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No. 36 (September 1961)
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Maori war leaders usually made a speech before battle to excite the passions of the army. (Augustus Earle, 1832, Courtesy Turnbull Library)


A vast amount has been written on Maori warfare, and as the subject is so exciting, most New Zealanders know many tales about the old-time Maori warrior. In a book recently published by the Polynesian Society, Wellington, Dr A. P. Vayda, an American research scholar, has put together what the scientist really knows about ‘Maori Warfare’. The picture he presents is by no means less interesting than what was previously believed—indeed, the truth is usually more interesting than the products of bloodthirsty imagination—but it contains far fewer vast armies, epic battles and heroic self sacrifice; on the contrary it shows the Maori as very practical and cunning, and—most important of all—it shows that his love of war, and his love of life and his stomach were remarkably well balanced. Here follows a short summary of Dr Vayda's book.

Wars were a constant feature of Maori life; conflicts over land and insults of every description were causes of war. The defeated party in any way was under an obligation, if it wished to restore its mana, to avenge its humiliation, so war was never finished with. Even after European settlement wars continued; indeed they became greatly intensified through the introduction of muskets. The Maori people thus developed a very warlike spirit; also they developed to a high degree a method of warfare suitable to the couutry and to the weapons they possessed. Much has been written about the valour and chivalry of the Maori warrior, but we must be cautions not to believe too much of this, for the first aim of warfare is to win; it would have been impossible in the hard world of the ancient Maori to be like the chivalrous knights of romance and still survive.

Wooden spears used for thrusting and long and short clubs were the usual weapons of the Maori. The most commonly used type of spear was perfectly plain, some six to nine feet long, about an inch in diameter at the thickest part and tapering to a sharp point at the end. The long clubs

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(pouwhenua, tewhatewha and taiaha) averaged some five feet in length, were made of tough wood in one piece and had both a blade for striking and a sharp point for stabbing. Dexterity and quick footwork were required for their use.

In addition to this long weapon, the Maori warrior usually carried a short club or patu—made of wood, bone or stone) stuck in his belt. They had flat blades whose ends were ground to a sharp edge extending down the sides. A strip of dogskin was passed through a hole bored near the butt to hold the weapon. It had to be used with great speed to be successful; usually the thrust was aimed at temple, neck or ribs; as the enemy was falling, he was despatched with a blow of the blunt butt or heel of the club. The Maori rarely used throwing spears, did not know bows and arrows, and did not use shields.

Fortresses (pa) as distinct from open unfortified villages, were usually built upon some hills, spurs or craggy headlands, or upon islands in lakes, swamps, or off the coast. The defence works were massive, consisting of ramparts and trenches, behind which stockades were erected. The defenders were stationed behind the stockades, sometimes on fighting stages, from which they could more easily throw spears and stones down upon the enemy. People only stayed at the pas when there was danger; otherwise they lived at their fishing, hunting and cultivating grounds.

Maori war parties sometimes avoided arduous journeys on foot by using war canoes which were made from the stoutest and largest trunks available, i.e. from the native New Zealand kauri pine or trunks of totara. On the average the canoes accommodated seventy people and were some seventy feet long. They were manned by a double row of warriors who plied their paddles in time to the chants and gestures of one or two leaders standing amidships. The canoes carried war parties not only along the coast but also up and down the larger rivers and across lakes. Sometimes they were carried for miles from one waterway to another. Much travelling was done over foot tracks only a few inches wide, over which the war parties walked in single file. When a war party was large, it therefore extended a long way along the track and was very liable to be ambushed. When there was much danger, scouts were used.

Feint attacks, feint retreats and ambuscades were the mainstay of Maori war tactics before the introduction of muskets. Stratagems based on these tactics were often very ingenious. Open fighting was rare.


The common fighting unit was the hapu. Small wars were fought by one hapu, but often several related hapu or an entire tribe joined in a large force. The fighting strength of a hapu was rarely more than a few hundred; sometimes it lay below 100. A common name for a small war party was hokowhitu-a-Tu, meaning the 140 men of Tu. Another common number mentioned by Maori authorities is 340. Probably these were typical of the strength of many war parties.

