Guns of Aotearoa

Summary: My time in New Zealand introduced me to a young country with an intensely violent history. Here is a small portion of that history, with interesting trivia involving whaling to obscure American firearms to native uprisings to the geopolitics of World War I.

As fortune would have it, I was able to secure admission to a postgraduate program with a full scholarship to boot. In the middle of 2012, I arrived in an earthquake ravaged city at the edge of the world. I spent three years working on writing novels, reading up on local history, and learning kapa haka. So, what's that last one? Look up the Maori of New Zealand. If you are too lazy, it is a performance based upon traditional battle songs and challenges, as made famous by the All Blacks rugby team.

The haka performed by the All Blacks was one used to challenge a tribe on the South Island. As such, it is disrespectful for anyone to perform that haka on the South Island without clearing it first with the local iwi (tribe). The All Blacks get a free pass due to their celebrity status.

My own readings of New Zealand's history depicted a country founded by whaling, guns, and prostitution, far darker than the tourism agencies would lead you to believe. New Zealand's history is a blood-stained slog of total war, violent uprisings, and savage combat far beyond the PG-rated violence of a Peter Jackson fantasy film.

Two centuries ago, the decline of whale populations in the Atlantic due to hunting forced ships to venture further out into the South Pacific seeking prey. New Zealand was a strategic location not just for economic reasons, but the fact it could support a larger population. The fact whalers had ready access to both the Antartic and South Pacific was the icing on the cake. The British explorer Captain Cook arrived in 1775, but prior to that the Maori had no contacts with the Europeans, or pakeha as they were called. The first Europeans here were sailors, some of whom joined local Maori tribes.

Many of the ship captains made a pragmatic deal with the locals. Drunken sailors had often not seen women for years, so local women would prostitute themselves in exchange for firearms. This exchange lead to a period called the Musket Wars, where the Maori tribes with firearms defeated those without. British, French, American, and other nationalities set up whaling outposts along the coastines.

Fun fact: There's an obscure American firearm called the Collier flintlock revolver, made by New England inventor Elisha Collier. It's allegedly what later inspired the more successful and famous Colt revolver. The flintlock system used by Collier was not as reliable as the percussion cap system Colt used, and as such, the Collier had the charming habit of exploding in the user's face and removing fingers. Nonetheless, the British manufactured it for a brief period, and several sailors used it. A handful of them where traded to local Maori, where the ability to fire several shots made it a valuable asset in the Musket Wars. You can still find a few in NZ museums in Auckland and Dunedin.

The Musket Wars eventually saw the rise of the United Tribes of New Zealand, a formalized confederation of largely North Island tribes. They even issued their own Declaration of Independance to warn off any colonial powers that would try to divide them. Following this, the local fear of the French moving in was enough to get them to sign the Treaty of Waitangi with the British, where the Maori would become British citizens in exchange for the British Crown's protection. The Maori would be allowed to retain their traditional lands in theory, but of course, the differences regarding the word 'sovereignty' between the English and Maori versions of the Treaty being the most controversial bit.

The New Zealand land wars would follow in the coming decades. A number of rebellions of varying degrees of organization and success (or lack therefore of) broke out, but they did not expel the British. What they did do is often achieve the strategic gains of the Maori faction that would initiate them, even without military victory.

One of the key Maori advantages to this was the pa, or fortified village, which was taken to new heights by Hone Heke's ally Kowhiti doing the Flagstaff Wars. He designed pas as devoted fortifications instead of defended settlements. His designs presaged World War I style trenches to allow overlapping fields of fire, the ability to absorb artillery without a thought, had ample supply storage, and could be easily constructed in a short time. The ability of Maori rebels to construct such structures on short notice was a key factor in their success.

Many of the weapons used in the Maori land wars were the same models and brands used in the American Civil War. American, British, and European gunsmiths mass produced firearms for the war, but after it ended, they were left with a lot of cheap military surplus. As such, it was cheap for settlers, soldiers, and rebels to get ahold of such weapons. In particular, the Beaumont Adams revolver was common amongst both pakeha and rebels. The colonial Forest Rangers, with the Prussian adventurer Gustavus von Tempsky, were armed with a breech-loading carbine, a Colt Navy revolver, and a Bowie knife. On the Maori rebel side, the rebel Te Kooti used a double action pinfire revolver, one of the first to use metallic cartridges. A fictionalized version of Te Kooti's war is depicted in the New Zealand film Utu.

At the start of the twentieth century, New Zealand found itself dragged into World War I as part of the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs). The most infamous battle involving the ANZACs was Gallipoli, a failed amphibious invasion against the Ottoman Turks that turned into a brutal stalemate. The ANZACs were dug in near the coast and protected by British warships, but the Turks' artillery prevented them from advancing beyond the beach.

While the battle would be forever memorialized across Australia and New Zealand, Gallipoli arguably had the indirect effect of bringing democracy to Turkey. A young Turkish officer, Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, saw the callousness in which the Ottomans treated their own troops, and instead declared a secular republic in Ankara that endures to the present. Ataturk modernized Turkey, gave women the right to vote, and later won the Nobel Prize. All throughout, he greatly respected his former enemies from the war, as "foe turns to friend" in the aftermath of World War I.

That's just a small sample of New Zealand's overlooked grim and morbid history. While New Zealand tops the chart of various quality of life indices, a mere century and a half ago saw the country plunged into periodic revolutions and civil war. Before that, the introduction of European technology and trade led directly to the savage wars that would not stop for a half century. New Zealand's still a young country, so its full history is yet to be written. Just because a country is small and quiet now does not mean it has always been so. Hopefully it remains that way.