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The Maori Wars: Part I

by Ian Knight
Miniature Wargames magazine 27, August 1985

Governor Hobson negotiating with Chief Hone Heke, 1840. The troops are the 80th Regiment, the first British unit to garrison New Zealand

In 1642 the Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman, hove to off the coast of New Zealand, and his men watched in amazement the distant figures of natives dancing wildly on the shore. The natives blew conch shells and struck up a terrific din, which Tasman took to be a welcome; in return he fired a broadside of salute. Native canoes set out from the shore, and several of Tasman’s men were lowered in a long-boat to greet them, but instead of a friendly exchange of greetings and gifts, they were met with shocking violence; the natives attacked the sailors, killing three and wounding a fourth. Tasman, bitterly disillusioned, named the area where the incident took place Murderer’s Bay, and set sail in disgust.
    As the first meeting between the pakeha, the white man, and the Maori, it was hardly encouraging, but it was significant. When the Maoris had danced their haka, their fierce war dance with its frightening facial grimaces, and sounded their horns, they were issuing a challenge, which they understood Tasman to have accepted. Although the European settlements which gradually grew up on the Islands, mostly to serve passing explorers and whalers, were to have less fraught relationships with the indigenous inhabitants, the cultural misunderstanding was to persist, leading eventually to a long and bloody series of wars which were to wrack the North Island for nearly thirty years.
    The Maoris were a proud people who lived in tribal groups which laid claim to all of the land on the North Island, and much of the South. Long before the coming of the pakeha, the Maoris had become embroiled in a series of tribal wars which had enabled them to develop a characteristic military outlook. Chiefs were accutely conscious of their mana, or personal prestige, and the slightest insult could call for utu, a paying in kind, a debt of honour similar to the Sicilian vendetta, in which a whole tribe could be held responsible for the actions of a single transgressor, and therefore a legitimate target for the insulted party’s revenge. In practice, utu, often meant blood for blood; since each payment for utu could spark off a new claim for vengeance, inter-tribal conflicts became deep rooted. It’s no coincidence that throughout the wars with the Europeans, many Maoris fought with the pakeha, aligning themselves against particular tribes because it provided an opportunity for old scores to be settled.
    The most significant feature of Maori tactical warfare was the stockade, or pa. At its most simple, a pa consisted of a few trenches surrounded by a fence of upright poles, lashed together with rope made from twisted flax. At its most complex, the pa was a fortified village, the huts, or whares, being protected by extremely complex systems of trenches, ramparts, palisades and watch-towers. Since all of these could be erected in a very short time, the Maoris had no lasting attachment to them; the idea was to defend a pa against an attacker just long enough to inflict maximum casualties, and then evacuate it under cover of darkness, only to build another one and start all over again. It was a way of waging war that cost many a foolhardy British officer dear, and left him grinding his teeth with frustration.
    Before the arrival of the pakeha, the Maoris did not work metal, so their amoury consisted of weapons of wood, stone and bone. They had a variety of wooden throwing spears, although these were not very popular, as it was considered more manly to fight an enemy personally at close quarters. For this they had a selection of thrusting and chopping weapons. The hoeroa was a long club made of whalebone, and shaped rather like a large baseball bat. The tewhatewha was about five foot long, and made of wood, shaped rather like an axe, though the lethal part was the back of the blade which was used for striking. The taiha was both club and spear, bearing a large pointed head at one end, and flattening out, like an