Traditional Maori Warfare

In the eyes of some of the early European observers Māori behaved with unbridled savagery. These observers were entirely wrong. Warfare in Māori society was ritualised and controlled according to an established set of rules. The decision to take up arms was usually a last resort, preceded by careful deliberation. The fighting was fierce and bloody, however, Māori war parties did not usually seek to annihilate their enemy. Traditional warfare was not about wanton killing and destruction. It was about seeking utu (repayment) for past wrongs.

Māori were not constantly at war, but they did live with the constant threat of war1. This fact of life is literally carved into the New Zealand landscape. In the upper North Island in particular the remains of Māori pā (fortifications) are clearly visible on precipitous headlands and hilltops near the coast. Māori developed the art of fortification well before arrival of the pākehā and the musket.

In 1845-6 the British Troops were facing an enemy with centuries of experience in combat. Māori were excellent strategists and tacticians and they had adapted their fortifications to face an enemy armed with guns. The actions and successes of Māori leaders during the Northern War can only really be understood in the context of traditional Māori warfare.

1 This is true of late 18th century Māori in the Northern parts of the country.

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Warfare and Society

The concept of utu really is the key to understanding traditional Māori warfare. Utu is sometimes translated as “revenge” but this is incorrect. Utu actually means “repayment” or “balanced by an equivalent”. If an offence was committed, the party wronged would seek repayment to restore their mana. A failure to extract utu would cause the offended party to loose face, to suffer a loss of mana. In a worst-case scenario a desire for utu could lead to war.

Without a paramount chief or a formal justice system, Māori had their own ways of resolving disputes. Some rangatira acted as mediators, negotiating peaceful solutions which satisfied the need for utu and maintained the mana of the feuding parties. In more serious cases, the sending of taua muru (a stripping party) was a way to obtain utu without actually killing anybody (or at least, without killing anybody important). A taua muru was a hostile expedition, where a party of warriors was sent to plunder or destroy property belonging to those who had committed the offence. Taua muru were very dramatic, the warriors brandishing their weapons and making a great display of aggression. However physical violence didn’t happen, or if it did, it was directed towards a few low-ranking individuals. Despite appearances, taua muru were a means of maintaining the peace.

Warfare often arose from an act which affected the mana of a group. The murder of a tapu person was the most serious offence. However, wars were also fought over seemingly minor incidents, such as petty theft or insulting words. The “Girls War” is an example: it happened in 1830 in the Bay of Islands, and began with a dispute between four young Māori women of high-rank. Two of them were the former wives of a particular whale ship captain, and the other pair were his current wives. The argument began as a play fight, but it escalated, and the women uttered dire curses at each other. The situation was serious, because the women had insulted the mana of each other’s chiefly relatives. In the end, the exchange of insults led to a battle during which a number of warriors were killed.

The rationale for taking up arms was presented in terms of mana and utu, and the usual purpose of warfare was to settle disputes. However, underlying economic motives did come into play. Māori, like people everywhere, were sometimes driven by a desire to obtain property or to access some natural resource. In some cases, an insult to the mana of the antagonists could provide a convenient justification for confiscating property or taking over gardening land2.

2 Davidson, J. 1983 (reprinted 1987). p. 182.


Wars were fought at the level of the hapu, but not always between individual hapu. Others were drawn in by close kinship ties or by their duty to support a dominant chief. Most hapu could field between 100 to 400 warriors, who fought as separate units commanded by their respective rangatira.

Planning an attack required a great deal of work, especially if it was directed against hapu living far away. To begin with, there were arrangements to be negotiated with potential allies. There was visiting to be done, feasting, discussions and debates. Then there were practical considerations. Extra crops were planted well before a long-distance campaign. Some of the harvest went with the war party, and the rest was to make sure there was enough food and seed stock for the following year. Haste and stealth were not necessarily important. It was not unusual for the enemy to hear word of the attack well in advance, allowing them plenty of time to prepare.

It is important to remember that Māori warriors were not professional soldiers – they were also the bulk of the male workforce. When the men were off fighting, they were clearly not available to undertake their usual work. Furthermore, many women and older children would travel with the war party to provide logistical support. The withdrawal of the most capable men and women from the workforce inevitably put pressure on the resources of the hapu.

Once the battle began, each unit would function in a separate but co-ordinated manner. Rangitira were not generals in the European sense – they led by example, fighting alongside their men. The course of a battle depended upon the situation: gaining access to an enemy pā (fortification) was quite different to skirmishing in the forest or on the beach.

