Australia's Tasman Wars
Colonial Australia and Conflict in New Zealand, 1800 - 1850
North Melbourne, VIC: Australian Scholarly Publications, 2023
Paperback 287pp RRP: $44.95
Reviewer: Robert Dixon, November 2023
This is a very detailed account of the many incidents of warfare which took place in New Zealand in the first half of the nineteenth century. As would be expected by anyone familiar with the history of New Zealand, much attention is given to the inter-tribal “Musket Wars” which took place in the period 1807 – 1845 and the “New Zealand Wars” which took place in the period 1843 – 1872. The early battles in the Musket Wars involved a small number of tribes attacking other tribes using muskets obtained from trading ships in return for flax, timber and smoked heads. This set off an inter-tribal arms race which eventually involved warfare using muskets between Māori tribes in both North and South islands. Indeed, the fighting extended as far as the Chatham Islands – these are in the Pacific some 800km east of the South Island! It is estimated that one-fifth of the Māori population died in the Musket Wars.
The New Zealand Wars (aka. Land Wars) were very different to the Musket Wars as they primarily involved fighting between Māori and British troops and their allies in the North Island. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between representatives of the United Kingdom and various Māori chiefs, bringing New Zealand into the British Empire. This resulted in a marked expansion in the number of settlers moving to New Zealand from Britain and Australia and this inevitably led to conflict over land ownership. The representatives of the Crown, seeing the conflict as a challenge to its authority, responded by summoning a number of British army regiments and also volunteers from Australia. Ultimately over 18,000 troops were involved and they were well equipped with rifles (actually muskets with a rifled barrel, accurate to 300 – 400 metres unlike a musket which was accurate to 60 – 80 metres) and artillery. These weapons were far superior to those used by the Māori. By 1872 the British regiments together with colonial troops and allied Māori tribes had supressed the tribes opposing them with the colonial government confiscating much of their opponent’s land.
Wilcox sets out to “narrate in roughly chronological order an Australian dimension and experience to collective violence in New Zealand during the first five decades of the nineteenth century…” and in this he succeeds. The author presents the conflict in New Zealand as a process of colonization by a recently colonized eastern-seaboard Australia, with Sydney serving as the staging point for the colonial expansion. The work is very well written and is a most welcome addition to the literature covering both colonial Australian history and the history of New Zealand in the period 1800 – 1850. As the author makes clear, the violence in New Zealand has not yet been integrated into accounts of Australian History.
Whilst appreciating the detailed accounts of battles and raids in the period 1800 – 1850, the reader might none-the-less be puzzled by two aspects of the book. First, the title Australia’s Tasman Wars (and note especially the apostrophe indicating the possessive case) is odd as it draws attention away from the fact that it was the British government and its representatives in Eastern Australia and New Zealand who were the key decision makers. Far better I think if the sub-title (Colonial Australia and Conflict in New Zealand, 1800 – 1850) had been used as the title for the book. Having said all that, I should make it clear that this is an issue to do with the title and not the contents of the book as the author is careful to point out who is literally ‘calling the shots’ in each engagement. Secondly, the New Zealand Wars involving conflict between Māori and British Regiments (amongst others) continued well past 1850 with much of the conflict taking place in the 1860s. Given this, I think the author may have devoted space to explaining the reason for ending in 1850 or alternatively added a chapter or two to bring the narrative up to the end of the New Zealand Wars. The book is 287 pages long and includes five pages of very useful maps, 36 pages of endnotes, a 40-page bibliography and a very detailed index of 16 pages. There is also a brief one-page guide to the pronunciation of Māori names.
Craig Wilcox is a historian who lives and writes in Sydney. His books include Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902 (2002), Red Coat Dreaming: How Colonial Australia Embraced the British Army (2009) and Badge Boot Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms (2017). He wrote the entry on the Anglo-Boer War for the Oxford Companion to Military History (2001) and the entry on Charles Bean for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2006).
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.