oar, at the other. The point could be used for jabbing, and the flat end for chopping or partying. There was a variety of hand weapons, the most prized being the mere pounamu, a polished greenstone club, ground flat, with a honed cutting edge all round. Variations of this, patu, existed in whalebone and wood. Early European settlers traded axe-heads with the Maori, and these soon became extremely popular, though they never quite displaced the original types. Axes were mounted on short handles of wood or bone, often highly carved, and used as tomahawks, or on long wooden poles like Viking two-handed axes. Unlike many native races, the Maoris were quick to appreciate the value of firearms. When one chief, Hongi Heke, visited London in 1820, he became something of a celebrity, and returned home laden with gifts. No sooner was he there than he sold the lot, bought a supply of muskets, and set about attacking his neighbours with great glee. By the time the Maoris found themselves in full-scale conflict with the British, they owned rifles in large numbers, and many acquired a preference for double—barrelled shotguns, which were ideally suited to the close-range fighting conditions imposed by dense bush.
    Although the Maoris fought with courage, daring, and a certain amount of savagely — a fallen enemy could end up being ritually eaten — their gallantry and sense of humour made a profound impression on their pakeha enemies. More than once Maoris defending a pa would call out a warning, telling the troops to duck, as they were about to fire!
    The root cause of the Maori Wars was land. From the late 1830s concerted attempts were made to open New Zealand to settlement from Britain. To the settlers, the Maoris appeared to be few in numbers, and to be under-utilising their land. The Maoris regarded all land as the corporate possession of the tribe however, whether it was being lived on or not, and they at first failed to understand — and then passionately resented — the attempts of the settlers to acquire it.
    In 1840 the representatives of the major tribes signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which attempted to regularize land dealings by making the Maoris subjects of the British Crown, which was to be made sole agent in land transactions. But in 1840 New Zealand was a country of small frontier settlements, and the Crown had very few effective means of exerting its authority. Skirmishes between land-hungry settlers and irate Maoris soon led to disillusion, and in June 1843 sparked off a full-scale war.
    The flashpoint came at the northernmost tip of South Island, one of the few violent incidents to take place there during wars otherwise confined to the North Island. A party of surveyors was marking out some land , the ownership of which was claimed by two chiefs from the North, Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. A fight broke out, and an unlucky shot from one of the whites killed Te Rangihaeata’s wife. The Maoris overpowered the whites, and the outraged chief took utu by killing the lot on the spot.
    The outbreak placed the Colonial Govemor in a quandry. He had very few troops at his disposal. Clearly he could not let the incident go unpunished, but a false move could spark off a widespread rising which he was ill-able to resist.
    He was not far wrong in his judgement. When word of the outrage reached a chief named Hone Heke, who lived in the far north, he asked ‘Is Te Rangihaeata to have the honour of killing all the pakehas?’ Heke, too, was filled with resentment, largely because of restrictions the Government had imposed on his dealings with the local European settlement at Kororareka. In particular, Heke had a grudge against a flagstaff which had been erected on a hill overlooking the town, and which seemed to him to embody Colonial insult and oppression. In July 1844 a party of Heke’s warriors cut the flagstaff down. The authorities naturally put it back up; in January 1845 Heke cut it down again. It was put back up and this time guarded by a blockhouse. On March 11th, Heke’s warriors rushed the blockhouse, killed a couple of the sentries, cut down the flag, and swept into the town of Kororareka. The Flagstaff War had begun.

