Sunday, 5 April 2020

The New Zealand Wars 1820-72 & The Australian Frontier Wars 1788-1838

The current lock-down on movement in the UK due to COVID-19 has given those of us not feeling the ill effects of the virus and not required to be out and about plenty of time at home to indulge our hobby activities and illustrates what a perfect hobby historical wargaming is for occupying time no matter what the circumstances.

As well as focusing on bringing the next selection of 1:700th model ships to completion, I have had plenty of time to work my way through an extensive list of books I have on my reading list, with some titles very much out of my usual diet of historical reading but covering themes which will hopefully be very relevant later in the year.

I can't say that before dipping into these two titles I had much of an idea about the colonial warfare conducted in Australia and New Zealand in the 19th and early 20th Century between Imperial forces, settlers and the indigenous populations of these two countries, with the asymmetrical nature of the warfare perhaps not as eye-catching as the larger colonial conflicts in Africa or India, making these conflicts less likely to appear on a game table.

However with this kind of guerrilla type warfare, a modern aspect in many of today's conflicts, these wars have an echo that reverberates through the wars of today with muskets and early breech-loader rifles replaced with modern assault rifles and explosives and with the source of conflict due to land occupation and a clash of culture replaced with political and extremist doctrines motivating the violence of today, but in no less of a determined and bloody presentation.

Raffaele Ruggeri's artwork from the Osprey title, illustrating the look and weaponry used by the early Maori warriors

Osprey titles are for wargamers a traditional effective way of getting an introduction to a particular era and theatre of war and so picking up the New Zealand Wars seemed an obvious first read to get an understanding of the time period, scope and peculiarities of the forces and the tactics involved in a conflict; that spanned, in this case, the best part of the 19th century as British dominance at sea and its early industrialisation allowed a rapid expanse of what would become the largest global empire in history.

The time period that the New Zealand Wars covers means that, due to British industrialisation, weaponry developed rapidly in that period from the black powder Brown Bess muskets and smooth bore cannon that dominated the early part of the century to the rifled and breech loaded weaponry offering more rapid and accurate fire that came to dominate the latter period.

Likewise, with the change in technology the tactics for using the weaponry evolved on both sides with the British forces involved meeting a Maori opposition combining its fierce independent spirit with an early appreciation of the capabilities firearms offered them in their traditional forms of internecine warfare, which was later turned against the foreign invaders who came to enforce the Empress Queen's laws in the latest acquisition to the empire.

The look of the first British troops in the new colony of New Zealand, with a miltiaman, in shirtsleeves, raised from among the colonists, alongside an officer and private of the 58th Foot.

I hadn't realised the extent or rapidity that the Maori adopted firearms, with their early acquisition of the flood of muskets that were sold world wide by British traders involved in selling off army surplus at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Some of those muskets ended up on British Whalers and were used in trade with Maori Chieftains as the Europeans negotiated rights to operate on the northern shores of the North Island.

As the Europeans became more numerous and Whaling was supplemented with settlements and farming, the pressure on land assets and the needs to graze animals caused conflicts between the indigenous population and the new settlers, which in turn saw the first bloody clashes and the call by the settlers for British military units to police the new frontier.

I was surprised to see that New Zealand was at this point not a British Imperial colony, but as the awareness of other European powers looking to get a slice of the imperial land grab, principally France, who were also looking at Australia, influenced the decision to send troops to the island and make its incorporation official, something the Maori population had little say in.

Attack on the Gate Pa in 1864 in the invasion of Waikato, which saw a numerically superior British force defeated, losing 31 killed and 80 wounded. These Pa's were built to frustrate a British advance and often proved costly to attack head on. 

What followed was a series of vicious sometimes drawn out campaigns as the Maori understandably resisted this colonisation of their homeland and fought back using a combination of traditional weapons and tactics mixed with the black powder weaponry, all the while maintaining their traditional internecine rivalries until the realisation that the only way to resist the British and the settlers was to unite in their opposition.

As well as a growing unity in resistance, and the traditional raiding style of warfare, the Maori also refined their tactics with the use of the Pa or stockade fortification in a uniquely Maori response to British technology, with the traditional design for dealing with other Maori groups armed with wooden spears and clubs giving way to an early form of entrenched position with barriers designed to impede the approach of an enemy whilst allowing firearms to be used from the trenches dug behind them.

In the end a combination of the inability of pre-industrial tribal armies to maintain themselves in the field due to the need to disperse and tend crops or find supplies, and the increasing mobility and field skills of first the British and then locally raised New Zealand forces overcame Maori military resistance.

