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 how familiar are we with our internal wars of the 19th century?

Musket wars

Tens of thousands of Māori died in the intertribal Musket Wars of the opening decades of the 19th century. On a per capita basis the estimated casualty figures for these wars are equivalent to around 200,000 New Zealand deaths in the First World War (in which 18,000 lives were actually lost). Yet they have remained ‘shadowy events for many New Zealanders’.

This may reflect the fact that the Musket Wars were almost exclusively fought by Māori, with European participation largely confined to the supply of weapons. They were of no great consequence to the early authors of the grand narrative of European colonisation. Ron Crosby’s The Musket Wars (1999) and Angela Ballara’s Taua (2003) are two significant works that have attempted to 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) give fictional accounts of life in New Zealand during this important time of early contact.

The Northern War

Lindsay Buick’s New Zealand’s first war, or, The rebellion of Hone Heke (1926) took the traditional line that the history of our internal wars began with Hōne Heke’s assault on the British flag in 1845. Buick was a member of a small group of New Zealand-born historians writing in the first quarter of the 20th century. In conjunction with men like Robert McNab, James Cowan and Elsdon Best, he attempted to make New Zealand’s past readily 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 hardly compares to the obsession with America’s great internal war of the same period. In 2001 it was estimated that more than 50,000 books on the Civil War had been published, with 1500 more appearing annually.

Most of the 19th-century accounts of the New Zealand Wars have been ‘justly 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 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. Though he was widely condemned as a traitor, 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 seminal’.

James Belich

The ‘James the Second’ of the New Zealand Wars, James Belich, confronted traditional interpretations with The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict (1986). He argued that not only had New Zealanders deliberately forgotten the wars, Māori military and political achievements had been under-rated.

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 work was both ‘controversial and influential’ and inspired new debate on the course and outcome of these conflicts. Matthew Wright’s Two peoples, one land (2006) offers a useful post-revisionist interpretation.

Film and later novels

A sense 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 the tie-in novel by A.W. Reed, both entitled Rewi’s last stand (1939). Māori were no longer demonised. Historian Gavin McLean has argued that this approach formed a bridge to recent novelists’ more positive representations. These works include 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).

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), 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.

Wars on the web

Archives New Zealand’s website showcases the nation’s war art, including many pieces associated with 19th century wars. The National Library’s Papers Past contains nearly 4 million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals published between 1839 and 1948. Readers can access a vast array of primary material at the click of a mouse. The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre provides a library of out-of-print war 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://www.nztec.org.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, 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, Government Printer, Wellington, 1922–23
  • 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
  • David Green, Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: a visitor’s guide, Penguin, Auckland, 2010
  • Neil Finlay, Sacred soil: images and stories of the New Zealand Wars, Random House, Auckland, 1998
  • 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
  • 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

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