Map showing some of the main actions on the North Island, New Zealand, during the Maori Wars

An excellent study of a Maori chief in traditional dog-skin cloak, armed with a rifle.

    It was several weeks before the British were in a position to confront Heke, and by that time Heke had been joined by another chief, Kawiti, whose chief motive seems to have been a desire to test the fighting metal of the pakeha. Troops landed at Kororareka and, with the help of sections of the tribe opposed to Heke, destroyed several hostile villages, and advanced inland across rugged country to where Heke had built a pa at Ohaeawai. It was not until early July that the British commander had assembled sufficient troops and a motley collection of cannon to attempt an assault. He went about it in the traditional way, softening the pa up with artillery fire and then attempting to storm it. But the Maoris had draped their palisades with mats of flax and piles of fem which deadened the effect of the shells, and when the assaulting column charged into the open, it was raked by heavy musket fire, and was unable to make any headway against the maze of interconnecting rifle pits. The attack failed. After defending the pa for a couple of days, Heke abandoned it.

    Sporadic fighting went on in the bush until the British managed to reach a pa built by Kawiti at Ruapekapeka (‘The Bat’s Nest’) in January 1846. The pa was surrounded — but not well enough to prevent Heke entering it with a number of warriors after the siege had begun — and heavily bombarded. On Sunday, January 11th patrols crept up to the palisades and found to their astonishment that the pa was empty. Heke was a Christian convert, and he had taken a large number of his warriors into the bush for a service; by the time his men realised the danger it was too late, and the pa was taken.
    The capture of Rapekapeka brought the northern war to a close, but trouble was brewing in the south, where Te Rangihaeata had his tribal domain. Settlements on the outskirts of Wellington regarded as vulnerable were guarded by military outposts. On May 16th, 1846 a sentry at Boulcott Farm noted curiously that bushes seemed to be creeping out from the forest. Suddenly a group of Maoris burst from the bush and overpowered him, cutting down his companions as they struggled from the guard tent. But a drummer managed to sound the alarm on his bugle, despite the Maoris hacking his right arm off in an attempt to stop him, and troops turned out from a nearby stockade and drove the enemy off. Te Rangihaeata himself retreated to a pa at Horokiwi. The authorities, freed from involvement in the north, were able to rush troops to the area. Te Rauparaha, Rangihaeata’s old ally, was surprised and captured before he could commit his warriors, and the Korokiwi pa was stormed in August. Te Rangihaeata himself fled to more remote districts, where he was to die as a result of European-introduced measles.
    The capture of Horokiwi effectively brought to an end the First Maori War. It had proved a time of testing for all concerned, and the British, in particular, had gained a very healthy respect for the courage and engineering abilities of their enemy. Although the North Island was to remain peaceful for nearly twenty years, when war did come again, the lessons of the 1840s would not be forgotten.
    The intervening years of peace saw the expansion of European settlement of New Zealand. Although large parts of the country were still exclusive Maori tribal territory, the spectre of white encroachment loomed ever larger. The Maoris, disturbed that the lack of unity among the tribes had worked so much to the advantage of the pakeha, sought to unite them by nominating a supreme King. Though the King movement did not gain universal support, it was very strong in the Waikato area, and came to be a focus for Maori nationalism. It was regarded with suspicion by the Colonial authorities, although in the end it was not in King country, but further south, in the Taranaki district, that violence first erupted.
    Land, once again, was the flashpoint. European settlers in the New Plymouth district were keen to aquire a block of land on the Waitara River. They produced a Maori who claimed he owned it and was willing to sell it; unfortunately his claim was hotly denied by a powerful chief, Wiremu Kingi. A party of surveyors was ambushed in the bush, Kingi built a pa, and the Taranaki War began.
    It began with a dangerous success, Kingi’s pa falling in March 1860 with relative ease. The British grew over confident; an attempt to surround some of Kingi’s supporters led to a force being separated in the bush and ambushed. Only a spirited sortie from a Naval contingent at New Plymouth saved it from degenerating into a complete disaster. Kingi built a new pa, at Puketakuare, which was attacked in June. The pa was softened up by a heavy bombardment. A central assault column was supported by strong flank parties. The central column was shot to pieces and repulsed from the trenches by the ferocity of the defence, and the flank columns were ambushed in swampy bush. The assault was a complete and costly disaster.
    This series of embarrassing defeats was not be be reversed until the arrival of a new commander, General Pratt, who took over command of the Colony’s defences in August 1860. Pratt had a Medieval approach to the pa problem. He believed that it could be approached by sap, a deep trench, screened by flax mats, dug right up to the pa palisade, providing a protected jumping-off point for the storming parties. Both the settlers and the Maoris regarded the idea with derision, but it was to prove surprisingly effective. The Maori positions were built on a plateau overlooking the Waitara river, and, starting at the end of 1860, Pratt began to reduce them. Yard by yard his saps approached, despite spirited sorties to dislodge them, until they were close enough for grenades to be lobbed into the pas. And then the storming parties charged home. The Maoris were driven out of their positions one after another at bayonet point. By the end of March 1861 the Maori chief Hapurona had surrendered, and the famous Kingi himself had fled to the sanctuary of the Waikato King country. The Taranaki campaign was over.

Maoris waiting in ambush: the Maoris were natural bush fighters, and their preferred weapons, the shotguns and tomahawks shown here, were brutally effective under such close-range conditions.

    But the North Island was not secure. The Taranaki War had been an essentially local fight. Although numbers of tribes elsewhere in the country had loaned contingents to help Kingi’s cause, it was fought primarily by local tribes. But not for nothing did the Maoris call their style of warfare the ‘fire in the fern’ — dampened down in one place, it spread through the bush to flare up in another. Both Maori and settler regarded the King Movement as the main bastion of Maori nationalism, and when war came to the Waikato it would be for more than local stakes. The future of New Zealand and all her grazing lands would fall to the winner.

“The Maori Wars: Part II” by Ian Knight. Miniature Wargames magazine 28, September 1985

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