Maori Wars

There had been intermittent fighting with the Maoris for more than a decade; in fact, since colonists first began arriving in numbers on these beautiful but remote islands. The three numbered Maori wars were merely periods of exceptional activity and crisis in a running struggle as Europeans, mostly British, wrested the land from the natives: the intelligent, brave and warlike Maoris. These almost-forgotten wars are among the most disgraceful episodes in British imperial history for they sprang from stark, naked, unabashed greed.

The cause of the fighting was always the same: land. The Europeans wanted it and were even willing to pay for it, but most of the Maoris simply did not want to part with it. The Maori, of whatever tribe, always had a special affection for his tribal land; it was his most treasured possession. ‘The blood of man is the land,’ said a Maori proverb. By the Treaty of Waitangi the colonists had guaranteed the Maori the undisputed possession of his lands for as long as he wanted them. But the ever-increasing number of colonists – rising from 59,413 in 1858 to 218,637 in 1867 – also wanted land.

Disputes about land always ended in fighting. There were atrocities. Soon it was war. The New Zealanders called on the mother country for help, but, far from offering support, the British government announced that in accordance with a self-reliance policy it had established in respect to colonies it intended to withdraw the one Imperial regiment in New Zealand: the 18th Foot (later the Royal Irish, disbanded in 1922). There were screams of terror from the New Zealanders.

The British Government had not favoured the idea of colonizing New Zealand in the first place, and the Colonial Office had strongly disapproved of the policy adopted by the New Zealand colonial government of confiscating the Maoris’ land. The colonists now outnumbered the Maoris and they were considered big enough to take care of themselves. Lord Granville put the matter succinctly and bluntly: ‘the present distress of the colony arises mainly from two circumstances: the discontent of the natives consequent on the confiscation of their land, and the neglect by successive governments to place on foot a force sufficiently formidable to overawe that discontent’.

In spite of the uproar concerning the announced withdrawal of the 18th Regiment, it was, after some delay, withdrawn. In spite of the colonists’ fears, when the last detachment of the regiment left New Zealand on 24 February 1870 the Maori wars ended. The colonial forces did, after all, defeat the Maoris. The fighting continued until the Maoris had been decimated and the Europeans had taken all the land they wanted. But even when the fighting ended the New Zealanders still lived in fear, while the Maoris still lived with the fading hope that they would one day regain their land. As late as 1928 a Maori was quoted as saying: ‘We have been beaten because the Pakeha [European] outnumbers us in men. But we are not conquered or rubbed out, and not one of these Pakeha can name the day we … sued for peace. The most that can be said is that on such and such a date we left off fighting.’ Today the Maoris are on the increase, and they are now, finally, as numerous as they were 100 years ago, but they have less than a sixteenth of their original land holdings. Their hopes and the New Zealanders’ fears are ended. All live in peace under a socialist government.

Bay of Islands War (First Maori War, Hono Heke’s War) (1844-1847)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Maori peoples of New Zealand vs. British settlers

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): North Island, New Zealand

DECLARATION: No formal declaration

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Maori, resentful of Europeans’ encroachments on their lands, the subjugation of their chiefs to British authority, and the ill effects of British settlement upon their culture, attacked a British garrison on North Island.

OUTCOME: Fighting ended with the defeat of the Maori warriors, and peace continued for most of the following 15 years.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Maori, 700 warriors; Britain, 1,500

CASUALTIES: Maori, 260; British, 57


Since Captain James Cook’s (1728-79) explorations of New Zealand in 1769-70, European whalers, sealers, and traders insinuated a capitalist system that tied New Zealand’s inhabitants to Europe’s economy. Soon settlers followed sailors and traders, and they brought with them a hunger for native Maori lands. Britain annexed New Zealand in 1838 and established means, initially acceptable to the Maori, for European land purchases in exchange for Maori protection. But by means legal and not, the Europeans, too quickly to suit the Maori, appropriated lands and thus threatened Maori culture. The tension between New Zealanders and Europeans exploded into the WAIRAU AFFRAY in 1843 over contested land purchases illegally made by the New Zealand Land Company. A settlement favorable to the Maori satisfied them but did not solve the ongoing contest for land.

A local Maori chief, Hone Heke (dates unknown), marched on the British garrison of Russell, or Kororareka, on July 8, 1844, and cut down the British flagpole, a symbolic act of his resentment toward the European presence. The following January he did it twice more. The British had had enough and, after re-erecting the pole, built a blockhouse around it. Undaunted, Hone Heke, with another chief, Kawiti, and 700 warriors, marched on Kororareka on March 11, seizing the blockhouse and cutting the pole down for the fourth time. The chief was not finished. The Maori warriors then advanced on the town and sacked it, forcing both the townspeople and the undermanned garrison to flee.

