By Roger Childs
The Musket Wars from circa 1800 to circa 1840 is a topic to be avoided for many of our acclaimed historians. In John Robinson’s words… that period is almost written out of current historical accounts. Is it because it covers an appalling and rather embarrassing era of Maori history?
The early decades of the 19th century were a time of inter-tribal warfare, characterised by unrelenting fighting between iwi; rape and pillage; the slaughter of prisoners; and widespread cannibalism, slavery, destitution and female infanticide. It shows that the Maori culture of the period was savage, brutal and utterly lacking in humanity.
Michael King in his History of New Zealand devotes 9 pages to these horrific decades and concludes that… if any period in New Zealand History has earned the label ‘holocaust’ it is this one. The seminal work on the subject since 1999 has been Ron Crosbie’s The Musket Wars, but with 432 pages of small print it has proved daunting for many readers. However, Waikanae-based historian John Robinson has recently written a shorter (130 pages) coverage of the period which is highly informative, thoroughly researched and very readable.
Putting the Musket Wars in context
Unrestrained Slaughter: The Maori Musket Wars 1800–1840 puts this brutal time in the context of the on-going competition for land and resources which had been part of Maori culture for a hundred years or more. The arrival of the musket added to the armoury of the tribes and initially Hongi Hika and his Ngapuhi tribe had the advantage, especially after the legendary chief traded gifts from England for muskets in Sydney during the early 1820s.
It is estimated that there were over 600 battles in the four decades, before the Treaty of Waitangi brought the slaughter to a close. There is no dispute that there was a massive drop in the native population. John Robinson quotes various estimates on the loss of life. Respected Maori anthropologist and historian, Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), postulated that about 80,000 died in the fighting and after the battles. Te Rauparaha’s son, Tamihana, and others who witnessed the carnage, testify to more people being killed after the battles than during them. Looking at the various sources and research John Robinson’s conclusion is that there was a Maori population loss of about 66,000 during the 40 years.
Revenge meant one round of killing led to another
Why did the fighting go on for so long? Basically because of the current tikanga – Time and again the relentless chain led from utu to deaths, calling for further utu and leading on to the next round of killing. This was war of territorial conquest and extermination. Some smaller iwi were completely wiped out. The savagery was unrelenting, and treachery, torture, ambushes and betrayal were common. Women especially lived a life of constant fear, insecurity and exploitation, and for them the Treaty of Waitangi was a godsend. As a result of the Treaty, inter-tribal conflict, slavery, female infanticide and cannibalism were outlawed.
War and eventual peace
Unrestrained slaughter covers all the major campaigns and taua (war party) expeditions and also looks at the peace-making roles of missionaries. It explains how chiefs in Northland in particular – men like Hongi Hika, Tamati Waka Nene and his brother Patuone – began to appreciate that the internecine conflict was threatening to kill off the Maori race. They wanted the British to step in and end the ruinous conflicts and answer their call: give us law.
The Kapiti — Horowhenua area features prominently in the book, as the iwi Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Atiawa all came from the central North Island and sought refuge and security further south. However, later overcrowding, especially in the Kapiti area, saw more conflict erupt.
An important book on New Zealand history
John Robinson’s book is essential reading for people wanting an objective coverage of the barbaric Musket Wars. This was a disastrous period of rangitiratanga which needs to be recognised as an important part of our history. Like the Thirty Years War, the Irish Potato Famine, the 20th Century slaughter of millions in the Soviet Union and China, the Holocaust, apartheid and other horrific periods of conflict and inhumanity, it must not be swept under the carpet of history. It should definitely feature in the school curriculum when the study of New Zealand history become compulsory.
Unrestrained Slaughter: The Maori Musket Wars 1800–1840 by John Robinson is published by Tross Publishing. It is available for $30 from Paper Plus in Paraparaumu and can also be bought online with no charge for postage.