Philip Temple assesses a history of the Musket Wars in light of the draft history curriculum

The Ministry of Education’s new draft history curriculum is based on understanding “Three big ideas.”. The principal one is that “Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand.” This forms a thread “characterised by diverse experiences for individuals, hapū and iwi within underlying and enduring cultural similarities.”. The second and third ‘big ideas’ are essentially framed to tell how European colonisation was unjust and damaging to Māori, how colonisation continues to evolve, and of the continuous struggle by Māori to assert mana and tino rangatiratanga. The draft curriculum appears to be a project to teach a history of New Zealand through a Māori lens. But if this is so, what is Māori history pre-Waitangi other than, as the ‘big ideas’ state, Polynesian settlement (colonisation?) of Pacific Basin islands and the “deliberate and skilful” Māori navigation to Aotearoa New Zealand, followed by its timeless, harmonious settlement? The draft has the air of a 21st century revival of the 18th century Enlightenment concept of the ‘noble savage’, children of nature in an undisturbed state.

Ron Crosby, barrister, Musket Wars historian and Waitangi Tribunal member, writes that he “couldn’t believe my eyes” when the Ministry released its draft. Although initial contacts between Māori and Europeans and early colonial history were covered, the Musket Wars were not. Those devastating conflicts between 1806 and 1845 were, as he says, the “longest period of continuous warfare” in Aotearoa New Zealand. The conquests, migrations and tribal disruptions during that 40-year period created newly complicated relationships between iwi and hapū that have prevailed ever since. These and the shocks to ‘underlying and enduring cultural similarities’ have to be examined and understood in any discussion of claims and counter claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, and especially within the context of the European colonisation that immediately followed.

Crosby published his 430-page Musket Wars book more than 20 years ago and it was lauded for its usefulness in assisting hapū and whānau untangle the mixed threads of their whakapapa. His new book The Forgotten Wars is a more digestible 200-page version to explain, as the sub-title declares, “Why the Musket Wars matter today” – to everybody.  For Māori, so that it’s easier to understand the complexities of the wars with their shifting alliances and the “effects of the musket on specific iwi, hapū and regions”. And for non-Māori, Forgotten Wars explains their impact on the Māori world before mass European colonisation, during the period when Māori began to acquire European weapons, artefacts such as steel tools and, yes, potatoes. Potatoes were easier to grow, store and carry than kūmara, allowing large taua the basic energy food supply to undertake long-distance raids. Baskets of potatoes also became a key trading item with tauiwi, along with dressed flax for ropes. In 1826, for example, sealer John Boultbee wrote that the principal trade along Foveaux Strait was “flax and potatoes, which small vessels from Sydney obtain in barter for powder, ball, muskets & other European articles, but the latter are in most request”. Boultbee also recorded, “The father of a family will sell a daughter, or two or three, if required, for a musket each! The women are actually glad of the exchange when they find their new partners are kind to them.”

The deadly, almost magical, efficacy of the musket was demonstrated as early as James Cook’s first encounter with Māori in Poverty Bay/Tūranganui-a-Kiwa in 1769. As more and more European traders, whalers and sealers turned up, the weapon became “in most request” across the whole country. Its ability to kill at long range gave iwi with muskets a huge advantage over opponents with the traditional array of hand-to-hand fighting weapons. Most of the early trade developed among the safe anchorages along Northland’s east coast, so that Ngāpuhi were the first iwi to gain a critical mass of muskets to wreak havoc among enemies to the south.

Utu kept the wars going for close on 30 years until all iwi were equally musket-armed (creating a kind of early version of the MAD doctrine, mutually assured destruction)

With numerous essential maps and supporting illustrations, Crosby first takes us on a journey of conquest and massacre across the North Island. From Ngāpuhi dominance in the early years – Hongi Hika came back from Sydney in 1821 with hundreds of muskets – he goes on to tell of the shifting balances of power as other iwi acquired firearms parity. He leads onto Te Rauparaha’s conquests and alliances in the southern North Island and later invasions of the South Island. It’s an intensely complicated history, and Crosby does well to help us gain a holistic view of the wars.

As with any war, there are many stories of physical endurance and heroism. In 1822, Hongi Hika led a taua of 3000 in about 70 waka against Waikato/Tainui. The waka had to be portaged from the Waitematā to the Manukau harbour before being paddled up the Waiuku River and then portaged again over to the Awaroa Stream and down to the Waikato. The physical and technical efforts involved in this are impressive, especially when the basic potato supply had to be supplemented with local foraging and nightly shelter construction for thousands of men and, presumably, camp followers.

