell about our painful passage to nationhood.  The Māori who fought and died in these wars were our country’s first patriots and they did what we would do today. The British soldiers and sailors who fought and died here were sent to serve, just as so many thousands of New Zealanders, Māori and Pākehā,  who lie in foreign fields were sent to serve: “It’s time that we all recognise the importance of honouring those who perished on home soil just as we honour those who died overseas.”[vi]

In the NZDF we embrace the idea that we are modern-day warriors who carry a dual heritage which stems from both our British and Māori military traditions and ethos. We believe that those two elements create a unique identity that sets us apart from others and makes us truly and distinctively New Zealanders. Here in our own country we have the opportunity to walk the battlefields that helped shape our nation, to learn about its history, and as military professionals, to study the art of war at close hand.


The New Zealand Wars Study Centre offers staff rides of 1-3 days duration of the major campaigns of the New Zealand Wars. These are very suitable for unit training. The centre also provides lessons and talks, which can be scaled and shaped to suit course objectives and any other purpose or group. For further information please contact LTCOL Simons at the Command and Staff College, on DIXS or at






[i] The Honourable Maggie Barry, Minister of Conservation., accessed 27 July 2017

[ii] The only New Zealand Wars battle in the South Island

[iii]There is some debate but this is the generally understood meaning. Another possibility is: “We have come to an agreement”.

[iv] This is sometimes interpreted as government.

[v]  Full, exclusive and undisturbed possession (of their people, land and all other possessions) or also unqualified exercise of their chieftainship

[vi], quoting Marama Fox, accessed 27 July 2017