Strategies employed by Maori and Pakeha during the Taranaki Wars

Fighting in the Taranaki Wars broke out at, the “L shaped” Te Kohia pa, on the 17th March 1860[i].

The fighting at Kohia exemplified how Maori planned to confront the Pakeha, ensuring they were unable to make the most of their weaponry and technology which was supposedly superior to that of the Maori.

Maori forces were minimal, initially consisting of approximately 300 men from the Te Atiawa tribe. Support from other tribes (Taranaki, Ngati Ruanui and Waikato Kingites) resulted in force of round about 1000. Though normally only about 100 men were fighting at a time[ii].

The Pakeha forces were significantly stronger and larger than Maori, at least they appeared so. They consisted of about 800 soldiers all armed with artillery. By 1861, the Pakeha has almost 3,500 men combat-ready, with most playing an active role in battle.[iii]

The Pakeha were too unaware of Maori “fighting and fortification” skills and underestimated them to a dangerous degree.

Throughout the wars the Maori consistently fought both offensively and defensively through their raids on Pakeha and “purpose-built pa” style warfare. The British were unprepared for the casualties they suffered and the unexpected length and duration of the war. Support for war from Pakeha settlers disintegrated as fighting went on.

In order to deter the more and more reluctant support from settlers, the British used propaganda to disguise the fact they were not succeeding as hoped in the War. Numbers in Maori forces were exaggerated and “paper victories” were created, recordings which claimed triumph over Maori in combat, when these events or details were simply fabricated to keep up appearances.


“Depiction of the Battle of Waireka. Illustrating the superior combat tactics of the Maori.”[iv]

This was exemplified by the first major encounter between the two forces at Waireka on the 21st March 1860. Pakeha claimed to kill and wound over 400 Maori with only suffering around 12 casualties (injured) themselves[v]. Historian James Belich called this “a Great British success myth” which has been revealed as such through “settlers like Arthur Atkinson”[vi].

The Maori continued to outsmart Pakeha with pa warfare, misleading them into believing their main forces were in one area while really being in another; allowing them to overwhelm the British despite their small numbers. The Pakeha forces were tricked into thinking the pa’s “looked harmless”.

General Pratt, in his position of leader of the Pakeha combat force, decided upon a new strategy when he did not gain the victories he needed. Sap warfare – like longer stretched trenches – along the Waitara River, with redoubts covering the sap to provide cover for Pakeha.


General Thomas Simson Pratt: The man who introduced sap warfare to the Pakeha in the Taranaki Wars.”[vii]

A truce was reached on the 18th March 1861, unsigned by Kingi. The terms of which stated that Maori would give up any settler land and property they had seized, submit to the Queen’s rule and hand over any of their own who had killed unarmed civilians. The Crown also agreed to investigate the issue of the ownership of Waitara.

On the 12th March 1863 – 300 British soldiers reclaimed the Tataraimaka block from the Maori occupying it. The Maori saw this as renewing warfare. Governor Grey wanted to resolve conflict in Taranaki and was going to give back Waitara to the Maori. But when nine British soldiers were killed in ambush on 4th May, conflict and combat in Taranaki was renewed.


By Michael Chaplin


[ii] Statistics on Maori forces from “Crisis in Race Relations: Authority, Land and War New Zealand 1853-65” by Graham Langton

[iii] Statistics on Pakeha forces from “Crisis in Race Relations: Authority, Land and War New Zealand 1853-65” by Graham Langton

[iv] ‘Storming the Waireka Pah’, Taranaki. Artists Impression, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand

[v] Statistics which Pakeha claimed from “The New Zealand Wars” Documentary Notes, 1998, James Belich, National Library of New Zealand

[vi] Historian James Belich’s view on Waireka from “The New Zealand Wars” Documentary Notes, 1998, James Belich, National Library of New Zealand

[vii] Thomas Simson Pratt photograph taken by Batchelder & O’Neill c.1864