The following extract from The New Zealand Wars/Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa first appeared in E-Tangata
What historians and others have called the wars has changed over time. Why is this of interest? Do names really matter?
Well, they do because they convey key messages about the nature of
the wars, their causes and participants. For a long time, it was common
to refer to this series of conflicts as “the Māori Wars”.
That was consistent with the British tendency to name wars after
their enemies; for instance, the Boer War, the Zulu War, or the Indian
Mutiny. But there are some obvious problems with such a label. For a
start, it tends to sheet home responsibility for the wars to Māori,
rendering the other combatants invisible.
In the 1960s, some historians tried to correct this by adopting the
label “the Anglo–Māori Wars”. But this is also a problem, in that some
Māori fought on the “Anglo” (that is, British or Crown) side. And given
estimates that up to 40 per cent of the imperial troops who fought in
New Zealand were Irish, the “Anglo” part was inaccurate too. So there
are issues with any label that purports to accurately and succinctly
describe those involved in the wars.
As historians began to delve deeper into the causes of the wars, some
felt that the term “Land Wars” was more appropriate. It pointed the
finger at the settlers, whose greed for land was highlighted as the
fundamental factor behind the wars. This reflected a shifting
historiography that was beginning to reject the older assumptions about
the wars, in favour of a viewpoint more sympathetic towards Māori
But later historians argued that the wars were about much more than
just land — they were a conflict over the future of New Zealand as a
whole. In 1986, historian James Belich revived “the New Zealand Wars” — a
title employed by his predecessor James Cowan in the 1920s (and widely
used in Britain and New Zealand in the 1860s to describe the conflicts,
before it fell out of favour).
Cowan had been ahead of his time in favouring “the New Zealand Wars” —
using that name was part of his effort to convince a sceptical Pākehā
populace that their country had a history of its own worth remembering.
Although there have been a few attempts to challenge this since, the
term “the New Zealand Wars” has mostly been favoured since the 1980s. It
is a label that avoids mono-causal explanations for the wars and
simplistic descriptions of those involved.
Among other alternatives, “New Zealand Colonial Wars”, “New Zealand
Land Wars”, and even “New Zealand Civil Wars” are occasionally
Whether the wars meet the test for being described as civil is
debatable. Until the start of the conflicts many Māori communities were
largely self-governing, and not in practice part of the same political
entity as settlers.
Nor was there a single Māori political entity. Most Māori communities
continued to think and act mainly at a hapū level, with iwi assuming
more importance through the course of the nineteenth century. Pan-tribal
organisations, such as the King movement, could rarely claim to speak
for all Māori.
To be a true civil war, members of the same iwi or hapū would have
had to fight against one another. That did happen at various points
during the wars, such as when rival sections of Ngāti Porou went to war
with one another in 1865, but it was not a consistent feature of the
wars as a whole.
We are on safer ground in referring to them as the New Zealand
Wars/Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, the latter term familiar to Māori. They
were also said to have had another name for these devastating conflicts:
“Te Riri Pākehā” — “the white man’s anger”.