Writing about New Zealand’s internal wars

Writing about New Zealand’s internal wars

Cover of The war in New Zealand, by William Fox, originally published in 1866. This reprint was published in 1973 by Capper Press.

Writing about New Zealand’s internal wars

War has had a great impact on New Zealand society. Over the last 70 years, books about war have become a mainstay of local non-fiction publishing. Generations of New Zealanders have learned about our exploits in two world wars and the impact of these conflicts on the nation. But we are less familiar with our internal wars of the 19th century.

Musket wars

Tens of thousands of Māori may have died in the intertribal Musket Wars of the early 19th century. On a per capita basis, the number of deaths may have been equivalent to up to 200,000 dead in the First World War (in which 18,000 New Zealand lives were actually lost). Yet these events are little known to most New Zealanders.

One reason for this lack of awareness is that the Musket Wars were fought among Māori, with European participation largely confined to the supply of weapons. They were of little consequence for the early authors of the grand narrative of European colonisation. Ron Crosby (The Musket Wars, 1999) and Angela Ballara (Taua, 2003) have shed more light on the causes and consequences of these devastating campaigns. Tom O’Connor’s Tides of Kawhia (2004) and Pathways of Taranaki (2006) are fictional accounts of life in New Zealand during this important time of early inter-racial contact.

The Northern War

Lindsay Buick’s New Zealand’s first war, or, The rebellion of Hone Heke (1926) took the traditional line that our internal wars began with Hōne Heke’s assault on the British flag in 1845. Buick was one of a few New Zealand-born historians writing in the first quarter of the 20th century. Along with men like Robert McNab, James Cowan and Elsdon Best, he worked to make New Zealand’s past more accessible to the general reader.

The wars of the 1860s

More has been written about New Zealand’s wars of the 1860s, although interest in these conflicts pales in comparison to the obsession with America’s great internal war of the same decade. In 2001 it was estimated that more than 50,000 books on the Civil War had been published, with 1500 new titles appearing annually.

Most of the 19th-century accounts of the New Zealand Wars have been deservedly forgotten. William Fox declared in The war in New Zealand (1866) that he had ‘strong convictions; but convictions are not prejudices’. In 1864, as Colonial Secretary in the Whitaker ministry, he had overseen the confiscation of nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million ha) of Māori land, justifying this by arguing that Māori had started the fighting.

John Featon apparently served as an artillery volunteer in the 1860s before becoming a journalist in the 1870s. The blurb in the 1971 reprint of his The Waikato War 1863–4 (1879) acknowledges that he made ‘no attempt to provide a balanced view’.

James Cowan

The ‘James the First’ of New Zealand writers on these wars was the ethnographer, historian and journalist James Cowan. Cowan ‘straddled fiction and non-fiction’ and was a pioneer oral historian. He talked to men who had fought on both sides in these campaigns and visited the sites of many of the bloody struggles in which they had been involved.

In 1903 Cowan interviewed Kimble Bent, an American-born soldier who deserted from his British army regiment in south Taranaki and joined the forces of Tītokowaru. Previously widely seen as a traitor, the elderly Bent’s reputation was somewhat restored by Cowan’s The adventures of Kimble Bent: a story of wild life in the New Zealand bush (1911). Cowan’s major work, The New Zealand Wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period (2 vols, 1922–3), remains invaluable.

James Belich

The ‘James the Second’ of the New Zealand Wars, James Belich, challenged traditional interpretations in The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict (1986). He argued that Pakehā New Zealanders had deliberately forgotten the wars and under-rated Māori military and political achievements.

A television series based on The New Zealand Wars brought to the attention of many New Zealanders Māori figures and experiences that had previously been ignored or downplayed. Belich’s controversial work inspired new debate on the course and outcome of these conflicts. Matthew Wright’s Two peoples, one land (2006) offered a useful post-revisionist interpretation, while Vincent O'Malley’s The New Zealand Wars / Nga Pakanga o Aotearoa (2019) summarised recent scholarship, much of it his own.

Film and later novels

James Cowan's romanticised view that the wars had been New Zealand’s equivalent to the ‘wild west’ was brought to the big screen by Rudall Hayward’s movie and a tie-in novel by A.W. Reed, both entitled Rewi’s last stand (1939/40). On this reading Māori were no longer demonised, a reorientation that paved the way for more positive representations. An early example was Errol Brathwaite's 1960s trilogy aimed at younger readers, The flying fish, The evil day, and The needle's eye. This was followed by Ray Grover’s semi-fictionalised Cork of war (1982), Maurice Shadbolt’s trilogy Season of the Jew (1986), Monday’s warriors (1990), and The house of strife (1993), and Witi Ihimaera’s The matriarch (1986), The Trowenna Sea (2009), The Parihaka woman (2011) and Sleeps standing Moetū (2017).

