‘What’s in a Name?’

Naming the ‘New Zealand Wars’

FitzRoy's Pole - or Te Pou Tuataki to Māori - erected just north of New Plymouth in 1847, to signify that place beyond which land sales would not be permitted to proceed.

The ‘New Zealand Wars’ are known by various names.

In the 1980s or so, the Anglo-Māori Wars emerged.  Professor Alan Ward first used this name in an important essay which raised questions as to causes of the wars. The name won general acceptance, especially among historians like Professor Keith Sinclair who had earlier preferred the now rarely-used Māori Wars.

This new name (and Professor Ward) emphasised that the wars were in reality a conflict between New Zealand’s two peoples, Māori and new settlers from Britain. Another name, the Colonial New Zealand Wars is also used, especially by Tim Ryan and Bill Parham in the title of their well illustrated book.

Some historians have since suggested the New Zealand Civil Wars. This name suggests that the wars were a civil war (much in the American sense) fought between Māori and new European settlers/the Crown.

The notion of a ‘New Zealand Civil War’ hasn’t really taken off in New Zealand. Some historians like J G A Pocock have argued that Māori society was too fragmented and did not represent a ‘single polity.’ Hence, they did not represent a polity implied in the term ‘civil wars’ ie one polity at war with another. Rather, small autonomous and essentially divided tribes waged war against the singular Crown.

FitzRoy Pole today.

So the argument goes; and fair enough, but it isn’t entirely convincing because Māori people, if not united ‘on the ground’, did see themselves as representing a united interest – defence of land and te tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty), against the Crown, hence their preference for the Land Wars. This was made very clear in 1858 when leading chiefs attended Potatau’s inauguration as first Māori King at Rangiriri by symbolically laying at his feet their lands, mountains and other geographic features marked by specific pou (boundary markers).

Also, the comparison often made between New Zealand’s wars and the American Civil War isn’t really adequate – it is probably better to compare our wars to those waged against Native American peoples up to the 1890s where issues of land and indigineity were at stake.

And, on the question of ‘civil wars’, some historians have recently suggested that the New Zealand Wars were really civil wars fought between a number of Māori tribes, with settlers and the Crown relegated to the role of bystanders. It is true that the later wars of the 1860s were dominated by significant kupapa (friendly) Māori involvement, fighting against ‘rebellious’ Māori. But the Crown’s interests was always at the core of the otherwise significant involvement of kupapa Māori.

Te Wheoro Rd, which leads to the Rangiriri Battlesite. Wiremu Te Wheoro was Māori MP for Western Māori after the wars.

Similarly, the British Army used few Māori to wage their campaigns. And, it was the British Army that ‘won’ the wars for the Crown, without the significant help of Māori. Therefore, it seems disingenuous to suggest that the New Zealand wars were really civil wars fought between Māori tribes.

So, what should we call these wars? Do names really matter? What’s in a name..?

Yes, names do matter. Putting ‘names to history’ is an important process. The overwhelming favourite name used these days is undoubtedly the New Zealand Wars. This old name has been much popularised by Professor James Belich who today is the most prominent historian of these wars. Belich used the term in the title of his important 1985 book as had James Cowan much earlier, when in 1922 he published his two volume narrative of the wars ‘fought on the fringes of empire.’

Streets named after colonial officials - Rolleston Street, in KihiKihi, named after Native Secretary and Native Minister William Rolleston.

In the end, chosen names come down to decisions made about causes, participants, geography, outcomes and time periods, either separately or all rolled in together. Chosen names reflect (knowingly or not) what we think about such issues, and how we prioritize them in order to ‘explain’ the wars.

This website is called the New Zealand Wars of course, which offers some immediate name recognition. Our alternative website name is Ngā Pākanga Whenua O Mua, which is a popular Māori name for the wars, meaning ‘the wars fought over the land many years ago’.

Remains of the Omata Stockade, just south of New Plymouth.

Our preferred name therefore is for the Land Wars, given that (in our view) the wars happened because of a contest for land; and, for Māori, defending land was all about defending historic landscapes and communities as well as defending sovereignty and te tino rangatiratanga which were integral to the land.

To read Danny’s full version of this essay, click here # Full Historiography Essay.  Reference is : Danny Keenan, Wars Without End, The Land Wars in Nineteenth Century New Zealand,  Penguin Books, Revised Edition, September 2009, pp. 29-43. To see a map of the fields of engagement that together comprised the ‘New Zealand Wars’, click here – # Map of Conflicts.


Based on a conference paper presented by Danny to the New Zealand Historical Association Conference, Massey University, 1997. The paper was thereafter written up as a journal article and submitted to the Journal of New Zealand Studies in 2001. The paper was published in 2002 as – ‘NZ Wars€™ or €˜Land Wars? The Case for Taranaki 1860-61’€™ in the Journal of New Zealand Studies, October 2002, pp.99-107. 

When Danny’s book Wars Without End was published in 2009, the book’s Introduction was based on the earlier conference paper and on the JNZS journal article. 

Further reading: Keith Sinclair, Origins of the Māori Wars, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1957; James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars and the Pioneering Period, Vols I & II, Government Printer, Wellington, NZ, 1922; James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Penguin Books, Auckland NZ, 1988 (first published 1985); Tim Ryan and Bill Parham, The Colonial New Zealand Wars, Grantham House, Wellington NZ (1986, reprinted with new material 2003); Edmund Bohan, Climates of War, New Zealand in Conflict 1859-69, Hazard Press, Christchurch NZ, 2005.