Without guns, Māori couldn’t kill each other from afar. The fighting was very real, hard-fought, with warriors and civilians killed at close quarters. There hasn’t been a lot of biological anthropology carried out on Māori skeletons, because ko iwi (human remains) are tapu in the extreme. However some of the skeletons which have been examined show that person died violently, by a sharp blow to the head with a patu-like weapon.

The fighting was constrained and controlled by tikanga, “rules of engagement” that both sides understood. Although the fighting was brutal and bloody, the objective wasn’t necessarily to annihilate the enemy. Most war parties set out to kill at least some people3. However, it was not uncommon for a victorious war party to withdraw, having killed a sufficient number of people to achieve utu. If the warring hapu were connected by kinship a handful of deaths would suffice – the fighting would stop and peace talks would begin. Battles between non-related hapu were more protracted and brutal. The survivors of a hapu defeated might be driven from their lands, forced to seek an entirely new place to live.

3 Ballara, A. 2003:143

Pre-musket Māori Pā (fortifications)

There are at least 5000 pa in New Zealand, a great many of them in Northland. Some of them, like Ruapekapeka, are “gun-fighter” pā, built after the arrival of the Europeans and especially adapted to face an enemy armed with muskets and artillery. The vast majority, however, were built during a period of 300 years or so, commencing at about 1500 AD4. It is worth considering the nature and function of Māori pa of old, to better understand their more recent derivatives.

Traditional pā were fortified positions designed to thwart an attacking force with a mix of earthworks, palisades and excellent natural defences. These pā were designed to defend against war parties armed with short clubs of wood, bone or stone, longer wooden weapons, and spears of several different varieties. In the absence of projectile weapons, an elevated position, sheer cliffs, steep slopes, and a narrow access way were excellent natural defences.

By the end of the 18th century, most communities in northern New Zealand maintained at least one pā in a state of readiness. Some pā were also substantial villages and home to sizable populations. Others functioned more like refuges or fortified food stores. The people would live in a kainga close by, and use their pā for ceremonial reasons or for shelter when an attack was imminent.

Most pā had houses and food storage facilities within the defences. Early European missionaries record pā containing one hundred or two hundred houses, but most pā would have had far less accommodation than that. Some of the so-called “houses” were actually covered food-storage pits. Food, especially kumara (sweet potato), was often stored inside the defences of the pā. There were two reasons for this: to protect the invaluable winter food supply and to provide sustenance in case of a siege.

Pā were built on carefully chosen locations, most often near the coast, on headlands, in harbours, or on hill near a river or estuary. Ditches, banks, palisades and fighting platforms were built to enhance the natural defences. The Station Bay pā on Motutapu, an island in the Hauraki Gulf, is an excellent example of a headland pā. At Station Bay, the headland is cut off from the mainland with a wide and deep defensive ditch. Enhanced with heavy-duty palisades, the defensive ditch would have posed a formidable barrier for an attacking war party. Like many pā, the one at Station Bay possessed multiple lines of defence. There were two more defensive ditches and artificially steepened scarps, dividing the interior of the pā into separate zones. If the attackers broke through the outer trench and palisades, the people inside could withdraw into a succession of defensive positions.

[IMAGE ADAPTED FROM FOX] shows a defensive ditch, palisades and fighting stage. It is easy to see how a small group of defenders could hold off a much larger war party. A direct attack would require the warriors to pull or cut down the sturdy pallisaides, while the defenders stabbed at them through gaps at ground level. From banks or fighting stages above the defenders could through rocks or spears at the warriors trying to get in. Not surprisingly, a war party would often try less direct methods of getting inside the pā of their enemy. Setting the pā alight was one way of doing it, although that tactic could (literally) backfire if the wind changed. Subterfuge was another way of gaining access. For example, an approaching war party might gather up large bundles of fern and impersonate a group servants returning to the pā after work. A similar tactic was to approach the pā pretending to be friendly visitors5.

4 Schmidt, M. 1996

5 Ballara, A. 2003:146

The “Musket Wars”

The Musket Wars was a period of ferocious Māori versus Māori conflict which spread across much of the country during the early decades of the 19th century. It is difficult to know for sure but perhaps 20 000 people were killed6. To put it in perspective, more New Zealanders were killed during the Musket Wars than during World War One.

The “Musket Wars” name is somewhat misleading. The bloodiest period of conflict in New Zealand history cannot be dismissed as a simple consequence of selling guns to the “natives”. Reality, as usual, was much more complicated. In a nutshell, it happened because European contact tipped the system out of kilter. The inbuilt checks and balances could not accommodate the scale of economic, political and technological change. Ambitious and opportunistic leaders took the concept of utu to new extremes, sparking a chain reaction of violence and upheaval, which spread across the country.