Related conflicts

A number of writers have provided telling insights into campaigns that fell outside the main phase of the New Zealand Wars. These include Belich’s I shall not die: Titokowaru’s War New Zealand 1868–1869 (1989), Hazel Riseborough’s exploration of Parihaka, Days of darkness: Taranaki 1878–1884 (1989, revised edition 2002), and Judith Binney’s Redemption songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (1995). Following the police raids against suspected terrorist training camps in the Urewera ranges in 2007, Mark Derby’s The prophet and the policeman: the story of Rua Kenana and John Cullen (2009) was a timely publication on a region with a troubled past. The definitive book on Te Urewera in this period is Binney's Encircled lands (2009).

Wars on the web

There is a suite of articles about New Zeland's internal wars on NZHistory. The Archives New Zealand website allows you to search 19th-century government records and provides a guide for finding Māori in the New Zealand Wars.

The National Library’s Papers Past website contains more than 4 million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals published between 1839 and 1961. The Parliamentary Papers section includes digitised versions of the official reports published in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives. Waikato University hosts Niupepa: Māori newspapers - a searchable archive of Māori language newspapers from 1842 to 1932.

The New Zealand Electronic Text Collection is a library of out-of-print books and memoirs.


This list is adapted from the Penguin book of New Zealanders at war (2009) – an excellent source of contemporary accounts of New Zealand’s 19th-century wars.

Useful assessments of war writing:

  • Patrick Evans, ‘War Literature’, in Terry Sturm (ed.), The Oxford companion to New Zealand literature in English, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Auckland, pp. 566–75
  • Ian McGibbon, ‘Something of Them Is Here Recorded’, http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-McGSome.html
  • Brian O’Brien, ‘Literature and War’, in Ian McGibbon (ed.), The Oxford companion to New Zealand military history, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 2000, pp. 276–80
  • Scott Worthy, ‘“Light and Shade”: The New Zealand Written Remembrance of the Great War, 1915–1939’, War & Society, vol. 22, no. 1, May 2004, pp. 19–40

General histories and guides – New Zealand’s internal wars

  • Angela Ballara, Taua: ‘Musket Wars', ‘Land Wars' or tikanga? Warfare in Maori society in the early nineteenth century, Penguin, Auckland, 2003
  • John Battersby, The one day war: The battle of Omarunui, Reed, Auckland, 2000
  • James Belich, The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict, paperback edn, Penguin, Auckland, 1988
  • Elsdon Best, Notes on the art of war, Reed Books/Polynesian Society, Auckland, 2001
  • Tom Brooking, Milestones: turning points in New Zealand history, Mills Publications, Wellington, 1988
  • James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars and the pioneering period, 2 vols, reprinted with an introduction by Michael King, Government Printer, Wellington, 1983
  • R.D. Crosby, The Musket Wars: a short history of inter-iwi conflict 1806–45, Reed, Auckland, 1999
  • Ron Crosby, Kūpapa: the bitter legacy of Māori alliances with the Crown, Penguin Random House, Auckland, 2015
  • B.J. Dalton, War and politics in New Zealand 1855–1870, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1967
  • Neil Finlay, Sacred soil: images and stories of the New Zealand Wars, Random House, Auckland, 1998
  • David Green, Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: a visitor’s guide, Penguin, Auckland, 2010
  • Gavin McLean and Ian McGibbon with Kynan Gentry (eds), The Penguin book of New Zealanders at war, Penguin, Auckland, 2009
  • Vincent O’Malley, The great war for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016
  • Vincent O'Malley, The New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2019
  • Nigel Prickett, Landscapes of conflict: a field guide to the New Zealand Wars, Random House, Auckland, 2002
  • Tim Ryan and Bill Parham, The colonial New Zealand wars, Grantham House, Wellington, 1986
  • Ian Wards, The shadow of the land: a study of British policy and racial conflict in New Zealand 1832–1852, Government Printer, Wellington, 1968
  • Matthew Wright, Two peoples, one land: the New Zealand Wars, Reed, Auckland, 2006

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about Writing about New Zealand’s internal wars

What do you know?