Jared Diamond on Warfare

The following is an excerpt from Guns, Germs and Steel.

* * *

In the Chatham Islands, 500 miles east of New Zealand, centuries of independence came to a brutal end for the Moriori people in December 1835. On November 19 of that year, a ship carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs, and axes arrived, followed on December 5 by a shipload of 400 more Maori. Groups of Maori began to walk through Moriori settlements, announcing that the Moriori were now their slaves, and killing those who objected. An organized resistance by the Moriori could still then have defeated the Maori, who were outnumbered two to one. However, the Moriori had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully. They decided in a council meeting not to fight back but to offer peace, friendship, and a division of resources.

Before the Moriori could deliver that offer, the Maori attacked en masse. Over the course of the next few days, they killed hundreds of Moriori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others, killing most of them too over the next few years as it suited their whim. A Moriori survivor recalled,

“[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep.. . . [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed””?men, women, and children indiscriminately.”

A Maori conqueror explained,

“We took possession. . . in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and others we killed””?but what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.”

The brutal outcome of this collision between the Moriori and the Maori could have been easily predicted. The Moriori were a small, isolated population of hunter-gatherers, equipped with only the simplest technology and weapons, entirely inexperienced at war, and lacking strong leadership or organization. The Maori invaders (from New Zealand’s North Island) came from a dense population of farmers chronically engaged in ferocious wars, equipped with more-advanced technology and weapons, and operating under strong leadership. Of course, when the two groups finally came into contact, it was the Maori who slaughtered the Moriori, not vice versa.

The tragedy of the Moriori resembles many other such tragedies in both the modern and the ancient world, pitting numerous well-equipped people against few ill-equipped opponents. What makes the Maori-Moriori collision grimly illuminating is that both groups had diverged from a common origin less than a millennium earlier. Both were Polynesian peoples. The modern Maori are descendants of Polynesian farmers who colonized New Zealand around A.D. 1000. Soon thereafter, a group of those Maori in turn colonized the Chatham Islands and became the Moriori. In the centuries after the two groups separated, they evolved in opposite directions, the North Island Maori developing more-complex and the Moriori less-complex technology and political organization. The Moriori reverted to being hunter-gatherers, while the North Island Maori turned to more intensive farming.

Those opposite evolutionary courses sealed the outcome of their eventual collision. If we could understand the reasons for the disparate development of those two island societies, we might have a model for understanding the broader question of differing developments on the continents.

Miloriori and Maori history constitutes a brief, small-scale natural experiment that tests how environments affect human societies. Before you read a whole book examining environmental effects on a very large scale effects on human societies around the world for the last 13,000 years–you might reasonably want assurance, from smaller tests, that such effects really are significant.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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6 Responses to Jared Diamond on Warfare

  1. Mutantfrog says:

    That’s a great book- but you probably already know I thought that. I also thought the followup ‘Collapse’ was excellent, as well as his early, shorter book “The Third Chimpanzee,” which contains in summary form many of the ideas later expanded into his two larger works, as well as some other interesting thoughts on the evolution of humanity that are rather too prehistoric for the time periods covered by the later books.

  2. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    My understanding is that the Maori saw off the first European visitors with their ferocious welcome – quite unlike that of the Australian natives….

  3. San Nakji says:

    I am actually related to the last Moriori. It is sad what happened to them, but the whole thing was blown out of proportion by Pakeha (NZ Europeans) who claimed that the Moriori were the original inhabitants of Aotearoa New Zealand and not the Maori. Therefore, in certain people’s opinions, the forcible removal of land from the Maori was justified as they had done the same to the Moriori. Fortunately this has been disproved and we know that the Maori and the Moriori are one and the same, if somewhat removed from each other.

  4. Mutantfrog says:

    San Nakj- do you have have any stories about the last Moriori? I’d love to hear more.

  5. Hunter says:

    Like most books that seek to come up with a “theory to explain everything,” I thought Guns, Germs and Steel (and to a greater extent, Collapse) suffered from overextension and failing to address counter-examples.

    I found that reading David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which emphasizes culture over geography, concurrently with Guns provided a nice balance. As is usually the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

  6. Pingback: The Acorn » Maoris, Morioris and projection of power