The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-Iwi Conflict 1806-45
R D Crosby
Reed Books, $65,
ISBN 0 7900 0677 4
This is a narrative of long campaigns covering immense distances in rugged country, of brutal and ruthless raids, of enslavement and exceptional feats. The appropriation of traditional lands, as hapu overran hapu in the musket wars from 1806, widely determined the 1840 boundaries on which New Zealand Treaty settlements are based. Crosby’s vast sweep of tribal migration provides documentation supporting McHugh and others in their philosophical concern for recognition of the customary rights of a whole indigenous people, rather than settlements confined to an 1840 demography.
Sympathetic co-operation between author and publisher has given New Zealand historians a comprehensive chronicle of inter-tribal conflicts from 1806 to 1845, with fine maps and portraits, a calendar of battles (each succinctly located) and a calendar of leading figures (each deftly characterised). The meticulous labour of correlating undated sources has opened a new paddock for pre-Treaty research. Will a thousand biographies now be written? Will Te Waharoa become renowned for his speeches, his tactics, his love affairs, his gardens, his pet birds? What if the code by which these heroes and heroines lived is no longer romantic?
Utu as revenge drives this chronicle of Maori tribal wars. As an equalising of scores, utu has no origin and no end within the narrative, and we must take the author on trust that in 1806 utu was already the “driving force” for the tribal skirmishes, and the musket the “base cause” of the musket wars. This unexamined premise – that utu provides a “cause and effect scenario” for arranging chronologically the large corpus of undated conflicts that occurred between 1806 and 1845 – is bad science and occasionally dreary reading. “Amid all these tales of slaughter and slavery”, I frequently had to close the book to escape the mechanistic narrative and the seemingly savage warriors who have few biographical quirks.
Would chiefs of documented acumen, courage, endurance and loyalty, with resonating skills in oratory and poetry, and a sure knowledge of military tactics, have let an urge for revenge wholly dominate their agenda? Let me give a wider Pacific perspective.
The rangatira Te Rauparaha began fighting with muskets in 1819; from 1824 to 1849 he was the most powerful figure in the lower half of the North Island and the upper part of the South Island. He was wiry, a master of the taiaha and Maori weaponry, his voice on the battlefield “booming and penetrating”. Pressure from Waikato drove him out of Kawhia. In his desire for guns he invaded south to Kapiti. In his desire to control the source of greenstone he invaded south again into the South Island.
A generation earlier, in 1807, Finau ‘Ulukalala ‘i Feletoa had introduced muskets into Tonga’s civil wars. It was said of Finau too that “the sound of his voice was like the roaring of a wild beast, and might be heard at an incredible distance”; he had an “amazing grasp of mind”, an “ever restless, deep and designing spirit”; and he was an innovative military strategist and a master of oratory.
Tongan orators are explicit: the chiefs who fought each other during the intermittent civil wars 1799-1852 were “fighting over the hau”, that is, contending for paramount political power. During peace, Finau’s paramount status as hau was acknowledged through tributary presentations of produce, and the chiefs continued to govern their own lineage territories.
So, without detracting from the masterly accomplishments of Crosby’s work and Reed’s well-crafted, thoughtful edition, let us rethink the question of what drove the New Zealand musket wars.
Prestige was accorded to chiefs of inherited sacred descent (ariki) and to chiefs who achieved military authority (ariki and rangatira). Sacred status was a matter of genealogical record, where the relative ranking of chiefs from different lineages was calculated and respected. Crosby notes that amongst Maori hapu the ariki Te Kani a Takirau, paramount chief of Rongowhakaata, was
a man of such high rank that he was … almost regarded as being related to the gods and his personage was very tapu (sacred). He was respected by members of other tribes as well as his own, and constantly provided with gifts of food … But while his rank and fame were respected on the East Coast, they were not enough to protect Te Kani from the designs of Ngapuhi and Waikato.
Political power was achieved through prowess, most notably prowess in military strategy and in martial arts where championship brought great renown. Eyewitness accounts from Pacific societies engaged in martial arts and warfare during this period add a dimension largely hidden in Crosby’s sources. At Tonga in 1777 Cook’s men competed in wrestling and boxing bouts and this gave them first-hand knowledge of the code of martial arts: on the festival ground a person of any rank may issue a challenge to the champion; the champion must accept each successive challenger; the defeated partner may not issue another challenge.
That the New Zealand musket wars were a context for the martial arts is vividly evidenced by Crosby’s own narrative. The Waikato forces led by Te Wherowhero had been ambushed by Te Atiawa and Ngati Toa in the Mangatiti gully. A Taranaki warrior was aiming a musket; Te Wherewhero was holding only a ko:
Suddenly the musket of the Taranaki warrior was kicked aside by, of all people, Te Rauparaha. He declared to Taranaki that a Tainui chief could not be shot like a dog but should have the opportunity of dying like a chief … Over the next hour there ensued what must have been one of the greatest feats in hand to hand combat ever seen in New Zealand. One after the other the cream of the Taranaki warriors advanced on Te Wherowhero with their favoured weapons, while he received their assaults armed only with his ko … As each Taranaki toa rushed down the slope at him, Te Wherowhero would step forward, parry his attacker’s blow and swing a rapid, solid blow, killing or maiming his adversary … Waikato say that in the end up to fifty toa lay dead, dying or wounded at or around the feet of Te Wherowhero … and Te Wherowhero’s mana increased accordingly throughout Maoridom.
Te Wherowhero became the pre-eminent Waikato rangatira, and in 1852 he became the Maori king, Potatau.
Into this code came the musket, and Crosby gives a stunning description of its incorporation into the techniques of the martial arts:
At Moremonui … it is recounted that Murupaenga rapidly observed the relative slowness of the flight of the musket ball, and the delay that occurred in reloading. He is said to have instructed his men to hurl themselves down when they saw the flash of the musket and then to charge while the musket was being reloaded.
Thus, concurrently in different parts of the Pacific, war was the appropriate context for chiefs to challenge each other in the contest for paramount political power, and for chiefs and warriors to gain the renown accorded championship in the martial arts. From this perspective, utu as revenge and settling of scores is an appropriate pretext for these feats and challenges. Crosby leaves us with an image of the rangatira Hongi Hika wearing a brace of pistols, accompanied by war-captives to carry and reload his supplementary muskets.
Don’t let us imagine that the musket occasioned an escalation in size of fighting forces. The largest force known in New Zealand history appears to have been Pikauterangi’s army of 10,000 toa which attacked Waikato at Hingakaka c1790. Crosby notes however that the musket increased horrifically the toll of war dead and injured. Possibly a half to a third of the population died during 25 years of musket wars between 1815 and 1840. And perhaps a gross desire for revenge did overrun a code of honour as challenges between chiefs in hand-to-hand fighting with clubs were eclipsed. At Kerikeringa pa, Ngati Maru’s leading warriors in the puwhara (fighting towers) were picked off one by one by Ngapuhi attackers armed with muskets. There is no record that mana accrued to these marksmen; their feat is described as “shooting pigeons”.
Crosby’s work is a useful basis for New Zealand historical scholarship. In the arduous years of correlating undated accounts, in the systematic mapping, in the wish not to confound the general reader with notes, he has created a chronology for archival records to be comprehended with their own subtle and contentious detail.
Wendy Pond is a researcher and writer in Pacific studies.