These wars were an extension of traditional Māori warfare, arising from the political dynamics of the time. Ngāpuhi were the first to obtain muskets, and they used them to settle scores against their enemies of old. From 1818 numerous war parties departed from the Bay of Islands and headed south, intimidating and conquering their enemies, and taking many prisoners. Ngāpuhi Chief Hongi Hika was an influential character, with an extraordinary ability to unite different factions of Ngāpuhi. He assembled huge armies (by the standards of the day), provided them with muskets, and went to war against Te Arawa and the people of the Waikato. Much slaughter ensued.

When Māori began to obtain muskets the scale of traditional warfare was altered, causing far greater devastation and disruption than before. Simply put, more people were killed. Utu required death to repay death, and so the cycle of violence escalated. The old systems for avoiding warfare – diplomacy, ritual encounters, and property confiscation – were insufficient. The power of tikanga to constrain and restrain the violence was diminished. Facing destruction, many hapu were forced from their lands. Migrations of defeated hapu were not unusual in Māori society, but the scale of the upheaval was quite unprecedented. Forty major migrations were set in motion7, and vast tracts of land were temporarily abandoned.

Ngāpuhi had a monopoly on muskets for a few years, but after 1820 other iwi began to catch up. By the mid-1820s the chiefs to the south were able to fight of Ngāpuhi invaders. After Hongi Hika died in 1828, the Ngāpuhi confederation began to fall apart and the hapu began to fight among themselves. Ngāpuhi was no longer a united fighting force. The Musket Wars didn’t really end until the late 1830s, by which time many Māori were physically and emotionally drained, and basically tired of fighting. Everybody had muskets by then, and so a tenuous new balance of power was established.

The Musket Wars wound down only a few years before New Zealand officially became a British colony. Post-1840 Ngāpuhi politics cannot be divorced form the events of the Musket Wars period. Ngāpuhi hapu were briefly united under Hongi Hika, but after his death the alliances fell apart. Offences were committed and remembered and political divisions widened. In 1845-6 Ngāpuhi hapu were again at war, and this time there was a third party involved: the British Government. On a philosophical level Te Ruki Kawiti and Hone Heke were fighting two separate wars, one against the British and another rooted in the complicated Ngāpuhi politics of the previous decades.

6 Bentley, T. 2001:340, see also Wright, M. 2011:20

7 Bentley, T. 2001:444

Evolution of Māori Warfare

Many of the Māori warriors who faced the British soldiers in 1845 were battled hardened and experienced. They knew how to fight with muskets, and how to defend against an enemy with muskets. The Musket Wars gave rise to the gun fighter pā, which were further refined and used effectively against the British in the years that followed.

The origins of the sophisticated gun-fighter pa of the Northern War can be traced back to the Musket Wars period. Eighteenth-century Māori pā – elevated and exposed as they were – provided poor defence against an enemy armed with muskets. Māori were quick to realise this, and began to adapt their tactics according. Height was no longer an advantage. For a start the attackers could move to within firing distance without being seen, hidden from view by the curve at the crest of the ridge. Furthermore, it was difficult for the defenders to shoot downwards at a steep angle – they had to reach down with their upper body raised above the ditch and bank defences. The silhouettes of their bodies against the skyline were good targets for the enemies below8.

Musket warfare prompted Māori to shift their fortifications from the steep hills and precipitous ridges, down to the flats or onto broad gentle slopes. Trenches and gun-pits were built parallel to the old-style defensive ditches, and palisades were adjusted to become more effective. During the Musket Wars Māori learned the benefits of breastworks9, and they also learned that defensive trenches should not be built in long straight lines. Enfilade or flanking fire down the length of a ditch could kill or injure many of the defenders at once. The solution was to build trenches with corners and projections.

Māori continued to adapt and develop their defensive strategies and tactics during the 1820s, 1830s and against the British soldiers in the 1840s. Ruapekapeka Pā was a culmination of everything Māori had learned in the previous decades. It was not a “revolution” in pā design. The changes evolutionary, as Māori quickly learned from experience what worked against an enemy armed with muskets.

See also Ruapekapeka Reconstructed

8 See Jones, K. 1994:88-94 for a details of this subject, including diagrams and images

9 Breastworks are fortifications built to breast height, often temporary and quickly constructed, for example an earthen wall

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