In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section New Zealand

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Māori Warfare and the Musket Wars
  • The New Zealand Wars
  • The Boer War

Military History New Zealand
Glyn Harper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0148


Military conflict has had a defining effect in New Zealand’s history and in shaping the nation. Before the arrival of European settlers to New Zealand in significant numbers, intertribal warfare between the Māori inhabitants was endemic and often brutal. The arrival of Europeans with advanced weaponry gave these tribal clashes an even deadlier edge as Māori eagerly sought access to these weapons, especially muskets. This initiated a period in New Zealand’s history known as the Musket Wars, which occurred in the first four decades of the 19th century. The end of the Musket Wars in 1839 did not usher in a period of lasting peace in New Zealand. From 1843 until 1872, a series of violent clashes occurred between some Māori tribes of the North Island and the British imperial and colonial settlers, often supported by Māori allies who were the traditional enemies of those tribes warring against the settlers. These were the New Zealand Wars, also referred to as the Māori Wars, the Anglo-Māori Wars, or the Land Wars. New Zealand’s next significant military conflict was not until 1899. With the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in October of that year, New Zealand eagerly offered volunteers. This would be the first time New Zealand troops fought in an overseas conflict, and it precipitated a trend that continues well into the 21st century. New Zealand, despite its small size and great distance from the sites of conflict, has chosen to become involved in the global wars of the last 110 years. Through its historical connections to Britain, but also aware of its own security needs, New Zealand took a full and active role in both world wars of the 20th century. Through its alliance with the United States in 1951, its remaining links with Britain, regional and national security concerns, and the desire to be seen as an active, engaged world citizen, New Zealand took an active part in the limited wars associated with the Cold War. This led to deployments to Malaya, Borneo, Korea, and Vietnam. Since the end of the Vietnam War, and with the ending of the US alliance, New Zealand has been involved in several peacekeeping operations, usually in association with the United Nations. New Zealand military personnel have been deployed to such diverse places as Bosnia, Somalia, East Timor, and the Solomons. As part of the war on terror, New Zealand sent military personnel to Afghanistan to the province of Bamiyan where they stayed for more than a decade. Despite its nation-shaping effect, New Zealand military history remains a much-neglected subject of research and study in the country’s universities.

General Overviews

As of the early 21st century, a scholarly, general overview of New Zealand’s military history is not yet available, and this is a serious omission from its military literature. King 1981 on New Zealanders at war is probably the closest, but its coverage is relatively light. King’s general history of New Zealand (King 2003) has some good, solid chapters on the New Zealand Wars and New Zealand’s military engagements of the 20th century. James Belich’s two-volume history also offers coverage of New Zealand’s military involvements (Belich 1996, Belich 2001). Two outstanding general reference works are the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History (McGibbon 2000) and the online Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand (Jock Phillips is the general editor). The coverage and use of various sources in McLean, et al. 2009 provides a comprehensive guide to New Zealand war writing. McGibbon 1990, Clarke 2005, and Rabel 2009 provide useful overviews focusing primarily on the 20th century.

  • Belich, James. Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders; From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Auckland, New Zealand: Allen Lane, 1996.

    This is the first volume of a highly regarded general history of New Zealand. It offers a scholarly treatment of both the Musket Wars and the New Zealand Wars of the 19th century.

  • Belich, James. Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000. Auckland, New Zealand: Allen Lane, 2001.

    New Zealand’s involvement in wars far away from its own shores and the impact that they had on the country is a major theme of Belich’s second volume of his general history.

  • Clarke, Stephen. “‘Hear Our Voices’: New Zealand in the Twentieth Century; A Small Power Ally.” In Entangling Alliances: Coalition Warfare in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, 194–221. Canberra: Australian History Military Publications, 2005.

    A survey of New Zealand’s military alliances in the 20th century and the struggle for the views of such a small nation to be heard.

  • King, Michael. New Zealanders at War. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann, 1981.

    A compression of New Zealand’s military history into a lavishly illustrated single volume containing over 400 images. Its coverage is impressive but relatively light in some areas.

  • King, Michael. The Penguin History of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin, 2003.

    Regarded by many historians and writers as the best general history of New Zealand produced in the last twenty years. The Musket Wars, New Zealand Wars, and the two world wars of the 20th century receive considerable coverage.

  • McGibbon, Ian. “The Australia–New Zealand Defence Relationships since 1901.” Revue International d’Histoire Militaire: Edition Australienne 72 (1990): 123–145.

    A survey of often problematic, sometimes divergent defense relations of two very close neighbors from 1901 to 1990.

  • McGibbon, Ian, ed. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    This book is an important general reference. It offers the most comprehensive guide to New Zealand’s military history yet published.

  • McLean, Gavin, and Ian McGibbon with Kynan Gentry, eds. The Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War. Rosedale, New Zealand: Penguin, 2009.

    A useful anthology of New Zealanders writing about their war experiences, this book covers the period from the New Zealand Wars of the 1840s up to the New Zealand deployments to Afghanistan. It uses the letters, diaries, and memoirs of those who were there to tell a compelling story. An overview of published works in New Zealand on war and a select bibliography are useful additions.

  • Rabel, Roberto. “New Zealand’s Wars.” In The New Oxford History of New Zealand. Edited by Giselle Byrnes, 245–267. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    This chapter is a scholarly overview of New Zealand’s war experience from 1843 until the mid-1980s. The chapter is marred somewhat by the tone it adopts toward its subject and military historians and by its determination to prove that war has nothing to do with national identity.

  • Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

    Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand is a comprehensive online guide to New Zealand history, culture, economy, demography, and society. A key theme is New Zealand’s military history, especially linking the war experiences to social change in New Zealand.

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