Crosby cites individual feats of courage and endurance that he thinks are especially significant, such as the “extraordinary courage of Te Waru of Ngāiterangi and Hikairo of Te Arawa, who in 1821 and 1823 respectively went back voluntarily into the victorious Ngāpuhi camps to seek relief for their surviving people when umu (earth ovens) containing their relatives were still steaming”.  And there was the “almost unbelievable” endurance of Ngāti Tama slave, Muaūpoko who, in 1837, escaped from Kāi Tahu’s destruction of Te Puoho’s taua at Tuturau in Southland and made his way alone with the bad news, all the way back up the West Coast to Golden Bay.

As Crosby’s account goes on, one becomes increasingly aware of the reciprocating power of utu. An extreme example involved Te Rauparaha who heard that a Rangitāne rangatira, Te Ruaoneone, threatened to crush his head with a stone tool used to beat fern root. This was in response to Te Rauparaha’s killing of another Rangitāne chief. But Te Rauparaha’s head was highly tapu so utu was demanded. About four years later, he had enough waka to cross Raukawa (Cook Strait) and deal to Te Ruaoneone, an expedition that led to the effective destruction of Rangitāne in the upper South Island. It paid to be careful what you said about whom.

Te Hiko o te Rangi, present at the sacking of Kaiapoi and Ōnawe pā in 1832. PUBL-0011-04-2, Heaphy, Charles, 1820–1881: Hiko, the son of Te Pehi Kupe (Tupai Cupa). Drawn by Charles Heaphy Day & Haghe. London, Smith, Elder [1845]. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Utu kept the wars going for close on 30 years until all iwi were equally musket-armed (creating a kind of early version of the MAD doctrine, mutually assured destruction). Missionary Christian values also became more and more influential, and were followed by the introduction of  British principles of law and order after the Treaty of Waitangi.

Utu is only one aspect that makes The Forgotten Wars  a difficult read. There is betrayal, treachery, needless massacre, endless cannibalism and the killing of prisoners. Te Rauparaha ordered some of his prisoners to prepare an umu, then killed and cooked them. In 1832, Tainui’s Te Wherowhero “used the famed Waikato mere, Whakarewa” to personally execute 350 captives in Taranaki. But Te Awaitaia took over when Te Wherowhero “became too tired to continue the grim task”.  Phew.


So where does this book leave us? Perhaps the most important messages of Ron Crosby’s book lie in its first chapters: “The Significance of the Musket Wars” and “Features of the Musket Wars”. There were the existential effects. No iwi was left unaffected. “A reasonable assessment would suggest that impacts from deaths, wounds, permanent migrations and temporary displacements could have affected over 50,000 people … out of a likely population of between 100,000 and 150,000.”

We do not need a curriculum that tiptoes through myths of goodies and baddies

Crosby considers the “casualty figures resulting from the Musket Wars greatly exceeded those of the later New Zealand Wars”. As an example, he writes that losses in that 1822 Ngāpuhi attack on the Waikato “far exceeded the total number of casualties or prisoners taken by the Crown forces in the whole of the 1863-64 Waikato campaign during the New Zealand Wars”. All of these deaths and displacements must be taken into account when considering today which iwi hold customary rights in any rohe. “Differences over customary entitlements can still persist between competing iwi in various circumstances.”

When British settlers arrived, many of these customary rights were confused and under challenge as a consequence of the wars. Districts such as Taranaki were empty or only intermittently occupied. This allowed the New Zealand Company to disregard customary rights  and land was often sold to settlers without the consent of all iwi members and sometimes by ‘non-occupying’ iwi. These were root causes for subsequent inter-iwi, iwi-Crown and iwi-settler conflicts.

The impact and lasting influence of the Musket Wars on New Zealand history, right up to the present day, need to be understood. If we are to teach our country’s history honestly, usefully and in a balanced way then the accounts and lessons from scholarship such as Ron Crosby’s Forgotten Wars must be included along with what one media outlet describes as ‘Our Story’ of the crimes and misdemeanours of British colonisers. We need a warts’n all history about the whole of ‘Our Story’, Pākehā  and Māori. For our children, we do not need a curriculum that tiptoes through myths of goodies and baddies with the omission of whole tranches of history. They – indeed everybody – need a set of interwoven truths we can all understand, relate to and accept.

The Forgotten Wars: Why the Musket Wars matter today by Ron Crosby (Oratia Books, $39.99) is available in bookshops nationwide.

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