The Sealers' War, also known as the "War of the Shirt", was a conflict in southern New Zealand that started in 1810. It began following the theft, by Māori chief, of a red shirt, a knife, and several other items from the sealing vessel Sydney Cove in Otago Harbour. The war gave rise to the view, among some Europeans, that the Māori were treacherous by nature. The true cause was revealed by the discovery of the Creed manuscript in 2003, which records the views of Māori who were alive at the time of the events.
Late in 1810, Sydney Cove, an English sealing vessel, was anchored in Otago Harbour while its crew were working at Cape Saunders on the Otago Peninsula. Māori were in the habit of visiting such vessels to trade for pork and potatoes. During one such visit, a Māori chief, Te Wareripirau, according to one of Creed's informants, or Te Wahia, according to the other, stole a red shirt and a knife amongst other items. Some of the sailors attacked the chief with cutlasses. He "fled from them with his bowels protruding through the wound in the side" and died. "The Europeans fled, by ship & boats to the Molyneux" – the modern Clutha River mouth – where they attacked and killed another chief, Te Pahi. They left behind James Caddell who became one of the first Pākehā-Māori.
At Waipapa Point one of Sydney Cove's gangs landed and proceeded overland to the Mataura mouth, where they were surprised and killed by Māori under Honegai. The Sydney Cove paused at Stewart Island before continuing its voyage. Men from Brothers, who had been in the vicinity of Otago Harbour, proceeded south late in 1810. They were seeking a passing ship to take them back to Sydney, but four of them were surprised and killed.
These tensions still existed when six lascars, Indian seamen, from Matilda, absconded from her in a long boat somewhere on the south west coast in 1814. Encountering Māori, apparently at Dusky Sound, three were killed and eaten and the others enslaved. Matilda went on to Stewart Island and from there sent Robert Brown in an open boat to look for the missing men. He came up the east coast and touched at Cape Saunders before going on up the coast to a point some eight miles north of Moeraki. There he and his seven companions hauled the boat ashore and went to sleep under it, but were seen by Māori and attacked. All but two were killed and eaten. The two survivors fled through the night to what is now known as Bobby's Head near the Pleasant Valley. Māori initially entertained the survivors, but upon discussion with later arriving Māori who had participated in the attack, killed and ate the two survivors as well. The mere greenstone club used to dispatch one of them became legendary. Meanwhile, Fowler brought Matilda into Otago Harbour where he received a friendly reception from the Māori that he later reported to correct a misconception that the Māori were hostile to Europeans and unlikely candidates for conversion to Christianity.
In 1815 William Tucker, who had been in the Otago Harbour area as early as 1809, landed again from a Hobart sealer and settled at Whareakeake, later called Murdering Beach. There he kept goats and sheep, had a Māori wife (but no children), built a house (or houses), and apparently set up an export trade in ornamental hei-tiki – jade neck pendants made from old adzes. He left but returned on Sophia, a Hobart sealer commanded by James Kelly, apparently with other Europeans meaning to settle. Sophia anchored in Otago Harbour and Tucker – "Taka" to Māori – was well-received but the harbour chief Korako wouldn't ferry across other Māori. This was late in 1817. Two or three days later Kelly went to visit Whareakeake in an open boat, with Tucker and five others, having been persuaded by Tucker not to take their firearms. At Whareakeake they had a friendly reception and encountered one of the Matilda's lascars, an Indian seaman who told them of his countrymen's fate. It seems Tucker had gone into his house but Kelly was attacked, at the instigation of the Whareakeake chief Te Matahaere. In the ensuing melee Veto Viole, John Griffiths, and William Tucker were killed. (Griffiths was Kelly's brother-in-law.) The dead were eaten. Escaping by longboat, Kelly returned to Sophia in Otago Harbour, but suspected that the Māori there were planning an attack. As a preemptive measure, he attacked the Māori first. Then, and over the next few days, he apparently killed several people, possibly including Korako, destroyed multiple canoes and set fire to "the beautiful City of Otago."
These hostilities and the diminution of seal populations, saw a decline in sealing ventures to southern New Zealand. It seems this was unknown to Captain Abimeleck Riggs of the American sealer General Gates, who in late 1819 landed a gang at Stewart Island. He had a troubled cruise and it wasn't until 1821 that he returned. He then dropped a second gang and then a third at Chalky Inlet. Māori attacked the second gang in October 1821. Six of his men were captured, taken north up the west coast, where eventually four were killed and eaten. Meanwhile, the Māori attacked and ate a young boy that the gang at Chalky left to look after their stores. The Māori pursued the rest of the gang and killed two members before the survivors came across Captain Edwardson of Snapper in Chalky Inlet. Their pursuers included men, women, and dogs, all under the leadership of "Te Pehi", "Topi", and "Te Whera". With them were two Pākehā-Māori. Also with them was James Caddell, who, originally captured from Sydney Cove, had acculturated himself to Māori society, in part by being tattooed and married to a high-born Māori woman. Edwardson now took Caddell to Sydney, where his arrival caused a sensation in 1823 and where a peace was brokered. Thereafter, sealing resumed although it soon petered out again because the animal populations had been severely depleted.
The Sealers' War – really a rolling feud – may have seen seventy-four people killed, among them forty-three Pākehā (non-Māori). William Tucker was not a cause of it, as has previously been thought, but one of its victims. The Creed manuscript clearly reveals the original cause, invisible to history for nearly two hundred years, identifies the later triggers of particular events while observing they were all consequences of the first theft and its revenge, often visited on people unaware of what had set these events in motion. When people of different cultures clash they are quick to react against any member of the other group, regardless of personal responsibility. The Sealers' War is a classic example of the tendency of incident to turn into inter-communal strife at the interface of cultural contact.