When worlds collide, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

Guns and Utu: A Short History of the Musket Wars
Matthew Wright
Penguin Books, $42.00,
ISBN 9780143565659

From the time the first accounts of New Zealand’s native inhabitants began to reach Europe, Maori pugnacity and military prowess have featured high in the list of their characteristic behaviour. The changing nature of inter-tribal warfare that followed the introduction of Western weaponry – the muskets of the book’s title – has fascinated historians since the story of post-contact culture began to be recorded by European settlers. Frederick Maning, Walter Gudgeon, Percy Smith, Elsdon Best and James Cowan all wrote extensively of Maori martial arts, especially when in the 1860s it came to challenges to the authority of the settler government over land.

Many colonial and 20th-century general histories discuss the wars of the 1820s and the 1830s, and there have been several recent single-volume examinations of this period, including Ron Crosby’s The Musket Wars (1999), Angela Ballara’s Taua (2003) and Dorothy Urlich Cloher’s Hongi Hika, Warrior Chief (2003). The task Matthew Wright sets himself from the first chapter – “Myths and Conceptions” – is to demythologise the subject, to rid us of the simplistic views of earlier writers and current misconceptions about the nature and significance of this phase of our history.

This promises to be a refutation and correction of commonly held stereotypical attitudes that descend from Percy Smith and his ilk. That old Maoriphile’s ideas and explanations “feature in accounts of the musket wars well into the twentieth century”, claims Wright. A footnote then leads the reader directly to Crosby’s prologue, an introduction to what is a campaign history à la James Cowan, written by a non-specialist in the field of New Zealand history. Crosby’s aim was to fill a void in pre-1840 histories, producing a narrative history with little pretence to analysis – or iconoclasm.

Wright detects a tension between the broad brush of colonial-age thought on this era and a more recent “post-colonial reversal … looking for reasons and explanations in the narrative that could be generally applied to Maori as a whole”. Maori diversity in the period of these wars means that general explanations tend “to break down when tested against the details of particular struggles”; Wright also faults the “persistent idea that all wars of this era were caused by and pivoted on muskets”. Muskets were significant in the social upheaval that followed their introduction, but were not the “sole cause and driver” of the wars. Herein lie the poles of Wright’s thesis – particularity and multi-causality – although it should be pointed out that he is not the first recent revisionist to make these observations. Ballara’s Taua offers a detailed study of causes, effects, battles and personalities, and posits similar arguments about cultural change and the nature of Maori society.

That said, Wright’s opening vision of Hongi Hika in 1821, arraigned for battle in a red regimental coat and medieval mail with his slaves and named muskets, is emblematic of the complex cultural changes occurring in the pre-Treaty era. Without context, this image would be merely exotic; in the tide of change that swept the globe as industrialised modernity reached into every traditional community, however, such details are telling. Hongi’s battledress was both a material and a symbolic outcome of Europe’s colonial adventurism. A strange religion was in the land, bringing the book and literacy; new technologies of iron, cloth and the bullet; and money, as the new exchange economy, was changing the face of labour, creating fresh grounds for resource wars. This is a significant part of Wright’s argument: the wars where muskets were employed were in large part a result of economic forces driving social change.

The breastplate on Hongi Hika’s chest was anachronistic in the context of the 1820s, but the brass buttons on his fine tunic and the musket balls in his guns were true manifestations of such changes. They heralded inclusion in a global empire of trade and a client status that has remained a part of New Zealand cultural history ever since. This was the reversal of a process operating since Maori had arrived some 500 years earlier: exclusion and isolation. The enclosed traditional world of limited resources and harsh conditions (creating a salutary battle-hardiness in those who survived) gave rise to a scale of limited local warfare, conducted by hardy fighters on a seasonal basis according to custom, avenging every remembered transgression and insult.

Internal migrations (possibly as a result of food shortages due to earlier climate change) are also cited as potential sources of friction by the 1820s, part of the general analysis of factors predisposing trouble once muskets become widely available. The arrival of the contact economy – the production of goods for trade, both internal and external – meant war became more affordable, and deadly. At heart, Wright argues, “the musket wars were mostly about responses to the alien”. Whatever provoked and sustained them, their effects were devastating for Maori: an estimated 20,000 remaining of a starting population believed to be around 100,000 as the 1820s began.

The problem Wright sees – for interpreters of these accelerating and destabilising conflicts – is that those watching at the time did not fully understand what lay behind the mass slaughter, while those who have come after them have been too ready to accept facile explanations of an innate Maori savagery, made monstrous by access to the new weapons. Nineteenth-century thinkers “lacked the analytical tools to understand what was being observed in an abstract way”. Twentieth-century academics get a swat too, in some cases producing “pop-dogma” that stands against hard evidence (a reference to the recent cannibalism debate sparked by Paul Moon’s 2008 study, This Horrid Practice). Herein lies the historian’s dilemma: can we trust witnesses and contemporary recorders of events, who by our present lights do not appear to have fully grasped what they are seeing? This is matched in turn by the problem such witnesses and commentators might have with future historians: could they possibly have a deeper grasp of the significance of events than those who were there?

Wright thinks he has that deeper understanding (and so, subconsciously at least, do most historians); he also believes that many of those who saw these wars misread their causes and significance (another article of faith in the practice of revising accepted histories). It is this tension between the living and the dead that produces history writing, and lies at the heart of its weakness: none of us understand the full significance of the complex present moment, yet no one alive in the year 2112 will have an experiential clue of what it was like to be here now.

Wright’s narrative focuses on the spiralling violence, tracking changes in Maori society from the pre-musket decade (1810-20) up until the signing of the Treaty. We follow the exemplary rise and fall of Te Rauparaha, a significant figure in the turn to musket warfare. “If any one chief sums up the musket wars,” Wright claims, “it is Te Rauparaha”, who created “an empire of sorts”, an unprecedented social development among Maori, due largely to the power of the new military technology and an acute deployment of realpolitik.

The slow ending to the wars, Wright argues, was not due to conversion to Christianity but sheer social exhaustion. Traditional limits – “bent but not broken” – still had the power to restrain Maori. Christianity “offered structural-systemic ways of bringing the operations of tikanga and ritenga back under control” – but apart from an example of peacemaking in 1839 by a Christian catechist, we are given no clear reason as to why this finally worked, nor which Maori customs it was restraining. The claim that “Christianity became a new layer of behaviours framed by those (traditional) systems (of restraint)” would have benefited from a range of examples.

In the old Maori world, as Lyndsay Head has argued, spiritual and temporal authority flowed from the mana of chiefs, something that the musket wars – an explosion of technological modernity among Maori – hastened in its demise. The resulting Maori culture (also an effect of the wars and their turmoil), was structured by the word and the Word, the law and the Law. What I miss in this provocative and enterprising study is any real sense of conclusions emerging from a Maori thought world of Maori voices – these wars were, after all, the real Maori wars. The thoughts which truly revealed that world were expressed in Maori, in a language Pakeha have stood by and watched die. Ernest Renan’s observation in his 1882 essay “What is a Nation?“ seems apposite here: nations are built on violence – and forgetting.


Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, historian and poet, is a senior adjunct fellow at the University of Canterbury.


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Posted in History, Maori, Non-fiction, Review and War
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