New Zealand Wars

On 28 October 2017, the first Rā Maumahara, National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars was held. How does our response to the commemoration of these wars compare with our commemoration of the First World War?

It is worth considering the role and purpose of such commemorations in the first place. What do we choose to remember as a society, and why? How do we collectively acknowledge the impact of events such as war? In this conversation, we will discuss a number of issues related to the relevance of our internal wars of the 19th century and whether they should be a part of core curriculum. If we believe they are an important aspect of our past, what would be an appropriate way to acknowledge and commemorate them today and in the future?

In the too-hard basket: have we ignored the New Zealand Wars?

At the end of 2015, students from Ōtorohanga College presented a petition to parliament calling for a National Day of Remembrance to acknowledge the ‘Land Wars’ and for the government to mandate the teaching of these wars in schools. This petition with more than 12,000 signatures sparked considerable debate and contributed to the decision to declare 28 October 2017 as the first Rā Maumahara, National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars.

Linda Campbell, the mother of one of the Ōtorohanga College students, and a teacher at the school, contrasted the hype associated with the commemoration of events in Turkey 100 years earlier with the apparent lack of interest in the wars fought on our own shores. She described ‘our youth as being ripped off’ from learning their history, asking why we could remember our foreign wars but not those fought on our own shores. Brian Rudman chimed in in the New Zealand Herald, pointing out how the official response of the government in commemorating the centenary of the First World War was in stark contrast to its reluctance to teach our children about the ‘ugly side of our past’. Rudman described the majority of New Zealanders as being so ‘ignorant of our past that they have nothing to forget.’ Commentator Morgan Godfery was another to ask, ‘why do we ignore the New Zealand Wars?’, maintaining that while Anzac Day ‘represents a kind of retrospective nationhood, the New Zealand Wars more accurately represent actual nationhood.’

Joanna Kidman, Associate Professor in Te Kura Maori in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, suggests that ‘public silences around the New Zealand Wars are deeply ingrained’.  Like a number of other commentators, she maintains that to achieve genuine reconciliation, ‘it is important to acknowledge our nation’s difficult past, and own it’. Others have echoed this sentiment, seeing the ability to commemorate the wars as ‘a sign of our maturity as a nation’.

Our national narrative mythologises our experiences of war. It is a central element in many discussions around themes such as national identity. For evidence of this, we need look no further than the considerable time, money and effort spent in acknowledging the First World War and its impact on us. To be fair, there is an international dimension, expectation, and set of obligations to the commemoration of the First World War that isn’t there with our internal wars. That said, our internal wars of the 19th century have had a dramatic impact on us, then and now. In comparison with the First World War, they are more controversial and more confronting. They don’t sit easily with our perception of who and what we are as a people and a nation. Are they our ‘inconvenient truth’? We speak of Gallipoli, Passchendaele or Cassino, but rarely of Rangiriri, Gate Pā or Ōrākau. The latter were struggles not about an accepted ‘us’ and ‘them’ but more an ‘us’ versus ‘us’. While some New Zealanders have a view on who was dying ‘for glory or good’ in our overseas conflicts — a collective sense of loss — this is much less clear when we examine our wars at home.

While tens of thousands of Māori died in the intertribal wars of the early 19th century, usually referred to as the ‘Musket Wars’, it is the acknowledgement of the fighting that occurred in the decades after New Zealand became part of the British Empire in 1840 that was the focus of the petition. Several thousand people died in total, the great majority of them Māori. For some Māori the wars were only the beginning, with land confiscation the fate of many of the survivors.

So does the decision to commemorate these conflicts in 2017 represent a turning of the tide, a ‘maturing of the nation’? With the commemoration date looming I must admit to feeling nervous about how little I am hearing from many teacher friends and colleagues as to how — if at all — they plan to incorporate these commemorations into their programmes. In fact, I have heard little discussion about the national commemorations, full stop. With the centenary of Passchendaele being marked only a few weeks earlier, it will be interesting to compare the two events, especially how the media treat them.

While Te Ururoa Flavell acknowledged that iwi had made representations to him, and his predecessor Sir Pita Sharples, about setting aside a date to commemorate the wars over a number of years, the role played by a group of young New Zealanders to convince the powers that be to do something about this issue suggests an acceptance of, and willingness to learn more about these aspects of our past. The efforts of the Ōtorohanga College students and their supporters are a great illustration of social action in practice.

