Before European settlement of New Zealand, Māori warriors fought a series of small-scale skirmishes between the various iwi (tribes) of Aotearoa. Following the arrival of Europeans, there was conflict over land and sovereignty which led to a series of battle campaigns between British and colonial troops and their Māori allies. These lasted over the period between 1843 and 1881 which today is referred to as the New Zealand Wars.
Māori used fortifications such as pa systems for shelter during fighting, and were difficult to overcome when these were occupied. Māori weapons consisted of striking and thrusting clubs ranging in length from long fighting sticks – the taiaha and tewhatewha – to the short-bladed patu and mere.
The instruments of war changed with European contact and with them the scale of slaughter. Axes, muskets (ngutu parera) and shotguns (tupara) brought a new and lethal dimension to armed conflict, and introduced a capacity to kill more efficiently and from greater distance.
Demand for land increased as more settlers arrived. On 6 February 1840 at Waitangi, tribal chiefs and representatives of the British Crown signed a treaty (Treaty of Waitangi) that gave sovereignty to the crown but promised to protect the Māori and their land, and to give them equal citizenship.
The new settlers viewed land as an economic base, whilst for Māori their connection to the land was important as the centre of their tribal traditions. The majority of Europeans were less inclined to learn the Māori language, or understand the Māori culture and way of life. Misunderstandings, racial antagonism and economic competition aggravated the land issues and led to organised hostilities.
The key battles were fought in the far north, Whanganui, Taranaki and the Waikato. The issue of land ownership was one that caused the most disagreement – an issue that was to rage for the next 150 years.