John RobinsonBy Roger Childs

Fifty-five people packed out the Kapiti Uniting Church meeting room on Tuesday to hear historian John Robinson speak about the Musket Wars. This disastrous period in Maori history lasted from around 1800 to 1840 and over 600 battles were fought in inter-tribal conflict which probably cost more than 40,000 lives. The Treaty of Waitangi eventually brought this catastrophic era to a close, and the colonization that followed brought major benefits for the Maori population.

Twisting history

Tamati Waka NeneThe Waitangi Tribunal, many Maori academics and a number of non-Maori historians who know better, do not acknowledge the wide-ranging impact of the Musket Wars.

John Robinson is the author of Unrestrained Slaughter: The Musket Wars 1800 -1840 and in 130 pages brilliantly covers the context, explains the complexity and unravels the confusion of this important period of our nation’s story. Michael King in his seminal history of the country says “…if any period in New Zealand History has earned the label ‘holocaust’ it is this one.” 

The deniers of the truth see Maori society in the decades before Waitangi as being basically stable, generally prosperous and largely peaceful, give or take a battle or two. However the reality of the period, spelled out in John Robinson’s talk, was of many different groups of native peoples – first called Maori in the mid-1840s – living in a time of brutality, warmongering, slavery and cannibalism. 

His research is based on the observations of Maori and non–Maori at the time, the writings of many historians like James Cowan, Ron Crosbie and Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), and the meticulous statistical research of Professor James Rutherford. 

The Waitangi Tribunal and its supporters, claim that there was just a small drop in the native population from 1800 – 1840, and then a major decline after 1840 due to colonization. This is the PC view. However, Te Rangi Hiroa, Rutherford and others, including John Robinson, estimate that at least 40,000 lives were lost — men women and children — most of whom were slaughtered and often eaten after battles.

The truth of this devastating period

So there was a dramatic fall in Maori numbers in the first four decades of the nineteenth century, and then a further decline after the Treaty of Waitangi before the population recovered later in the century. But why did the numbers not pick up in the relatively peaceful and prosperous years of the 1840s and 1850s? 

Essentially it was because too many women and girls were slaughtered after Musket War battles and a degree of female infanticide. There were just not enough women of child-bearing age after 1840 to sustain a recovery. 

Kapiti was a thoroughfare

In his talk, John Robinson explained that our area was the gateway to Wellington and the South Island, and the three main iwi of today – Ngati Toa, Te Atiawa and Ngati Rukawa –  came south from the Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Kawhia and Taranaki areas. As the Kapiti region filled up, there were many battles, slaughtering of prisoners and cannibal feasts along the coastline before peace was established in 1840.

John Robinson pointed out that ultimately Northland rangatira such as Tamati Waka Nene, his brother Patione and other far-sighted native leaders realized that the constant tribal warfare based on the never-ending desire for utu was proving ruinous for Maori society. They wanted the British to come in, and bring peace and the rule of law.

The big audience found John’s talk very informative and absorbing, and it was followed by many interesting questions. 

Being honest about our past

Most cultures and societies have had their brutal periods, and being truthful about the Musket Wars is not a basis for being judgemental. John Robinson explained that what happened from 1800 to 1840 was part of the tikanga of the time, but ultimately led on to the benefits of British control, colonization and civilisation. 

It is important that the Musket Wars are not swept under the carpet with ‘revised’ or censored history and the period should definitely feature in the school curriculum whenever the study of New Zealand’s story 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 Paraparaumu and can also be bought online –