New Zealand Wars

Page 3 – What’s in a name? Does it matter what we call our wars?

Posted by Steve Watters, Senior Historian/Educator - 15 September 2017

Much of this section is the work of my colleague David Green, who prepared a backgrounder on the naming of these wars for Te Puni Kōkiri.

The ‘Land Wars’, the ‘New Zealand Wars’ or even our ‘Civil War’ — there has been considerable discussion about what to call our internal wars of the 19th century. This is not a unique discussion. Consider the various names given to the First World War, including the ‘Great War’ and the ‘War to end all Wars’. It is natural to want to find a label that does justice to an event of great significance to its participants. But in the end, does it really matter what we call these conflicts?

Danny Keenan (Ngāti Te Whiti Ahi Kā, Te Ātiawa) certainly thinks so. Names, he argues, reflect (knowingly or not) what we think about such issues, and how we prioritise explanations of the wars. Titles can be used to attribute blame and reflect the historical, political, and cultural sensitivities of different groups and regions at a given time.

The immediate causes — as well as the outcomes — of the wars fought in colonial New Zealand varied, as did the labels given to them. They were not a single war but multiple conflicts spread over time and place, adding to the challenge of what to call them. All involved contests between British (later, colonist) and Māori authority. Most were also fought over access to land and other resources. The adversaries, contemporary observers and subsequent generations recognised these common features and coined generic terms for the campaigns. These terms embodied implicit or explicit judgements about causes, who were to blame, location and participants. In the 21st century, what to call these conflicts continues to shape New Zealanders’ understanding of them. Recent debate has largely centred on whether to refer to them as the ‘New Zealand Wars’ or the ‘Land Wars’.  

In 1965, the historian John Pocock floated the idea of these being ‘civil wars’. In the end he conceded that Māori society at the time was too fragmented to constitute a ‘single polity’, which, he argued, was necessary to fit the true definition of a civil war — one political entity at war with another. Most historians viewed these wars as a series of autonomous and essentially divided tribes waging war against a singular Crown, and as Māori fought on both sides the notion of a civil war never really gained traction. It was, nevertheless, interesting to note a piece in The Waikato Times (August 2016) entitled The Land Wars were a Civil War. 

As my colleague David Green points out, any initial reference to ‘New Zealanders’, certainly before 1860, invariably meant Māori. Settlers generally didn’t identify themselves as such until much later. The first ‘New Zealand Wars’ therefore were those fought among Māori in the early 19th century that became known as the ‘Musket Wars’. This title distinguished them from later campaigns and recognised the use of the new weapon that was deployed in many of them.

Both the Northern War (1845-46) fought in the Bay of Islands and the 1860-61 battles around New Plymouth between British Army regiments and local iwi were labelled ‘the New Zealand War’ by British newspapers of the day. The reporting of events across a global empire that was often embroiled in several colonial wars at the same time was aided by geographical clarity. The subsequent increasingly complex campaigns were identified, especially within New Zealand, by region and chronology — Waikato War, East Coast War, and Second Taranaki War — or by presumed perpetrator — Tītokowaru’s War, Te Kooti’s War.

The term ‘Māori Wars’ was applied first to pre-contact fighting among Māori and later to the Musket Wars, then, for a century from the early 1860s, it was the most widely used label for the post-Treaty of Waitangi fighting. Keith Sinclair noted how this reflected the British tendency to name colonial wars after their enemies — Zulu War, Boer War, and so on. But ‘New Zealand War(s)’ never entirely disappeared and was given a powerful boost by the title of James Cowan’s state-funded two-volume 1922-23 history of the fighting between 1845 and 1872.

A few Pākehā wrote of the ‘Anglo-Māori Wars’ as long ago as the late 19th century. Keith Sinclair asserted in The Origins of the Maori Wars (1957) that Māori had an overall name for the wars: ‘Te Riri Pākehā’ — ‘The White Man’s Anger’. Alan Ward (1967) also pushed the notion of Anglo-Māori wars, arguing that these were a defining conflict between two distinct peoples. But from the early 1980s the historians Michael King and James Belich, ensured the renewed ascendancy of ‘New Zealand Wars’, especially in Pākehā academic debate. Belich’s publication The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (1986) and subsequent television series was especially influential in cementing this particular title with a wider audience.

The term ‘Land Wars’ has in recent times enjoyed a revival. Much of the media coverage of the Ōtorohanga petition and ensuing discussion has referred to the ‘Land Wars'. The 1860s conflicts were characterised at the time as ‘Land Wars’ by British humanitarian organisations such as the Aborigines Protection Society. The term was also taken up by a few anti-government New Zealand newspapers but then fell out of use until 1965, when it was advanced by John Pocock on the grounds that it was more accurate than ‘Māori Wars’.

Māori anxious to hold onto their remaining land — and from the 1980s, to obtain redress for lost land via the Waitangi Tribunal or direct negotiation with the Crown — have often referred to the conflicts as the Land Wars to emphasise the scale of the economic and social deprivation which resulted from the post-1860 loss of land. Ngā Pākanga Whenua O Mua, ‘the wars fought over the land many years ago’ is a Māori name some in Taranaki use for the wars. Keenan argues that, at least in Taranaki, the wars happened because of a contest for land. For Māori, defending land was about defending historic landscapes and communities as well as sovereignty and te tino rangatiratanga, which were integral to the land.

In 1986, the Historic Places Trust, at the behest of its Maori Advisory Committee, advised its branches to use ‘Land Wars’ in preference to ‘New Zealand Wars’. It also advised consulting with local Māori on the names of battles and campaigns.

  • If fighting occurred in your area/rohe it could be worth exploring what names or labels have been given to these conflicts. Consider who in your community would be willing to discuss this with you and your class.
  • If you are studying these wars in any detail you might wish to explore with your class what they think is a suitable title and why.
  • These conflicts would make ideal contexts for Achievement Standards considering places and events of significance to New Zealand or indeed as part of a broader exploration of remembrance and commemoration. 
How to cite this page

'What’s in a name? Does it matter what we call our wars?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Sep-2017

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about What’s in a name? Does it matter what we call our wars?

What do you know?