New Zealand flax - red flowers in the foreground, and the fibrous leaves behind. Image: Mike Pole.
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Flax/Harakeke – New Zealand’s Resource Curse

The Musket Wars?

Shortly after Europeans began operating in Aotearoa-New Zealand (c. 1807-1837), a series of conflicts among the indigenous Maori dramatically escalated. I had a vague knowledge that the fighting had a devastating impact, but only when I read Chris Trotter’s (2007) ‘No Left Turn’, did the scale sink in. Of that fighting, he wrote:

A one-in-five fatality rate represents loss of life on a scale matched only by the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

What Trotter is referring to have often been called ‘The Musket Wars’. That casualty figure is enormous – but was not backed up by a reference. In fact, the death toll, the importance of muskets, and even the causes, are all arguable (e.g. Ballara, 2003; Belich, 1988; Crosby, 1999; Wright, 2011; Bentley, 2000; Crosby, 2020; McLean et al., 2009.)

One explanation for these wars was that Pakeha (Europeans) created a new economy – they wanted pigs, potatoes and and a plant – flax, and paid for them with muskets. This destabilisation created an arms-race and the demand for more ad more muskets. A different point of view has been argued by Ballara (2003). She argued that these wars would likely have happened anyway – they were the continuation of a long tradition of fighting between various groups. She down-played the idea that the wars were about ‘muskets’, it was more that the muskets made them more destructive. Ballara callng them ‘Land Wars’ was more appropriate.

The ‘Musket Wars’, or ‘Land Wars’, could have been called the ‘Potato Wars’, or maybe even the ‘Pig Wars’ (I don’t think anyone has suggested that one). Behind the muskets, lay pigs and potatoes, although neither of these are indigenous to New Zealand. They were introduced by Europeans and quickly became items of trade. But I’ll toss another potential name into the ring, one that is indigenous – the ‘Flax Wars’. The Pakeha wanted flax for its long fibres. The same fibres which could be processed into marvels of the Maori weavers art, could also be used to make rope. European sailing ships needed lots of that (McLintock, 1966), and needed it so much that muskets were traded for it.

In New Zealand, flax (don’t confuse it with Northern Hemisphere ‘flax’) is pretty well everywhere, but with a distribution that has been highly modified by humans, both by favouring it with forest removal, and increased alluvial sedimentation, or reduction by draining wetlands (Wehi and Clarkson, 2007). Its commonness means we locals perhaps take it for granted, a bit like a weed – rather than recognising that it is rather special. The two species basically doesn’t occur anywhere else. Our flax, harakeke, Phormium, is indigenous to Aotearoa (including the Chatham Islands-Rēkohu). It is also on Norfolk Island, but it is debated as to whether it was introduced there by Polynesians (Coyne, 2009: Mills, 2009).

Flax fossils and Alternative Futures

Fossil pollen evidence indicates that flax appeared in both New Zealand and in Australia in the Eocene period (Macphail et al., 1994; Raine, 1984; Raine et al. 2011; Truswell, 1987). This was well after New Zealand had become isolated from Australia and Antarctica, so this appears to be an example of a plant that crossed the Tasman Sea. Then, it became extinct in Australia. We don’t know specifically why, but it will be due to climate and habitat change over millions of years. In the same way that Eucalyptus was once spread across Australia, New Zealand, and South America – and then became a ‘special’ Australian plant because it went extinct elsewhere, flax became a special New Zealand plant after its extinction in Australia. Being aware of this history makes us realise that alternative futures were possible.

In one future, flax did not go extinct in Australia. In that case, one can assume that it would have become incorporated into Aboriginal culture, in much the same way as Maori. But, then the Brits would have had the choice of two places to obtain flax. Now here is something, if you are wondering about how different the recent history of Australia and New Zealand has been – while those Brits were apparently quite happy to trade muskets with Maori, trading muskets to Australian Aborigines was just not on the agenda. The entire dynamic of the flax trade may have played out very differently.

But flax did go extinct across the Ditch, and this left New Zealand alone with its special resource. When Polynesians came to Aotearoa, they developed various techniques to process and use it. Flax was a treasure – a taonga, and was itself used to make taonga. Maori recognised a wide range of flax varieties, or cultivars, which could be used for different purposes (Star, 2011).

Ballara (2003) does an admirable job of describing the rather hair-triggered, hostile social environment into which Pakeha crashed, and (my opinion) their catastrophically bad idea to trade muskets. But her down-playing of the musket aspect sounds a little bit like historians arguing that Europeans had always been at each other’s throats, and the appearance of gunpowder merely increased the casualties.

