New Zealand Wars

New Zealand’s Wars: What Name to Give Them?

This is the post where History Geek wades into an academic debate slashing with the cold hard steel that is his personal opinion.  Apologies in advance for any casualties, I’m not too skilled with this weapon.  All jokes aside, this is a topic that if not addressed might become the proverbial elephant in the room so bear with me.

During the mid-nineteenth century New Zealand was rocked by a series of conflicts.  On one side were Māori tribes branded for varying reasons as “rebels” and on the other side were the European settlers, Colonial Government forces, loyalist Māori tribes (known as kūpapa) and last but not least, the might of the British Empire (these guys had lots of cannons and also might have been the baddies).

Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s :Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863]. Cassell's picturesque Australasia, edited by E. E. Morris. London, Cassell Co, 1890. Ref: PUBL-0046-4-39. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s :Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863]. Cassell’s picturesque Australasia, edited by E. E. Morris. London, Cassell Co, 1890. Ref: PUBL-0046-4-39. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

This year marks 150 years since one of the most notable campaigns of these wars, the British invasion of the Waikato.  This bloody episode from New Zealand’s past is brilliant fodder for historical commentary.  Often the focus of any discussion on this war is on who was right and who was wrong, who won and who lost and what strategies worked and didn’t work.  But personally I prefer to shirk around the politics of the war as much as possible and instead focus on what it was like to be one of the average schmucks caught up in it all. However there is one academic debate that is all but impossible to not address when discussing these wars, and that is what name to give them.

And oh what a selection of names to choose from.  Here is a list of different names I’ve seen used.

The Anglo-Maori Wars

The New Zealand Wars

The Māori Wars

The Land Wars

The Māori Land Wars

The New Zealand Land Wars

The New Zealand Civil War

The Colonial Wars

The Frontier Wars

It is a tricky situation when deciding which name to pick.  Some are loaded with perceived bias or can imply that you are loyal to a particular branch of academic thought about the wars.  For those like me who aren’t as interested in the academic study of the conflict but more the personal stories of those who were involved this presents a bit of a conundrum.  I almost wish there was a New Zealand history enthusiasts equivalent of the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter fame, which when put upon your head would umm and ahh a bit before spluttering out a decision for you.

Unfortunately though there is no sorting hat to absolve responsibility, so a choice has to be made.  Rather than sneak around the outside and avoid the debate altogether (which is what I’d probably prefer to do, so I can get straight on to talking about cool stuff), I thought I’d share this post about the process behind my decision.

To say that Britain fought many wars in the nineteenth century is a complete understatement, so I thought perhaps a good place to start might be to compare New Zealand’s wars with other conflicts fought during the same period and see what naming conventions have been used elsewhere.  My rational here is that I feel that at times it is easy to be New Zealand-centric and forget that our past is often part of a larger international story.

I started by digging up my copy of Byron Farwell’s “Queen Victoria’s Little Wars” published in 1972 and comparing the names of wars used then to what the accepted name is according to Wikipedia now in 2013.  It is worth noting that while Napoleon may have been vanquished and the Germans were mostly behaving themselves, the mid-late nineteenth century was far from a peaceful time.  The following is but a short list of some of the many conflicts that Britain was involved in during the reign of Queen Victoria.

‘LITTLE WARS’ Name in 1972 Wikipedia’s Default Name in 2013
First Afghan War First Anglo-Afghan War
Opium War Opium War or Anglo-Chinese Wars
First and Second Sikh War First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars
Crimean War Crimean War
Persian War Anglo-Persian War
Indian Mutiny Indian Rebellion
Abyssinian War British Expedition to Abyssinia
Zulu War Anglo-Zulu War
First and Second Anglo-Boer War First and Second Boer War

As you can see, there are many discrepancies between what would presumably be the accepted name in 1972 and what Wikipedia decrees as being the most commonly accepted or neutral term today.  This list of comparisons isn’t scientific or absolute, but I believe is indicative of the change in naming trends.

The most obvious trend is that until relatively recently British wars were conveniently named only after their opponents.  Conflicts such as the “Zulu War” became the “Anglo-Zulu War” and very rightly so, as it does take two to tango.  One notable exception which surprised me is a reversal of that naming trend when it comes to the Boer War.  I have no idea why a more neutral term isn’t favoured there, perhaps a reader can enlighten me?

Wars named after the principal commodity that was being fought for also seems to be less favoured.  The local equivalent would be “the Land Wars”, a name which was popular here for a while.

Wars named purely for the place they were fought at also seem to be uncommon, one notable exception being the Crimean War.  So it is interesting that the current popular term in New Zealand for our 19th century conflicts is “the New Zealand Wars”.