The governor general, Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805-65), ordered a punitive expedition into the field against the rebels, but Heke and Kawiti quickly annihilated the force in two short engagements. FitzRoy was recalled and replaced by Captain George Grey (1812-98). Grey quickly sent a large force into the field and attacked the heart of traditional Maori warfare, the pa. A pa is the base of operations for Maori warfare both spiritually and tactically. It is also a fortification. The force first attacked Kawiti’s pa in January and defeated it without much struggle. Grey’s troops then attacked Hone Heke’s pa at Ruapekapeka on January 11, 1846, and quickly overran it. Heke did not acknowledge defeat but vowed not to take the field against the British again. Although indiscriminate skirmishes continued for the next year, the fighting was essentially over, but the land disputes would resume with a vengeance in the FIRST TARANAKI WAR (Second Maori War) of 1860.

First Taranaki War, (1860-1861)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. the Maori tribes

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Taranaki region, North Island, New Zealand


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The British sought possession of land ceded by a certain Maori sub-chief.

OUTCOME: Most of the land was seized and an uneasy truce maintained after retrocession of a small parcel of land to the Maori.


CASUALTIES: The entire period of the First, Second, and Third Taranaki Wars resulted in the loss of 54 percent of the Maori population, at least 27,000 persons.

TREATIES: Truce of 1861

In colonial New Zealand, as in the Indian Wars in the United States throughout the 19th century, tribal members frequently disputed land concessions and other agreements chiefs and other tribal members made with white government authorities. In 1859, a minor chief of the Maori tribe in the Taranaki region of North Island sold to British colonial interests land along the Waitara River. His tribe repudiated the cession and resisted confiscation of the land. Although the British had concluded the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, whereby tribal veto of various agreements was allowed, authorities violated the treaty by attacking Maori strongholds, called pas. Resistance was stiff, and the British made little headway until they finally succeeded in overrunning the critical Te Arei Pa in 1861. This prompted the Maori to conclude a truce in return for the British retrocession of a modest parcel of tribal land.

The truce was an uneasy one, frequently punctuated by outbursts of violence over a 12-year period. It is estimated that during this time significantly more than half of the Maori population of 50,000 was killed. Historians sometimes refer to this period as the Second Maori War; others recognize a Second TARANAKI WAR (1863-64) also called the Waikato War, and a Third TARANAKI WAR (1864-72).

Second Taranaki War, (Waikato War) (1863-1864)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. the Maori tribes

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Waikato River area, North Island, New Zealand


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The British sought to occupy the area.

OUTCOME: Guerrilla resistance was suppressed in the Waikato River region but persisted elsewhere on North Island through 1872.




Also known as the Waikato War and treated by some historians as part of a larger Second Maori War, this was a resumption of the conflict taken up in the First TARANAKI WAR, which had ended in an uneasy truce. In April 1863, Sir George Grey (1812-98), the British governor-general of New Zealand, laid a military road directly into the disputed area of Waikato River. To do this, and to clear the way for European settlers, Grey attacked the Maori, driving them from Tataramaika “block.” The Maori responded with guerrilla attacks, which the British sought to suppress by neutralizing the pas, the Maori stronghold-fortresses, and counterattacking with riverborne gunboats and special ranger-style military units. The British were quite successful, suppressing guerrilla forces at Meremere and Rangiriri in 1863 and, the next year, destroying Orakau Pa. These triumphs put an end to Maori resistance in the Waikato River region, but elsewhere on New Zealand’s North Island guerrilla warfare continued as the Third TARANAKI WAR.

Third Taranaki War, (1864-1872)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. the Maori tribes

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): North Island, New Zealand


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The British-especially the British East India Company-sought to settle Maori lands.

OUTCOME: The war produced no clear-cut victor; however, by 1872, with all sides exhausted and the Maori resistance all but crushed, the war petered out.


CASUALTIES: Unknown; but see this heading in First Taranaki War.


This was a resumption of the conflict between the British and Maori on New Zealand taken up in the First TARANAKI WAR (1860-61) and the Second TARANAKI WAR (1863-64). The Second Taranaki War had neutralized Maori resistance in the hotly contested Waikato River area but did not suppress resistance elsewhere on New Zealand’s North Island. Throughout this territory, the Maori Hau Hau, a religiously inspired warrior cult, its members motivated by a sincere belief that they were invulnerable and impervious to British bullets, fought with suicidal ferocity against British forces. At this point, the British government was eager to establish peace, but the British East India Company pushed for additional lands in New Zealand and continually provoked new outbreaks. A major attack was launched against the guerrillas at Weroroa Pa in 1865, resulting in a significant British victory. Despite this, the guerrillas continued to block colonial expansion. In 1868, the resistance of the Maori Hau Hau was supplemented by that of a new group, also religious and military in nature, the Ringatu.

From 1865 on, none of the three combatant elements, the British, the Hau Hau, or the Ringatu, could claim any clear-cut victories. The war wound down in 1872-the fighting stopped-not through any resolution of conflict, any claim of victory, or any concession of defeat but as a result of exhaustion on all sides. Nevertheless, by this time, resistance had been so worn down that only a single portion of New Zealand, King County, remained closed to colonial settlement.

Further reading: James Belich, Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict: The Maori, the British and the New Zealand Wars (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1989); Paul Moon, Hone Heke: Nga Puh Warrior (Auckland, N. Z.: David Bing Publishing, 2001). Keith Sinclair, The Origins of the Maori Wars (Wellington: New Zealand University Press, 1957).

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