A partial history, Rawiri Taonui

The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-Iwi Conflict 1806-45
R D Crosby
Reed Books, $65,
ISBN 0 7900 0677 4

Ron Crosby’s The Musket Wars successfully compiles most of the available published material on the 1800-1840 wars between Maori into one compendium, placing the events in a useful chronological order. The cartography and photographs with the siting of tribes and battles, and location of routes, are particularly good. However, it has a number of weaknesses.

The book is un-referenced, which makes it difficult to assess the author’s accurate use of sources. Some readers will overestimate its authority, particularly where whole sections derive from one source. For example, the summary of Moremonui, the fight between Te Morenga and Te Waru at Tauranga, and the death of Pomare are re-writes of whole paragraphs from S P Smith’s Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century. The author is also largely uncritical of his sources. Smith’s account of Moremonui came from the victors, as did the Tauranga account via Marsden. This is important because both the missionaries – who worked to encourage British intervention just as much as they evangelised the gospel – and victors had vested interests in exaggerating the figures.

The book lacks scholarship in Maori language, culture and history. A first cursory glance through it at once revealed a high number of inconsistencies and errors in spelling. For example, Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki is hyphenated but not Te Ati Haunui a Paparangi; the beach near Moremonui is Ripiro not Rapiro; the chief killed at Pukerangiora was Whatitiri not Whatatitiri; the 1828 migration of Ngati Raukawa was Te Heke-mai-I-raro, meaning coming from the north, not Te Heke Maioro (the author probably confused this with the name of one of the participants, Te Ruamaioro); the island in Lake Roto-a-ira is Motu-o-puhi not Motuopihi. These last two examples could easily have been checked against a piece in the New Zealand Historical Atlas by Ngati Raukawa historian Charles Te Ahukaramu Royal. The treatment of customary concepts is similarly wanting. “Physical prowess” tops a list of criteria for Maori leadership which overlooks the interplay of primogeniture and age, rank, prescribed and ascribed leadership.

The Musket Wars, perhaps unwittingly, repeats the prejudice of late 19th and early 20th century writers. Decapitations are described as “the ultimate source of delight” for Maori. Maori are driven by “raging desires for utu” – the most common phrase in the book – rather than an imbalance in power caused by the availability of muskets which exacerbated and intensified already existing conflicts and gave rise to new ones. Old prejudices are copied rather than questioned.

Worst however is the author’s argument that 1840 tribal boundaries do not rightly form the basis of contemporary tribal claims, if gained during warfare which included the use of European muskets. The argument might apply in the Chatham Islands, which Maori invaded shortly before 1840; however, on the mainland such contestable boundaries are few. First, the 1840 boundaries laid down by the Crown imposed an artificial rigidity, which failed to take account of the inbuilt flexibility of inter-tribal cross-boundary relationships. Those relationships existed in a constant state of flux, which the several histories of tribal migrations and inter-tribal relationships through whakapapa attest.

Secondly, although oral traditions speak about absolute conquest and slaughter, tribes tended to negotiate, intermarry and merge just as much, if not more than they actually fought and killed. What this suggests is that after the devastation of the musket wars and before the signing of the Treaty, the tribes had in all probability redistributed themselves into a new equilibrium or were in the process of doing so. Most of the conflict ended ten years before the Treaty was signed.

Thirdly, as bad as the devastation of the musket wars may have been, that history was overshadowed by later events between Maori and the Crown. It is the enduring nature of that relationship which forms the foundation of current negotiations and hence holds precedence today.

Fourthly, the current adherence to the 1840 boundaries is a concession by Maori to the Crown, which expedites the settlement process. The idea of redistributing compensation – currently less than one percent of losses – along ancient boundaries is at best a deliberately narrow overstatement of the book’s argument, and at worst a divisive attempt to incite conflict among Maori and fuel anti-Treaty sentiment. There are few, if any Maori who could not claim multiple entitlements in the tribes which exist today, except for the reason of not knowing their identity, which is a separate and more important issue.

The book could have concerned itself with more fundamental questions. How did the Maori experience compare with that in Hawaii and Tonga, where similar conflicts occurred? Precisely how many Maori died during this period and exactly what were the causes? Was peace the result of Christian intervention, an equalising of the balance in arms, or a combination of both? Was the devastation the result of the fatal impact of European culture or a self-inflicted destruction?

The Musket Wars, as a chronologically ordered compilation of re-edited sections from other works, makes a substantial first contribution to a history about which little is written. It will be an enthralling read for those with a casual interest and a useful first base for those beginning scholarly research of their own. Its failings are poor editing, a preoccupation with native blood lust, and an uncritical approach to statistics, sources and theoretical issues.

Rawiri Taonui teaches in the History Department at the University of Auckland.

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review, War
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