Ulrich (1970) noted that in one locality, Tauranga, pigs and potatoes were bartered for muskets up until 1829. After that, it was mainly flax. In 1830, from tiny Kapiti Island alone, 102 tons of flax was exported to Sydney. That was worth about 255 muskets, and was only about an eighth of the flax New Zealand exported that year. Ulrich (1970) quotes the missionary George Clarke in 1825:

For a musket a New Zealander will make great sacrifices, he will labour hard and fare hard for many months to obtain his musket, in fact it is his idol he values it above all he possesses, he will not only part with his slaves for one, but even prostitute his children to diseased sailor [sic] for one of those instruments of destruction.

This seems to speak volumes about how important muskets were seen as strategic weapons, and an existential threat to those that didn’t join the arms race. By about 1835, musket ‘saturation’ had been achieved across most of the North Island (Ulrich, 1970). That is, every fighting man had acquired one – and mostly, they had been exchanged for flax.

If flax had now become the underlying reason for a spare-nothing desperate race to get muskets, then there is an argument for considering flax as a ‘resource curse’. In its broadest sense, this describes a resource that should be beneficial for a society, but instead, has the opposite effect. Flax, for several years, lay behind poor nutrition, health, and a signifiant death toll among the Maori.

So another potential future was one in which flax went entirely extinct – in both Australia and New Zealand. How would things have gone then? Would this have saved everyone a lot of trouble, or the trade in pigs and potatoes for muskets have simply escalated to become just as deadly?

But how would the first humans to arrive in Aotearoa coped if there hadn’t been anything as useful as flax? Where would Maori culture be now, without the contribution of flax to cloaks, sandals, skirts, wall panels of buildings, canoe sails? Flax was a curse for a brief period, but has recovered to be a taonga unique to Aotearoa-New Zealand. We are fortunate to have won that roll of the extinction dice.


Ballara, A. 2003. ‘Taua : ‘musket wars’, ‘land wars’ or tikanga?: warfare in Māori society in the early nineteenth century’. Penguin Books, Auckland.

Belich, J. 1988. The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. Penguin, Auckland, N.Z.

Bentley, T. 2000. ‘Musket Wars’, in Ian McGibbon (ed.), The Oxford companion to New Zealand military history, Oxford University Press, Auckland,

Coyne, P. 2009. Phormium tenax (New Zealand Flax) — Norfolk Island native? Cunninghamia, 11, 167–170.

Crosby, R.D. 1999. The musket wars: a history of inter-iwi conflict, 1806–45. Reed, Auckland.

Crosby, R.D. 2020. The forgotten wars: why the Musket Wars matter today, Oratia Books, Auckland.

Macphail, M.K. Alley, N.F., Truswell, E.M., and Sluiter, I.R.K. 1994. Early Tertiary vegetation: evidence from spores and pollen, p. 189-261, in Hill, R.S. (Ed.) History of the Australian Vegetation: Cretaceous to Recent. Cambridge University Press.

McLean, G., McGibbon, I., Gentry, K. 2009. Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War. Penguin.

Mills, K. (2009). Was Phormium tenax introduced to Norfolk Island by the Polynesians? Cunninghamia, 11, 171–175.

Raine, J.I., 1984. Outline of a palynological zonation of Cretaceous to Paleogene terrestrial sediments in West Coast region, South Island, New Zealand. New Zealand Geological Survey report 109: 1-82.

Raine, J.I., Mildenhall, D.C., and Kennedy, E.M. 2011. New Zealand fossil spores and pollen: an illustrated catalogue. 4th edition. GNS Science miscellaneous series no. 4.

Star, P., Lowe, B., Carr, D., McCallum, R., and Myers, T. 2011. Origins and history of the Dunedin Botanic Garden Phormium collection. New Zealand Garden Journal, 14: 5-11.

Taonui, R. An end to the “musket wars”. New Zealand Review of Books.

Trotter, C. 2007. ‘No Left Turn. The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right-Wing Politics’. Random House, New Zealand.

Truswell, E.M. 1987. Early Tertiary sediments from the Edmund 1:250,000 Sheet Area, Western Australia. BMR Professional Opinion, 87/001.

Truswell, E.M. and Macphail, M.K. 2009. Polar forests on the edge of extinction: what does the fossil spore and pollen evidence from East Antarctica say? Australian Systematic Botany, 22, 57-106.

Wehi (McAllum), P. and Clarkson, B.D. 2007. Biological flora of New Zealand 10. Phormium tenax, harakeke, New Zealand flax. New Zealand Journal of Botany, 45: 521-544.


Wright, M. 2011. Guns and utu: a short history of the musket wars. Penguin, Auckland.

Filed under: New Zealand History

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From New Zealand. Traveling the weyward path trying to figure out how the world works. I study fossil plants, past climates, travel, walk, hike, read, take photos, struggle with computer graphics and plant trees.

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