I use the word army loosely when referring to the Maori, as an army often describes a force in the low tens of thousands, if that, in many of the campaigns described and the Imperial forces opposed to them would also be considered small in a European context, but the campaigns and actions that characterised them make interesting reading and I came away with a huge respect for the Maori and an increased love of watching the All Blacks perform the Haka.

Graham Burke's article in WI 274 makes interesting reading forthose interested in getting into the New Zealand Wars

I'm not sure if I will ever get around to creating a New Zealand Wars Sharp Practice style force, but I would certainly be interested in playing the period, thus I would recommend, as well as this Osprey title, checking out the article that appeared in Wargames Ilustrated No.274 by Graham Burke.

In addition Giles Allison on his blog Tarleton's Quarter has some interesting posts looking at his collection of figures and the history.

The other title featured in my 'Down Under' reading is a book loaned to me by Chas another mate from the DWG, The Australian Frontier Wars 1788 - 1838 by John Connor that covers the British colonial occupation and campaigns against the Aboriginal people in that period.

This was also a theme that I had a minimal understanding of before reading the book and I came away with a much greater appreciation of not only the warfare that developed in this part of the world during British colonialisation but also the seemingly haphazard strategy, if you can call it that, that seems to typify the development of the British Empire throughout.

I say haphazard, because British interest in Australia started, following Captain James Cook's exploration and mapping of the wider Pacific area, as a Penal Colony for the transportation of so called convicts of the British legal system often for what most modern day people would consider the most minor offences.

Establishment of the first British settlements in Australia

A penal colony required troops to administer the population and from this early occupation developed local colonies of settlers based around the first areas occupied by the troops, principally in the Sydney and later Melbourne settlements.

As in New Zealand, settlers expansion into neighbouring tribal lands occupied by the indigenous population led to conflict and the involvement of the British military to police this new frontier.

I found it interesting comparing and contrasting the different reactions and responses between the two indigenous populations in New Zealand and Australia to the growing pressure on them and their traditional land rights and the gradual incursion by the invading colonial population.

Unlike the Maori, the Aboriginal peoples were not early adopters of British black powder weaponry, preferring to rely on their traditional close combat fire hardened wooden weapons of spear, light shield and the unique boomerang, not to forget the woomera, a wooden spear throwing device designed to extend the human arm whilst in the throwing and thus deliver the weapon at much greater velocity, calculated to be four times that of an arrow launched from a composite bow.

Also, unlike the Maori, the Aboriginal tribal groups often did not overcome their traditional rivalries in the face of a common enemy and unite to bring a greater force of numbers to further stretch the colonial defences and very often found one tribal group supporting the colonial forces in their efforts against a neighbouring tribe, as one attempted to gain an advantage over the other using the British to help in that effort.

Aboriginal warriors made good use out of a combination of their
traditional weapons, excellent bush skills and rapid movement to
frustrate the early military responses against them.

Connor takes a chapter at the start of his book looking at the weaponry used by both sides with the British relying on the traditional Brown Bess musket and after 1850 more often rifled weapons and discusses the two principal reasons outlined by historians as to why the Aborigines preferred not to use firearms certainly before 1850; centered around their culture based 'spear tradition' in their internecine conflicts, a very strong tradition and a combination of reliance on their superior bush tactics and field skills together with the unreliability of early muskets that may have favoured the Aboriginal weapons in the typical ambush situations generated in this frontier warfare.

As the obvious improvements in accuracy and overall firepower from post 1850 arms became obvious to Aboriginal warriors the reluctance to take up arms using firearms became less, however improvements in British and Colonial troops field skills and the use of horse borne soldiers to increase mobility against the fast moving tribal groups more than outweighed the Aboriginal response.

After taking the reader through the early settlement of the British in Australia and the weaponry and tactics used by the Aboriginal people and in the main the British army, the next five chapters takes a look at the individual campaigns that typified the fighting that would lead to the eventual subjugation of Australia under British colonial dominion.

Thus we begin with the expansion around Sydney in 1788 to 1791, and the later campaigns to occupy the nearby valleys of the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers from 1794 to 1816, this followed by further expansion inland to the Bathurst and Hunter Valley districts in 1822 to 1826.

The book then shifts its focus to Northern and Western Australia between the years 1824 to 1834 as growing expansion in British trade to the east led to the need for British harbours and trading centres leading to the creation of places such as Singapore and also causing further expansion in these Australian coastal regions as possible links in that trading network and the clash with the local people that occupied those areas.

Between 1826 to 1831 the book's focus shifts to Van Diemen's Land the original European name for the island of Tasmania and the struggle that developed there in what was a relatively small area of land but that required a great deal of expenditure in money and manpower to subdue the indigenous population to occupation.