There seem to be four main options in the running for the name of New Zealand’s nineteenth century wars.  The Māori Wars, The Anglo-Maori Wars, The Land Wars and The New Zealand Wars.  Lets look at each option in detail:

The Māori Wars – Historically this was the most popular term but is rarely used today.  While rightly dropped by academics, journalists and the majority of history geeks its use does seem to persist in some circles.  It is the least neutral of the options and in my opinion the least appropriate.

The Land Wars – This was a popular option for a while but has fallen out of favour.  My own opinion is that it is too simplistic, and not in line with international naming trends.  There are few other conflicts from that period named after the commodity that was at stake, the Opium Wars being one exception but even there the name “Anglo-Chinese Wars” is gaining in popularity.  Also if every war fought over land was called “The Land Wars” then military history books would be pretty confusing.

The New Zealand Wars – The use of this name was popularized by James Belich in the twentieth century and in his “New Zealand Wars” documentary series (which I have to say was a landmark television series, and one that was influential in my decision to start a career in the media industry).  This is by far the most used option today.  This term is both neutral and popular, but in my opinion it does buck the trend internationally in that few conflicts from that period are named purely for the place they worth fought.

The Anglo-Maori Wars – While only briefly used it seems to me that if there is any one overarching trend when it comes to the current naming of conflicts of the mid-late nineteenth century then it is the use of the names of the two key adversaries (Usually Britain and whoever they were picking a fight with).  It is a good neutral way of introducing the conflict and the key participants to someone that may know little or nothing of it.

It is for this reason that if I was forced at musket-point to choose what I thought was the most appropriate name for New Zealand’s nineteenth century conflicts then I would say “Anglo-Maori Wars”.  I think that like “The New Zealand Wars” it is a neutral choice in terms of the participants, but that by following international naming trends it is also a neutral choice in terms of avoiding having to pick between New Zealand’s colonial, revisionists or post-revisionist historians.

That all said there are faults with that choice.  Like any war there is never two clear participants, but hundreds, thousands or even millions of individuals.  There was never any war with only two sides to it.  Some Māori fought on the side of the British, many Europeans remained neutral as individuals and a few even fought alongside the Māori.

I wanted to find a visual way to illustrate how the use of different names for New Zealand’s nineteenth century wars has changed over time.  The best I could come up with is Google’s Ngram viewer.  It uses Google’s massive collection of scanned books to map out word usage over time.

The figures are normalised to account for the number of books published in that year but there are some faults – text recognition software has its limitations and there are many anomalies.  However the concept is fantastic and when I punched in the names given to New Zealand’s Wars the results matched roughly what I expected to see.

Courtesy of Google's Ngram Viewer

There are some obvious anomalies such as “Land Wars” not necessarily always referring to New Zealand but you can clearly see “Maori Wars” first coming into use during the 1860s, continuing as the most popular name until it started going into decline with the popularization of “New Zealand Wars”.  You can also see the tiny blip when the name “Anglo-Maori Wars” was proposed but never caught on.

Here is another graph which illustrates the rise in popularity of the use of names which include both adversaries.  I’ve left the Anglo-Boer War off this chart as the amount written about it dwarfs the rest.

Courtesy of Google's Ngram Viewer

This clearly illustrates the late twentieth century rise in popularity of the hyphenated adversary strategy for naming conflicts.  A change that I presume was rightly instigated by historians who wanted to use more neutral terms that didn’t appear to attribute blame to either party.

Deciding what name to use for a conflict is always a delicate decision.  It can make a statement about your view of history, show allegiance to the views of a particular historian or at worst suggests that your view is outdated, nationalistic or biased.  To be as objective as possible I think it is important to choose names that don’t appear to favour a particular side of the conflict.  I also think it is healthy to follow international naming trends when they exist.

So I guess after all of this I have a decision to make.  While “the Anglo-Maori Wars” is in my opinion both neutral and the most in line with the current naming of other similar 19th century wars I am going to go with the current favourite, “the New Zealand Wars”.  It is neutral, and while it may involve a little more explaining to those who aren’t familiar with the war it is clearly the most widely used name today.

What do you reckon?  Have I made the right choice?  What name do you prefer?

Now all that serious stuff is sorted I’m proud to say that my usual raw personal “in the trenches” approach to history will be back starting with my next post.  I also look forward to sharing some stories from the New Zealand Wars later this year, especially during the 150th commemoration of some of the key battles of the Waikato Campaign.

One last note on naming conflicts, it is encouraging to see that if you type “Operation Iraqi Freedom” into Wikipedia that it automatically directs to the much more neutral “Iraq War”.

© Lemuel Lyes

I highly recommend these two websites for a fantastic introduction to the New Zealand Wars

18 replies »

  1. Your graphs are seriously cool & a wonderful way of showing how historical moods change over time – which the naming and re-naming of the Maori-pakeha struggles reflects. We continuously re-invent history, of course – and re-mythologise it. Belich is merely the latest of a succession of historians who have done it. I called my book refuting his thesis ‘Two Peoples, One Land: The New Zealand Wars’ – the latter because this name has become the way these wars are now popularly identified, and it was necessary to state what the book was about for the buying public. However, the ‘true historical’ name to call them is moot. Realistically they should, I think, be called ‘colonial wars’, because of the way they reflected the dynamic of one people intruding into another. This is what they were really all about – land was a symptom rather than a prime factor. But I am not sure it will gain much traction.

