The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict

James Belich

James Belich’s book is a tour de force. In a brilliant new analysis, he demolishes the received wisdom of the course and outcome of the new Zealand Wars . . . explains how we came by the version and why it is all wrong, and substitutes his own interpretation. It is a vigorous and splendidly stylish contribution to our historiography. – the New Zealand Listener


This is not just a good book. It is a remarkable book. – Professor Keith Sinclair


First published in 1986, James Belich’s groundbreaking book and the television series based upon it transformed New Zealanders’ understanding of the ‘bitter and bloody struggles’ between Māori and Pākehā in the nineteenth century.


Revealing the enormous tactical and military skill of Māori, and the inability of the ‘Victorian interpretation of racial conflict’ to acknowledge those qualities, Belich’s account of the New Zealand Wars offered a very different picture from the one previously given in historical works. Māori, in Belich’s view, won the Northern War and stalemated the British in the Taranaki War of 1860–61 only to be defeated by 18,000 British troops in the Waikato War of 1863–64. The secret of effective Māori resistance was an innovative military system, the modern pā, a trench-and-bunker fortification of a sophistication not achieved in Europe until 1915. According to the author: ‘The degree of Maori success in all four major wars is still underestimated – even to the point where, in the case of one war, the wrong side is said to have won.’


This bestselling classic of New Zealand history is a must-read – and Belich’s larger argument about the impact of historical interpretation resonates today.



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James Belich was born in Wellington in 1956 and took his BA and MA degrees in history at Victoria University. He completed a doctorate at Oxford in 1981 while on a Rhodes Scholarship and has taught at the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington. Belich is the author of numerous books, including Making Peoples (1996), Paradise Reforged (2001) and Replenishing the Earth (2009), and is currently Beit Professor of Imperial and Commonwealth History at Oxford University and director of the Oxford Centre for Global History.


Best First Book of Prose, New Zealand Book Awards, 1987; Trevor Reese Memorial Prize for Commonwealth History, 1988


February 2015, 216 x 138 mm, 400 pages
Paperback, ISBN 978 1 86940 827 5, $39.99