The Ōtorohanga petition was greatly influenced by the fact that the fighting of the 1860s in particular had local relevance. This might be the case in your own area. Sometimes it is a case of knowing where to look or who to ask. Whether this is the case or not (are the New Zealand Wars as relevant in Southland as in Waikato?), using these conflicts as an opportunity for place-based education is an important way of highlighting the fact that these wars have left their mark on our landscape. Two published sources I would recommend here are David Green’s Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: A Visitor’s Guide and Nigel Prickett’s Landscapes of Conflict: A Field Guide to the New Zealand Wars. There are also useful online guides.

There are a number of issues we will seek to unpack in considering the significance of these wars to New Zealand and its people. There is still confusion or disagreement over what to call them, as well as what they were about. How do we commemorate what was not a single conflict but multiple conflicts spread over time and place? Which date is most appropriate in focusing our collective attention for the purpose of commemoration? The fact that memorials to these conflicts typically reflect the characteristics of a colonial society is illustrated by the inscription on New Zealand’s first war memorial, at Pākaitore, near the Whanganui River. This memorial, erected in 1865 by the grateful European citizens of the district, honours their Māori allies, reads: 

To the memory of those brave men who fell at Moutoa 14 May 1864 in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism. 

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

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 Āti Awa) 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 space, adding to the challenge of what to call them. All involved contests between British (later, colonial) 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 was to blame, location and participants. In the 21st century, questions around 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 of political thought John Pocock floated the idea of these being ‘civil wars’. In the end he decided 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 an August 2016 piece in the Waikato Times entitled The Land Wars were a Civil War. 

As my colleague David Green points out, any early 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 the conflicts amongst 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 WarEast Coast War, and Second Taranaki War — or by presumed perpetrator — Tītokowaru’s WarTe Kooti’s War.

The term ‘Māori Wars’ was applied first to pre-contact fighting among Māori and later to the Musket Wars. For a century from the early 1860s, it was the most widely used label for the post-Treaty of Waitangi fighting. Historian 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. 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 book The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (1986) and subsequent television series were especially influential in cementing this name for a wider audience.

The term ‘Land Wars’ has enjoyed a revival in recent times. Much of the media coverage of the Ōtorohanga College 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 proposed 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 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 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 as part of a broader exploration of remembrance and commemoration. 

Choosing a date to commemorate the New Zealand Wars

The decision to introduce a national commemoration of the New Zealand Wars was announced at a ceremony at Tūrangawaewae Marae, Ngāruawāhia, in August 2016. The Crown returned ownership of the Rangiriri pā site to Waikato-Tainui, and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English acknowledged the need 'to recognise our own conflict, our own war, our own fallen'. English conceded that ordinary people had lost their lives at Rangiriri 'fighting for principle in just the same way as New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives fighting on battlefields on the other side of the world'.

Iwi had previously made representations to the Māori Development Minister, Te Ururoa Flavell, and his predecessor Sir Pita Sharples, about setting aside a date to commemorate the wars. After consultation, the date settled on for the first Rā Maumahara National Day of Commemoration was 28 October 2017. This is the date on which the 1835 Declaration of Independence of New Zealand (He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene) was signed. Funding to the tune of $4 million will be spent over four years to support these commemorations. Te Tai Tokerau tribes in Northland will host the inaugural event. After that, the commemorations will move from year to year to battle sites around the country.

Not all of Te Tai Tokerau support the date chosen. Ngāpuhi’s Kingi Taurua believed that the commemoration of the wars would overshadow the signing of the Declaration of Independence,

We will always hold that day for the signing of the Declaration by the Confederates. If there are to be further discussions on this subject then we will make sure to be part of those discussions, but October 28 will never be agreed to.

Other Ngāpuhi, however, support holding the commemorations on this date.

The historian Danny Keenan (Ngāti Te Whiti Ahi Kā, Te Āti Awa) also questioned aligning the commemorations with the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, a date which has no direct link to these conflicts. Pākehā historians such as James Belich have argued that the wars were ‘wars of sovereignty’, and 28 October, in Keenan’s view, ‘clearly buys into that argument, by foregrounding the issue of Māori sovereignty’. He suggested alternative dates for commemoration: 17 March (the commencement of fighting in Taranaki at Te Kohia, near Waitara, 1860), 20 November (the British attack on Rangiriri, 1863), or 5 November (the invasion of Parihaka, 1881), the date on which, some argue, the wars actually ended. Keenan believes the chosen date represents not a sense of history but:

modern Māori political realities, representing the state of Crown-Māori relations today which are centred on still outstanding issues of Māori autonomy, or sovereignty. The date seems less about the wars, and more about Māori seeking constitutional or political leverage. A date more reflective of the Māori experience of those wars, with all of the hurt, dispossession, loss and devastation has been by-passed, and that is a great shame.

