Kia ora koutou. Welcome to newzealandwars.co.nz

This website has been set up to bring together information about the New Zealand Wars which were fought in New Zealand between Maori, new settlers and the Crown throughout most of the 19th century.

Opinion as to when the wars actually began and finished, or what they were all about, varies. It depends a little on which historian you're reading. There is also debate as to what the wars should be called...


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11-13 February 2011
Massey University,
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Mt Taranaki

'The New Zealand Wars'

What's In A Name?

The 'New Zealand Wars' are known by various names.

Several generations ago, the New Zealand Wars were generally called the 'Maori Wars'. This name originated from the 19th century British practice of naming their wars after their foe eg the Zulu Wars, or the Indian Mutiny or the Maori Wars. Keith Sinclair used this term in the title of his important 1957 book, The Origins of the Maori Wars. However, 'the Maori Wars' is no longer in favour and is seldom used. Historians like John Pocock have argued that the term is divisive - it sets up a 'them and us' situation. The name also hints at Maori responsibility for the wars.

In the 1970s, the name the Land Wars became popular for awhile, and was used by some historians like Keith Sorrenson. This name emphasised conflict over land as the primary cause of war. Generally speaking, this is the name (and the view) that Maori people prefer. Nga Pakanga Whenua O Mua (used in the title of this website) means 'the wars fought over the land many years ago' (the Land Wars). This is a term used amongst Maori elders in areas like north Taranaki where war actually took place. However, Maori elsewhere may well use different names, especially Maori who did not face the British Army or the later Armed Constabulary.

Another Maori name often used is Nga Pakanga Nu Nui O Aotearoa, or 'the great wars of Aotearoa' (the New Zealand Wars). This name appears on a small number of monuments to the wars. And a recent publication on Maori sources issued by the National Archives in Wellington refers to the wars simply as Nga Pakanga O Aotearoa.

In the 1980s or so, the Anglo-Maori Wars emerged. Alan Ward first used this name in an important essay which raised questions as to causes of the wars. The name won general acceptance, especially amongst historians like Keith Sinclair (who had earlier preferred 'The Maori Wars'). This new name (and Ward) emphasised that the wars were in reality a conflict between New Zealand's two peoples, Maori and new settlers from Britain.

Another name, the Colonial New Zealand Wars is also used, especially by Tim Ryan and Bill Parham in the title of their lavishly illustrated and well written book. From time to time, some historians have suggested another name, the New Zealand Civil Wars. This name suggests that the wars were a civil war (much in the American sense) fought between Maori and new European settlers/the Crown.

The notion of a 'New Zealand Civil War' hasn't really taken off in New Zealand. Some historians like Pocock have argued that Maori society was too fragmented and did not represent a 'single polity'. Rather, small autonomous (and divided) tribes waged war against the singular Crown. So the argument goes; and fair enough, but it isn't entirely convincing because Maori people, if not united 'on the ground', did see themselves as representing a united interest - defence of land and te tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty), against the Crown.

Also, the comparison often made between New Zealand's wars and the American Civil War isn't really adequate - it is probably better to compare our wars to those waged against Native American peoples, especially those on the Great Plains in the 1860s-70s. And, on the question of 'civil wars', some historians have recently suggested that the New Zealand Wars were really civil wars fought between a number of Maori tribes, with settlers and the Crown almost relegated to the role of bystanders.

It is true that the later 1860s were dominated by significant kupapa ('friendly') Maori involvement, fighting against 'rebellious' Maori. But the Crown interest was always at the core of the otherwise significant involvement of kupapa Maori. Similarly, the British Army used few Maori to wage their campaigns. And, it was the British Army that 'won' the wars for the Crown, without the help of Maori. Therefore, one could argue that it is a little disingenuous to suggest that the New Zealand wars were really wars fought between Maori tribes.

So, what should we call these wars? Do names really matter? What's in a name..

Yes, they do. Putting 'names to history' is an important process. The overwhelming favourite name used these days is undoubtedly the New Zealand Wars. This fairly old name has been much popularised by James Belich who is the most prominent historian of these wars. Belich used the term in the title of his important 1985 book of course; and he justified its use towards the end of that significant and challenging narrative. The name was also used earlier by James Cowan, when he published his two volume narrative of war on the edges of empire in the early 1920s.

Most historians and writers do choose their preferred name carefully. Preferred names suggest a certain personal view as to issues like causes, participants, the progress and importance of particular conflicts, and outcomes. Others use names like the 'New Zealand Wars' for the most part uncritically. So what is in a name..? Quite a bit.. it all depends.

Further reading: Keith Sinclair, Origins of the Maori Wars, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1957; James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars and the Pioneering Period, Vols I & II, Government Printer, Wellington, NZ, 1922; James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Penguin Books, Auckland NZ, 1988 (first published 1986).

Nigel Prickett, Landscapes of Conflict, A Field Guide to the New Zealand Wars, Random House, Auckland NZ, 2002; www.NZHistory.net.nz / click on 'New Zealand's 19th Century Wars'; Peter Maxwell, Frontier. The Battle for the North Island of New Zealand, Celebrity Books, Auckland NZ (2000, reprint 2005); Tim Ryan and Bill Parham, The Colonial New Zealand Wars, Grantham House, Wellington NZ (1986, reprinted with new material 2003).

And, the newest book on the NZ Wars block - Edmund Bohan, Climates of War, New Zealand in Conflict 1859-69, Hazard Press, Christchurch NZ, 2005. See Library on this website for some reviews, of this and other wars material.