The usual leaders of war parties were high born chiefs. They were more leaders than commanders; using words, gestures and exemplary action to urge the men onward. The great influence of the chief is shown by the fact that very often an attacking force would withdraw even on the verge of victory because a leader was lost or wounded. Generally, discipline was not developed as in a modern army; there was for instance no definite sanction against desertion.

In the absence of effective discipline and any channelling of command, fighting units had to be kept together physically as well as in spirit. The small forces, comprising only one hapu, derived some advantages therefore from close kinship and small size. If men from several hapu joined in a common war, each hapu did as it pleased and remained under its own chief. Often, they could not get together in battle and large forces were beaten by quite small ones.


Within the village, the question of peace or war was considered in the meeting house or on the marae. The assembled people, both men and women, devoted themselves to warlike speeches, songs and chants, thus working themselves up into a state of excitement and military fervour. The chief had to have his people's support from the start. There were a number of ceremonial ways of calling upon the aid of allies, such as offering a chief of another hapu a burnt cloak. A messenger would hand such a token over without a word, to be accepted or rejected; the claim for help was simply based on kinship. The use of such symbols rather than full explanations was at least partly prompted by the need for secrecy. If a hapu accepted the offering he was invited to a great feast always held before a war was started.

There was no specific military training except for the war dances and other demonstrations at the place of assembly. These demonstrations were scanned by expert old men or women for evidence of the warriors' fitness and enthusiasm. Mistakes in the movements were ill omens. Yet the young were educated for war. Boys were taught to wake at the slightest sound, to evade a falling blow. They used reeds and wooden rods to practise the spear thrusts. In adolescence real but padded weapons were substituted. Boys learned to wrestle, box, jump, run, throw stones, and climb. They also memorized ritual utterances used in war.

Surprise was an important element in Maori warfare. One could never know what enemy might turn up for an insult even several generations ago might make a hapu decide to take the warpath at any time together with what allies could be found. The Maori proverb said: ‘Birds

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Maori war dress varied a good deal as between one fighter and another. The chief shown here is wearing a closely-woven full-sized war cloak and an apron-like garment (maro) fastened with a war belt. The weapons are spear and patu (John Liddiard Nicholas, 1817, Courtesy Turnbull Library).

sleep sound and peacefully upon the tree branch, but man is ever wakeful and in dread of enemies.’


The most common form of surprise attack was the ambuscade. In addition, more elaborate devices were popular. It was regarded as quite in accord with the rules of war to massacre a party of unsuspecting guests or hosts at a village gathering, or to appear close to a village in a guise of wood carriers, cultivators and fishermen, thus beguiling the enemy into false security. Any stratagem was considered fair and the unwary got what they deserved. It was an understood thing that war could at any time break out. Any tribe that felt it had suffered an injury at the hands of another tribe, no matter how long before, might suddenly decide that the time for revenge had come. In these circumstances every village had its potential enemies; justification could always be found to attack it. Even if after a raid a peace was concluded, this was not permanently binding and hostilities could always recur unless the peace was sealed with a chiefly intermarriage, linking the former enemies in close kinship.

The favourite hour for attack was dawn. During the night the war party could approach unobserved and so make sure of surprising the enemy. Mist and rain were considered propitious. It was customary to kill any man who crossed the path of a war party. Scouts would be sent ahead of the main force to find out whether the enemy was expecting an attack; often, if the enemy was found prepared, the attack was postponed.

The Maori pa was normally protected by sentries. While they were on duty they sang watch songs and beat wooden gongs (pahau). If these gongs suddenly became silent that was a sign of trouble. In addition people were sometimes placed on lookout posts which commanded a wide view. When they saw an enemy approaching they could give warning. However, from the published accounts one gets the impression that the Maoris were not very systematic and careful about lookout duties, nor was there any grave punishment for a sleepy sentry.

