New Zealand Wars
The Maori
The Moriori
New Zealand today
More topics

The New Zealand store - books, music ...

Documentary DVDs

View Maori culture videos
Site map
About me
New Zealand in France - more ...
Britannica iGuide
New Zealand in History
The Musket Wars
Brief background

With the arrival of European whaling and trading ships in the Bay of Islands, the northern tribes of Ngapuhi and their rivals the Ngati Whatua were able to trade from about 1814 on, using flax, potatoes, fruit and pigs to obtain muskets. This led to deadly wars between the two neighbouring enemy tribes. Soon other tribes saw the necessity of obtaining muskets, and it was not long before all northern tribes were armed.

Between 1820 and 1835 the inter tribal "musket wars" led to a large scale redistribution of the Māori population.

McDonald, James Ingram, 1865-1935 : Alarm in a Māori pa 1906

Alarm in a Maori pa
Left : A battle scene inside a fortified hilltop pa, with trumpets and conch shells being blown and weapons wielded. In the background on the hilltop to the left, a gong is being beaten. Carved figures are prominent around the palisade in the right foreground.

Several whare and pataka can be seen inside the pa, and groups of people are rushing about and gesturing towards the water below in the distance.

click here to enlarge this image (47k).

Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mätauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.


Hongi Hika : 1772 - 1828
Chief of the Nga Puhi tribe

Hongi Hika, uncle of Hone Heke, was quite probably the most famous of Māori warriors. He was from the Ngapuhi tribe, which traced their lineage from an ancestor "Puhi-Moana-Ariki", leading to the tribal name of Ngapuhi Hongi Hika was master of the north and west areas to the Bay of Islands. His date of birth is estimated at 1772, as he had told French explorers that he was born in the same year that Marion du Fresne was killed

"Hongi" means "smell", and is also a derivative of the word "salute", representing the Māori greeting of the pressing of noses. "Hika" represents "ika", meaning "fish" in english. [1]

Thomas Kendall, British missionary, established a firm and lasting friendship with Hongi Hika. As Hongi had supposedly become a converted Christian, Kendall invited him to England, with the aim of producing a Māori language bible with Hongi's assistance. Hongi was hoping to obtain double barrelled guns and muskets for his inter-tribal wars, in particular to avenge defeats at the hands of the Ngati Whatua.

Hongi therefore undertook the long journey in 1820. It was not the first time that the Māori had traveled overseas. Since the arrival of European ships many Māori had, in particular, visited Australia. Hongi's tattooed and imposing appearance caused a stir in England wherever he went. King George IV received Hongi, and donated him with a case filled with gifts in recognition of Hongi's help in introducing Christianity to the Māori people.

top of page

However, on the route back to New Zealand Hongi stopped off in Sydney (around mid 1821), and promptly exchanged King George's gifts for muskets and ammunition.

On arrival back in New Zealand with his "converted" gifts, Hongi was able to lead a number of successful raids against rival tribes, and in particular avenge previous grievances against the Ngati Whatua. Hongi continued his war party along the east coast and then into central North Island.

In 1821 he attacked the Ngati Maru tribe from the Thames area. He continued by attacking the Ngati Paoa tribe from Auckland. A particularly violent battle was fought in 1822, when Hongi attacked the Waikato tribe, headed by Te Wherowhero, who was to be the future Māori King. The following year, Hongi attacked the Arawa tribe in Rotorua, and in the battle of Te Ika-a-ranga-nui in 1825 he achieved "utu" (revenge) over his defeat in 1807 at the hands of the Ngati Whatua from the Kaipara and Tamaki areas.

The many desperate tribes without the much-needed muskets to defend themselves soon found a way of obtaining these weapons. The European traders were more than willing to trade muskets for embalmed tattooed heads.

In war, the Māori custom was to take the heads of their victims, embalm and preserve them, and then present the heads to the family of the killed warrior. Because of the lucrative trade in dried heads, with muskets as the end goal, Māori warriors began leading skirmishes against other tribes uniquely to gain heads for ammunition. Muskets were always available, but heads began to run short, and soon the Māori found himself unable to continue supplying dried heads as previously.

News of the head for musket trade reached Britain, and caused an outcry. As New Zealand was not yet a colony the British were unable to do much to stop this trade. They were, however, able to pass a law against the trading of heads to Australia in 1831, and after this date head trading dwindled rapidly.

Hongi Hika died in 1828, following a bullet wound incurred during a battle in the Hokianga area.

[1] The source used concerning the origin of the name Hongi Hika may not be totally exact.

top of page
Related Links
 The New Zealand Wars - Official site
The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Extensive database of New Zealand biographies
Te Rauparaha biography


 Please be aware that this website is a personal homepage. It would therefore be wise to cross check information which I have presented here. A list of many official New Zealand history sites may be found within my Links section.