The final chapter looks at the final campaign of 1838 in the Liverpool Plains and Port Phillip Districts close to Sydney and Melbourne respectively and in which would see the last deployment of British troops and policing responsibilities devolved on to the locally raised Mounted Police units that would see the gradual civilinisation of the wider country.

The characteristics of all the campaigns described see small bands of Aboriginal warriors attacking colonial farmsteaders and the violence that often followed between the opposing parties leading to destroyed crops and buildings, dead on both sides and calls on the nearby military garrison to penny parcel out its infantry companies to stop the conflict.

The early campaigns very often saw the tribesmen running rings around the redcoats unable to march quickly enough to catch up with a withdrawing warband and with Aborigines looking to avoid conflict with the musket armed soldiers and preferring to tackle the less well armed settlers.

Occasionally the two opposing forces would meet, when ambushes were set and laid, particularly when scouts from an opposing Aboriginal group aided the soldiers but in the main the early punitive campaigns exposed the British columns for being too slow and forced the soldiers to act as small garrisons in the face of the Aboriginal attacks.

The British soon recognised the mobility problem and first started to address the problem in the Hawkesbury and Nepean campaign by selecting the best men to put into the punitive columns, namely the grenadier and light company men who were more likely to stand up better to the needs of long rapid marches supported by supply dumps and supply wagons to support the movement.

As illustrated on the book's jacket, the campaign turning introduction of mounted police units seen here in action finally brought some control to the violence between settlers and Aboriginal warrior groups. 

However it was not until 1825 during the Bathurst campaign that the British administration finally grasped the nettle of mobility and the added cost of acquiring and paying for expensive horses when it raised and deployed the first mounted unit, namely the New South Wales Mounted Police modeled on the South African Cape Mounted Rifles.

These units of mounted police soon proved their value when combined with native guides to help in tracking and bringing to action groups of warriors and the later campaigns sees these kind of units start to predominate.

The book provided a really readable narrative of the campaigns and the fighting and touches on the wrongs and rights of the competing groups with the inevitable atrocities that occur in any human conflict for which no nation or group can stand up and claim itself innocent of. That said the typical British contradiction of the rule of law standing over all activities, civil and military, comes to the fore in this account, with the description of the fact that British military punitive expeditions against the Aboriginal peoples, who were the Queen's subjects, had to be legally authorised with military columns accompanied by a legally responsible judicial authority responsible for overseeing the administration of the Queen's peace and excesses committed against Aborigines by military commanders or civil populations could and were brought before the courts.

The fact was the British government never acknowledged the Aboriginal rights to their lands and therefore could not be at war with them during what was a civil conflict between two groups of subjects of the crown, even though for all intents and purposes a war did exist between individual tribal groups and the Crown for land rights.

This conflict provides lots of scenarios between two widely mismatched groups, and Connor describes early encounters between warriors, British soldiers and farmsteaders using muskets and how the tribesmen soon worked out the limitations of the musket in terms of reloading and, using that time, to close with their foes to use the spear to good effect. In addition the Aborigines were expert at laying ambushes that would provoke a pursuit often falling into a further more deadly ambush in its wake.

If you are interested in these two areas of British Colonial conflict, these two books are well worth getting as start points to understanding the fundamentals that characterised the military groups and the fighting and I thoroughly enjoyed the excursion into areas of military history that I had only a passing familiarity with previously.

Next up, Chinese Bat Flu lock-down will not interfere with the output here on JJ's as I will feature the three new British frigates to roll down the slip way and now fully rigged and fitted out for battle together with yet more book reviews and adventures in Vassal style board wargaming.


  1. Interesting reading indeed Johnathon,

    The Maori wars is a very interesting conflict, and possibly the best to Wargame, the size of the groups of warriors they put in the field against the English was very large in comparison to the Australian Aboriginal who predominantly lived in smaller family groups. I am not sure if this is correct but a actual treaty all of the Maori tribes was not ratified by QE until the eighties, up until then it had only been a ceasefire.


  2. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for your comment.
    The New Zealand History site records that, following various protests and petitions, Her Majesty agreed to a treaty with the Tainui People in 1995 wanting land restoration and a formal apology, which seems to have created a new situation; where formerly the monarch did not apologies for the actions of those who acted in the past in the name of the Crown it was agreed in treaty form and signed by the Queen personally rather than by the Governor-General as would have been the normal routine.

    So hopefully some restoration has been achieved recognising the wrongs of the past, although I see that a New Zealand MP was protesting in 2011, so perhaps not in all communities.

    As regards the wargaming aspect, I think the New Zealand Wars are a really interesting period to use with Sharp Practice and the conflict throws up some really interesting scenarios, so I'm not saying 'never' to creating a collection of figures, just 'not now'.