If the people of a pa received intelligence of an approaching war party, they would often plan a counter-surprise by sending a detachment to sit in ambush and attack the enemy from flank or rear.


Before the introduction of the muskets, pitched battles were probably not very common. When they did occur, both parties would often break into a fierce war dance to excite the warriors and give them the courage to face death.

Single combat between the opposing chiefs was not uncommon. The result of such contests decided the battle for when the chief of a war party fell, the rest would usually retreat. In these single combats the champion warriors were motivated by a desire for fame, for stories about them were remembered after many generations. The rules of chivalry did not apply to such contests; the important thing was to see that the adversary was killed by whatever means were offering.

Cannibalism was the regular practice in Maori wars. Human flesh was an important part of the food supply of war parties. The bodies were cut up with obsidian flakes and then cooked on heated stones which were laid in pits in the ground. Sometimes, flesh was kept as a supply for the journey. Such meat would first be boned, then dried and packed in flax baskets; alternatively, it was potted in fat in gourds. Prisoners were sometimes taken alive, tied together with flax ropes and kept on the hoof for future slaughter and use.

It was really only in war that cannibalism was a regular occurrence. In peace, human flesh was rarely eaten, and only on very special occasions such as a famine or the visit of a very prominent visitors.

If the attackers failed to surprise an enemy, they often withdrew. It was only rarely that an attempt was made to take a pa by storm; this was very difficult and seldom successfully managed. Occasionally a pa might be taken by sapping, by

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pulling down stockades or by setting fire to them. At times, a siege was attempted. There is one siege on record that lasted for seven months. This was exceptional; it was very hard for Maori war parties to keep large forces together for any length of time, both because of the lack of any formal discipline and because of the difficulties of food supply. Apart from the little food that might be obtained from marauding, the only source of food was the human one within the stockades.

Mortality in Maori wars must have been considerable in spite of the small forces usually engaged. No quarter was given in battle so that life could only be saved by flight, but it was during flight that the pursuers killed most of their enemies. Not many war parties were completely exterminated but more than a few lost a very large percentage of their members. Most captives were killed and eaten; some—especially women and children—were enslaved. But often these also were eaten.

Some of the bones of the slain were saved, as further indignity, for making flutes, heads of bird spears, fish hooks, rings for captive parrots, pins and needles. Heads were sometimes thrown on a heap in a grisly ball game, occasionally they were impaled on the stockades of a pa. Heads of both friend or enemy, if belonging to great chiefs, were at times taken home and preserved.

The loot of war included anything of value found in the pa. People used to keep some of their heirlooms constantly in hiding places, so that no enemy might possess them; fossickers keep on finding such treasures even today.

Usually a war party hastily withdrew home after their quick victory; sometimes a succession of victories against a number of hapu would enable a group to take over the enemy's land. This would happen particularly where a piece of land was very desirable. The remnant of the earlier occupiers were then most probably driven to forest areas till then uncultivated, so that conquest played its part in inducing the defeated to settle and exploit the country.


Warfare, for all its horror, fulfilled some necessary functions in Maori society. As we have just seen, it was through wars that the tribes were spread out and occupied the large areas of land needed to provide sustenance. Furthermore, in the absence of regular forms of public justice in the relations between Maori communities, war was advantageous to redress wrongs and deter offenders. It discouraged thefts and murders of members of other hapu. War also strengthened the bonds of unity between the participating hapu.

Before the musket was introduced and Maori society became thorough disorganized through the early impact of European settlement, war was not allowed to interfere seriously with economic life, that is, the ensuring of the food supply. There was mostly a set season for warfare and this fell from November when the crops had been planted until early autumn when they had to be harvested. That period might be dedicated to the war-god Tu, but the rest of the year was usually under the tutelage of Rongo, the god of agriculture and the pleasures of peace. This deity, although lacking Tu's ferocity, was equally imperious, for without food and the hard work of procuring it, man would starve.