For well over 25 years, Vincent O’Malley, a Pākehā historian, has been uncovering and recounting many of the rich and often discomforting stories about how Māori and Pākehā have got along since they began sharing Aotearoa 200 or so years ago.
His most substantial book has been The Great War for New Zealand, where he explains what went on in the Waikato, especially in the wake of the New Zealand Settlements Act in 1863.
But here he focuses on the significance of that legislation — and the need for us to understand and remember it.
When dates were being considered for the first Rā Maumahara commemorating the New Zealand Wars, one suggestion was December 3. That day doesn’t mark the anniversary of any particular battle or conflict. Instead, it’s the day in 1863 that Governor George Grey signed into law the New Zealand Settlements Act.
It’s an innocuous-sounding piece of legislation but it had devastating consequences for many Māori communities. The Settlements Act provided the primary legislative mechanism for raupatu — sweeping land confiscations that were supposedly intended to punish acts of “rebellion” while also recouping the costs of fighting the wars.
It declared that where “any Native Tribe or Section of a Tribe or any considerable number thereof” had committed acts of “rebellion against Her Majesty’s authority” since January 1, 1863, their lands could be declared subject to the Act and seized for the purposes of settlement.
It was part of a package of measures passed by the all-Pākehā parliament to crush Māori independence.
Grey and his ministers had drawn up these confiscation plans before invading Waikato in July 1863 and, by August, had begun recruiting military settlers who were to be offered a portion of the seized lands in return for their services.
Confiscation wasn’t an afterthought or a response to Māori actions, but an integral part of the overall invasion plans.
The presence of military settlers on a portion of the seized lands would ensure the conquest of these was made permanent, while the sale of the remainder on the open market would pay for the whole scheme. Māori would effectively underwrite the costs of their own suppression.
It was war entered into partly as a speculative venture and with deep roots in British imperial practice. A similar scheme of plantation had been used in 17th-century Ireland. Ironically, many of the troops brought to New Zealand to fight these wars of conquest for the Crown centuries later were Irish Catholics whose own communities had suffered exactly the same fate.
Victims of imperialism in this way became its perpetrators.
Former Chief Justice Sir William Martin also pointed to the example of Ireland in predicting that “a brooding sense of wrong” passed down from one generation to the next would be exactly the same outcome if confiscation was employed in New Zealand.
That, Henry Sewell privately thought, was exactly what the architects of the policy wanted. It was to drive even more Māori to offer resistance so that their lands could also be seized and sold as punishment for these acts of “rebellion”.
Within parliament itself, James FitzGerald was one of few MPs to offer anything like unequivocal opposition to the Settlements Act, which he described as an “enormous crime” and “contrary to the Treaty of Waitangi”.
As Native Minister two years later, FitzGerald was personally responsible for some of the largest land confiscations under the Act. In another case of poacher turned gamekeeper, Sewell underwent a similar conversion. Few Pākehā in positions of power came out of the story unsullied.
In all, more than 3.4 million acres of land was confiscated under the Settlements Act across many districts — in Waikato, Taranaki, Tauranga, eastern Bay of Plenty, and Mohaka-Waikare.
Further lands were “ceded” to the Crown at Tūranga, Wairoa, and Waikaremoana under a distinct confiscation regime covering the East Coast region.
Despite repeated and unambiguous promises that Māori who didn’t take up arms against the Crown would have their lands guaranteed to them in full, confiscation was applied indiscriminately. And it even took in areas owned by those who had fought on the government side.
“Loyal” Māori could apply for compensation for their losses — initially in money but later including lands. But the Compensation Court process that followed returned only a fraction of what was lost, often in completely different areas and always under a new legal form of title that meant many of these lands were quickly lost to their owners.
Māori deemed to have rebelled, or even to have aided or abetted others who had done so, were ineligible to receive compensation at all. In one case, officials tried (but failed) to block compensation being given to an Anglican priest of Tainui ancestry who had conducted burial services for those slain during the Waikato invasion.
Fearing that sweeping and excessive confiscations would prolong Māori resistance and thereby increase the military and financial burdens on British taxpayers, the British government sought to impose a range of restrictions on how the Settlements Act would be implemented.
Most of these were ignored. Rather than intervening to stop what they knew was a gross injustice, ministers in London washed their hands of the matter, concerned only with how soon they could withdraw their troops from New Zealand.
Many of those soldiers, including their commander, Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron, had become increasingly disillusioned with what they were being asked to do, and began to query why they should fight a war of conquest and dispossession for the exclusive benefit of New Zealand settlers.
The 1863 Act was clear that lands could only be confiscated if they were eligible sites for settlement. But so wholesale were the takings that mountains, hills, lakes, swamps and other sites were included. Vast areas that had been confiscated remained unsettled and unsold. Many of these lands still form part of the Crown estate today.
Far from turning a quick profit, the Crown was plunged deep into debt. In 1869, one government minister, Donald McLean, openly admitted that the confiscation policy had been an “expensive mistake”.
By that time, many of the military settlers — lacking farming experience or capital, and living in the middle of active war zones — had sold their sections cheaply as soon as they could and walked away.
In the Waikato, Auckland speculators such as Thomas Russell and Frederick Whitaker, leading proponents of the confiscation policy as members of government in 1863, personally acquired many of these lands. Once land prices recovered, they stood to make enormous profits from their investments.
A few Pākehā got very rich and many of the lands later became lynchpins of New Zealand’s booming pastoral economy. But, for Māori on the receiving end, the results were shattering.
Through the two decades after 1840, Māori were in many ways the leading drivers of New Zealand’s economy, producing much of its export income, while also feeding hungry settlers in Auckland and other towns.
That economic infrastructure was destroyed almost literally overnight as cattle and crops were seized or destroyed, flour mills and homes in many cases torched, and the lands that had been key to this wealth confiscated. The Māori economy was delivered a near fatal blow.
That was not something that could be easily or quickly overcome. Generations of Māori were condemned to lives of landlessness and poverty. In many ways, we still live with the legacy of the New Zealand Settlements Act today. It is there in the negative socio-economic statistics of many Māori communities in those regions subject to raupatu.
Treaty settlements have helped to recapitalise many iwi, and allowed them to again become major players in the New Zealand economy. But, given that these settlements typically represent no more than about one or two percent of the unimproved value of the lands that were taken, they are never going to fully compensate for all that was lost.
Many Pākehā have little idea of this history or how it continues to reverberate. That’s hardly surprising, given how few people learn anything about it at school.
It’s time to do something about that. It’s time we as a nation owned up to our past.
That’s bigger than Treaty settlements. It’s about dialogue and mutual understanding. And that’s why the story of the New Zealand Settlements Act should be more widely known.
Beneath the deceptively soothing name, there lurks a darker tale of dispossession and colonial greed whose consequences are still felt today.
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