An end to the “musket wars”, Rawiri Taonui

Taua – Musket wars, land wars, or tikanga? Warfare in Maori society in the early nineteenth century
Angela Ballara
Penguin, $59.95,
ISBN 0143018892

Reviewing R D Crosby’s The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-iwi Conflict 1806-1845 (New Zealand Books, March 2000), I argued that it was preoccupied with explaining the intertribal wars of the early 19th century as driven by innate “raging (Maori) desires for utu” (revenge) since it rested almost entirely on an uncritical re-rendering of works by early Europeans whose eurocentric beliefs about colonised peoples such as the Maori held that they were “savages”. This made The Musket Wars both anachronistic and wholly unscholarly.

Ballara is refreshing. She challenges the assumptions that shaped works such as The Musket Wars. In fact, Taua challenges several histories by other Pakeha authors (along with some Maori writers), who, she argues, wittingly and unwittingly fell into the same culturally presumptuous trap. Certainly, Ballara has the credentials for doing this. Her book Iwi: The Dynamics of Maori Tribal Organisation c1769 to c1945 was a landmark ethnographic text and one of the two best publications touching on Maori oral traditions (along with D R Simmons, The Great New Zealand Myth). Ballara is an eminently able Pakeha scholar on things Maori, her familiarity with Maori tikanga (custom), values, beliefs, and histories, demonstratively much better than that of most others.

This is reflected in Taua where the use of sources is thorough, painstaking, broader and more inclusive of Maori ones than any previous work on this subject. Ballara’s great depth of knowledge and familiarity with iwi and hapu across the country is further demonstrated in her detailed region-by-region analysis in Part III of events between 1790 and 1845.

Ballara’s strongest challenge to other writers comes in her attempt to explain the causes of the inter-Maori wars of this period in terms of their cultural and historical context. She acknowledges that the introduction of muskets into traditional warfare changed methods of fighting and defence, caused greater dislocation, and saw an increase in the number of people killed in fighting, the taking of slaves and heads, and in cannibalism. However, she argues that this was not on the scale usually taken for granted. On this point, she challenges generations of scholars and writers who, she argues, have wrongly assumed the opposite.

Taua shies away from using the label “musket wars” on the basis that this term encapsulates and perpetuates many of the ill-founded assumptions that persist today. More firmly, Ballara rejects the idea that a significant increase in the scale of warfare occurred (the musket war assumption that “more muskets meant more fighting”), arguing that warfare was an endemic and integral part of Maori politics and society anyway. War, she writes, fulfilled a social and political function as the ultimate sanction over offences between groups if peacemaking failed.

Ballara’s point is that the “musket wars” were largely an extension of this, albeit a disruptive one, but not the catastrophic event that has too often been assumed. Furthermore, because many of these wars were extensions of already existing tensions, Ballara says that they would in a majority of cases have been fought anyway.

Taua argues that one “musket war” assumption derives from exaggerations of the numbers killed during this period. Ballara says early sources, which claimed as many as 60,000 to 80,000 Maori died as a direct or indirect result of the fighting between 1820 and 1840, overstated the numbers. She backs this up with evidence that casualties for the battle fought at Kaiapoi in the South Island were inflated from about 300 to 500 actual deaths to more than 1,400; the number killed at Te Totara in the Hauraki was also inflated from 60 to 1,000.

Reports that whole tracts of tribal land lay abandoned and deserted also misled writers into assuming that the disruption of warfare was greater than it was. Ballara explains, and provides period examples, that it was common practice for tribes to vacate populous areas during times of strife; they would seek refuge in safe havens and return in substantial numbers once tensions had lessened.

Taua also identifies what Ballara calls the “Hongi Hika-isation” and “Te Rauparaha-isation” of Maori history whereby the way Pakeha writers described figures such as Hongi Hika and Te Rauparaha added to the aura of destruction. This included denigrating them as leaders who acted solely on the basis of their own greed, vanity or bloodlust, or alternatively romanticising them as great Napoleon-like generals. Ballara argues they were neither of these but rather that the chiefs made decisions based on cultural imperatives in the interests of their people. She goes on to explain that European views of these chiefs were shaped by particular circumstances, attitudes and interests.

Early missionaries, for instance, exaggerated the impact of the wars because of their Victorian cultural shock at living such a long way from Britain, an innate and ultimately misguided sense of cultural superiority, and from their wish to enlist more support for their position in New Zealand. The New Zealand Company characterised Te Rauparaha as a savage and selfish despot because he was a major impediment to its expansion around Wellington.

Ballara identifies other traps. For example, writers assumed several long-range battle expeditions that took place during this period were evidence of a different kind of warfare on a new scale. However, as she rightly points out, this was not the case. Such expeditions were not uncommon in pre-musket times.  In fact, several tribes trace their origins to such ventures and, in at least two instances, tribes with relatively few muskets embarked on such campaigns.

There will be a range of political and scholarly opinions among readers as to how much better Taua is than The Musket Wars. Certainly, in terms of research, intellect, scholarship and analysis, it is far better and more accurate. As a reference work and reader, it will be an invaluable resource for professional and amateur historians, Maori and Pakeha readers from all walks of life. At a political level, this is a significant book. It challenges deep-seated Pakeha assumptions, not only about Maori history and society but about the fundamental nature of Maori people. We need only recall the asinine, anachronistic, condescending and puerile comments of Bill English, the former leader of the Opposition, that pre-European Maori engaged in inter-tribal genocide, to appreciate the timeliness of this work (though perhaps it is a year or so too late).

Some academics may identify a number of scholarly issues in the book. One potential problem is Ballara’s attack on the views of other Pakeha writers whose sources may, in fact, already derive from the Maori sources she sees as necessary to understand these conflicts. I am not completely certain of this, but did have the sense that in some instances she cited it was almost certainly the case.

Scholars may also argue that Ballara’s central theme that the “musket wars” were an extension of already existing customary practices fails to appreciate properly the impact the musket had, particularly where only one side was in possession of it. Ballara perhaps underrates the effect of muskets in New Zealand. History is replete with such examples, including the long bow, the musket itself, cannon, machine guns, tanks, dive-bombers, mass aerial bombardment, cruise missiles and smart bombs. Technology gave an edge, and Ballara’s explanation of events in the context of tikanga (customary practice and lore) may not properly acknowledge the impact of new and unequally distributed technology. Certainly, Maori placed huge value on muskets, paying high prices for them because of the significant advantage they gave tribes who possessed them.

Whereas early European works fell into the trap of characterising Maori as the “Bad Savage” and recent Pakeha conservatives fall into the trap of promoting a “New Age Bad Savage”, Taua may be seen by some as having fallen into the opposite Pakeha postmodern liberal trap of promoting a “New Age Noble Savage”.

In my 2000 review I also argued that The Musket Wars should have concerned itself with more important 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? There is a sense that while some of these questions are answered in Taua, one or two remain unaddressed.


Rawiri Taonui is Head of Te Wahanga Maori (Department of Maori) at the University of Canterbury. 


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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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