That choosing a suitable, universal date is problematic is demonstrated by the alternatives presented by Keenan. As there was not a single conflict but multiple conflicts spread over time and place, selecting one date or event of significance as the focus for a national day of commemoration risks ignoring other events and dates of local/iwi significance connected with these conflicts.

It will be interesting to see how the wider public receives the inaugural event. Will it be viewed as an attempt to muscle in on Anzac Day? As evidenced by the outburst from 12-year-old James Broome-Isa when confronting two peace activists during an Anzac Day service in Wellington in 2017, Anzac Day is not easily ‘messed with’. Or will it, in comparison with Anzac Day, be seen as an irrelevancy, a token gesture? Will it in any way alter our understanding of how war has shaped our sense of who we are as a people or nation?

Some believe the day hasn’t been given sufficient status to really amount to anything more than a token gesture. Our challenge as educators is to ensure that the opportunity to critically examine the significance of these events is not missed.

Should teaching the New Zealand Wars be compulsory?

The solution, some argue, to what Joanna Kidman describes as the ingrained ‘public silences around the New Zealand Wars’ is to make teaching about them compulsory. This was one aim of the Ōtorohanga College petition. The petitioners believed schools could be supported in achieving this via the development of teaching resources, learning outcomes and Achievement Standards. It possibly came as a surprise to many that the Ministry of Education in its submission to the Māori Affairs select committee’s consideration of the petition stated its opposition to this idea. The Secretary for Education, Peter Hughes, stated that requiring schools to teach a specific subject was contrary to the spirit and underlying principles of the curriculum. Such a change, he argued, would 'erode the autonomy' of school boards to make their own programmes and change the function of the curriculum. The Ministry's te reo Māori group manager, Kiritina Johnstone, added that the focus was on ’helping schools develop their own content, which could include the history of local land wars’. Johnstone pointed out that schools in the South Island and Rotorua were already working with iwi to develop local resources about Māori history.

Tamsin Hanley, writing in E-Tangata, described this response as ‘typical of neo-liberal governments seeking to shift the responsibility for determining curriculum from the state to the school boards, communities and teachers’. Hanley suggests research demonstrates that when given a choice schools avoid what they think could be controversial — and they avoid anything they know little about. In choosing ‘safe topics’, they give things like colonialism and its by-products a wide berth. Hanley argues that as a consequence our students are likely ‘to know more about Kate and William and Harry than they do about the Kingitanga’. Whereas most other countries make teaching their own history a priority, our present system is ‘producing continuous generations of ignorance — and historical amnesia. It really is a desperate situation’.

Morgan Godfery, also writing in E-Tangata, noted that as sympathetic as he was to the calls of the petitioners —

and as embarrassed as I am to admit it — I agree with the Ministry of Education and with Hekia [Parata, then the Minister of Education] that the curriculum should be delivered from below rather than imposed from above. We know from experience that government-led or government-imposed histories are dangerous.

I have been involved in either teaching about or writing resources to support the teaching of 19th-century New Zealand history for more than 30 years. Despite this, making the teaching of content such as the ‘Land Wars’ compulsory is not as straightforward as it might seem. As one of the Ōtorohanga College parents put it, our students should never feel 'ripped off' because they are not learning their history. It is also reasonable to expect that those wanting to operate in a 21st-century classroom in this country have some understanding of this nation’s history and the ability to explore the range of perspectives associated with it. All New Zealand children should gain some sense of social literacy from their education, including a basic understanding of how we have developed as a nation. This includes key events and forces that have shaped our society, whether they make us uncomfortable or not. But is there a risk that setting compulsory content risks imposing what could be described as ‘the national narrative?’ Any prescribed content is inherently vulnerable to political manipulation. It poses a threat to the many local variations that are an important part of this history. The 'bigger picture', for instance, of what are described as the New Zealand Wars can swallow up an iwi perspective or regional flavour. The notion of imposing a mandatory topic risks perpetuating the ‘once-over-lightly’ approach that promotes a uniform teaching of the subject matter rather than considering nuances. There is no single lens through which to view these conflicts.