    As an aside, that Farwell book is great, isn’t it – I have a copy myself, much read and loved!

    • Completely agree, history is certainly continually re-invented and one way that is reflected is through the names given to conflicts.

      Yes I’m a fan of the Farwell book too! I bought it a couple of years ago via Amazon as I was specifically looking for a book that could act as an introduction to all the “little wars” the British fought in the nineteenth century. I was particularly keen to try and give my understanding of the New Zealand Wars an international context. I think some of the ideas in “Little Wars” are outdated but it is still a fantastic introduction and I’m yet to find a book that covers the same topic so thoroughly.

  2. I’m all for throwing personal opinions in the ring. It adds (sometimes much needed) spice to the proceedings. A pinch goes a long way for flavour. Anyway,this is mine. The change of perception in what is deemed appropriate and acceptable names – and the changes you demonstrate since the early 1970s – likely have something to do with the fact that it took New Zealand an inordinately long time to develop its own identity away from Britain. Of course an obvious example in this, is that it took until the early 1970s for us to drop “God Save the Queen” and adopt our very own anthem (even then, I think if someone hadn’t punk’d it wouldn’t have happened for some time). I think once that change in attitude occurred it was a rush to not have a British departure point and orientation on everything – and that includes historical nomenclature.

    • Very interesting perspective. It does seem that by the 1970’s a change from “Maori Wars” was well overdue and perhaps that combined with the move away from a British-centric view of our colonial past is why “Anglo-Maori Wars” never gained traction and instead “New Zealand Wars” emerged as the favourite.

  3. In my hobby of wargaming, I converse with military history enthusiasts around the world. Interestingly, they all use the term “Maori Wars”. I therefore contend that the term “New Zealand Wars” is more commonly used domestically and maybe in international academia, but the term “Maori Wars” is the most common usage outside New Zealand.

    “Maori Wars” is consistent with common on usage names such as “Zulu Wars”, “Boer War”, “Sikh Wars”, “Moro War”, “Rif War”, “Plains Indian Wars” etc. I think to people who are unaware of our history, it gives an impression (albeit very simplistic) of who fought who, whereas New Zealand Wars is quite ambiguous.

    “Anglo-Maori Wars” is quite interesting. It fits in with non-British conflicts such as the “Austro-Prussian War” and the “Franco-Prussian War”.

    I personally prefer “New Zealand Wars”, but in my communications with my fellow wargaming fraternity, it is a bit of an uphill battle. However, one success was that the British company Empress Miniatures has now renamed their range of lead figures from the “Maori Wars Range” to the “New Zealand Wars range”.

    Names of wars can be quite interesting. There are miscellaneous names such as “Maximillian’s Mexico Adventure” (cool!) or “The War of 1812” or the “Great Pacific War”.

    And then there are the puzzles. What did they call the “Seven Years War” before it was finished?! And whoever came up with the name of “The War of Jenkin’s Ear”?!

    • That is very interesting to hear about how the wargaming community and history enthusiasts overseas refer to the conflict. I do strike that some problem myself occasionally in the field of collecting, in fact even here in New Zealand on Trade Me a search for “Maori Wars” will usually bring up more auctions in the antique section than “New Zealand Wars”. On Ebay it is even more true.

      I presume that the name ‘New Zealand Wars’ will slowly catch on internationally. It is interesting that you say Empress Minatures has renamed their range from the conflict, I imagine it is steps like that which will popularize the name change outside of academic and domestic circles.

    • ‘Jenkins’ Ear’ was an outrageous war – as ridiculous as its name. I don’t know who attributed that name, but I believe it referred to the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins of the sloop Rebecca, whose vessel was intercepted by a Spanish coast-guard sloop off Havana in 1731. During the altercation that followed, the Spanish captain managed to slice off Jenkins’ ear. A stupid incident which Jenkins reported in 1738 and which provided pretext (though not any real cause) for Britain to declare war on Spain the following year.

      Then there was the ‘Girls War’ in the Bay of Islands in the 1830s – a British name that conflated causes and trivialised what was actually quite a serious dispute within Ngapuhi, intensified by the trading relationship with the pakeha.

      The one that always intrigues me is the First World War, first used in a somewhat sarcastic sense to rebut H. G. Wells’ notion that the ‘Great War’ had been the ‘war to end all wars’. It was still called the ‘Great War’ more often than not into the 1920s and 1930s and it was not until after 1939-45 that the name ‘First’ became at all apt and widespread. An example, I think, of social application of a name rather than any particular decision being made.

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