|There was nothing settling about being settled. Roughly 700 years ago, led by their navigationally gifted leader, Kupe, the Hawaikis are the first known humans to make landfall in Northland, New Zealand. Because the Māori share linguistic and cultural similarities to the peoples of the South Pacific Ocean’s Polynesian islands, it is likely Kupe crossed more than 2,000 miles in his waka hourua (voyaging canoe) using nothing but the stars and ocean currents to guide him. Over the next few hundred years, more vessels filled with Polynesians followed in what is believed to have been a planned migration as many waka hourua made return journeys to their home islands. The seven distinct origins to which many of today’s surviving Māori can trace their roots were called Tainui, Te Arawa, Mātaatua, Kurahaupō, Tokomaru, Aotea and Tākitimu.
In time, the population fanned out across the two main landmasses that, at 110,000 square miles, cover one-thirtieth the size of Australia to the north, where Dutch explorers first landed in 1606. Though it’s a certainty that the Māori would have just as well been left to lord over the home to which they’d staked claim more than 300 years earlier, “settlers” did indeed arrive not too long after. In December 1642, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman anchored his ships Heemskerck and Zeehaen at the northern end of the South Island in Golden Bay which he named Murderers’ Bay before weighing anchor fleeing an attack by the Māori. That didn’t prevent him from sketching the islands to which the Dutch staked claim naming it Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland.
With the dispatching of the Dutch, the Māori managed to maintain a peace of sorts for the next 100 years. Always territorial, this peace was never easy for a people who by 1500 were building pā, or fortified villages, with strategically constructed stockades and trenches to ward off would-be intruders. While hard to fathom, the years leading up to that point saw local game so hunted it was depleted to the point of extinction. Certain parts of the island were also more horticulturally productive than others which made them an asset that tribes were willing to die for.
For the Māori, bigger threats loomed on the horizon. The year 1768 was to prove pivotal in the most tragic way. The British landed two months prior to the French. It wasn’t so much the immediate threat of being thrown off their land but rather the wares the Europeans were eager to trade which, in the end, threw off the factious, but tenable, balance of power between tribes.
It comes down to one of Māori history’s greatest ironies — the first generation of muskets peddled by the newcomers were unreliable and slow to reload. As such, in 1807, trained warriors from one tribe were able to overwhelm their musket-armed rivals with their traditional long and short clubs. The revenge sought in return marked the onset of the Musket Wars, which persisted for 30 years and are estimated to have taken 20,000 lives, a number that exceeds the 18,000 New Zealanders who lost their lives in World War I. The only difference was that the population during the Musket Wars was perhaps 100,000 compared to more than one million when the Great War broke out.