Some fear that making such content compulsory would amount to ‘social engineering’. Others are frightened about where such content would ultimately take us. It threatens the comforting ‘Why can’t we all be New Zealanders?’ world-view. Noted New Zealand social anthropologist Joan Metge describes this model of nationhood as emphasising the goal of national unity while at the same time, by implication, devaluing diversity and the Māori contribution. It is an updated expression of the old policy of assimilation imposed by a dominant majority on Māori and other minorities. More on this later.

Will making something compulsory ensure greater or deeper understanding? The previous curriculum had a requirement to consider ‘Essential Learning about New Zealand’. It included a list of sorts, but I never got the impression that this was looked at in any great detail or certainly with any consistency. The bottom line is the NZC does not prevent teaching and learning about these wars. But is saying there is nothing stopping you teaching a topic the same as actively supporting its place in the curriculum?

For much of my teaching career, New Zealand history was very much the poor relation, begrudgingly accepted as a necessary evil. Thankfully, this has changed. Many schools now teach a range of New Zealand topics at all levels. My own children were exposed to a lot more New Zealand history than I ever was, but if I am to be honest, it was unevenly taught and the content seemed ‘safe’, largely ignoring the more challenging aspects of our colonial past. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the impact of neo-liberalism on the education system to the more unpalatable recognition of racism and denial. The most important issue is, I suspect, a lot less sinister. I wonder for how many teachers this content represents a big gap in their own education and training. Our history, especially our internal wars, can be confronting and challenging. This content is not without risk. Serious training and support is a necessary first step. Merely telling teachers they must teach something won’t guarantee that any meaningful learning occurs. Teaching something badly is probably worse than not teaching it at all. The majority of teachers will always be open to new ideas about content and curriculum if they are assisted in implementing them.

Another issue is where in the curriculum and at what level should this content be delivered. During the centenary of the First World War I observed some rather dubious outcomes when trying to work with many of the complex concepts and issues thrown up by this conflict. Are the concepts associated with a study of war something that younger students are capable of engaging with? Traditionally we have looked to history to deliver such content, but, as this is not a compulsory subject in our system, the numbers who are taught this content is relatively small. I know that in some schools, it might be part of a broad social studies course, but in my experience, this is reasonably unlikely. If it is to become part of a core subject like social studies, the issue remains of ensuring teachers are sufficiently well-trained to confidently teach the content. In the schools I taught in at secondary level, what was offered in this subject area came down to the teacher with spare capacity in their timetable, and a perception that ‘anyone can teach social studies’. Such decisions were rarely made in subject areas such as English, mathematics and science, where there was a more universally accepted notion of subject specialisation and competence. Maybe things have changed…

Another alternative to compulsion is to make the case for teaching the New Zealand Wars so compelling, so irresitible, that the decision becomes a no-brainer for both those who set school-based curricula and those who deliver it. The argument that there are no suitable teaching resources to support New Zealand history is a thing of the past. My own ministry has produced a range of accessible features that explore a broad range of topics relating to these wars. Like any resources, they have their strengths and weaknesses, but they provide a solid overview of many of the campaigns for the uninitiated. NZHistory has an entire section on New Zealand’s internal WarsTe Ara also has an excellent overview of this topic and through its section on Māori New Zealanders provides iwi perspectives. Te Ara has the added feature of enabling readers to switch from English to te reo.

Any number of excellent published sources addresses both Māori/iwi and Crown perspectives. The revisionists of the 1980s have themselves been revised, with the causes, nature and impact of these wars examined in ever-greater detail. This extends also to those conflicts of the opening decades of the 19th century typically referred to as the ‘Musket Wars’, although I am unsure if they are included in the scope of the petition. The petitioners in their presentation to the select committee asserted that 30,000 people had been killed in the wars, which suggests that perhaps the Musket Wars are in scope.

We demonstrated during the commemoration of the First World War a willingness to invest money, time and resource in something deemed important to us all. We were encouraged to participate and commit some of our curriculum time to these events in a way that we have not been encouraged to do for the New Zealand Wars. Compare the $4 million set aside for four years of commemorating the New Zealand Wars with the many millions more spent on First World War commemorations and ask what we as educators can do to strike a better balance between exploring the relevance and impact of foreign wars and that of the wars fought on our own soil. Maybe a comparative study of the two would be one interesting way to approach this topic.

Steve Watters, Senior Historian/Educator, 2017

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'New Zealand Wars conversations', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Nov-2021

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