The New Zealand Wars condemned generations of Māori across much of the country to lives of poverty. These women and children were photographed in the King Country, at Haerehuka, in the late nineteenth century. (Photograph by Alfred Burton, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.)


“Land was an important, even a crucial, factor in the wars. But, as some historians have pointed out, there are problems in suggesting land disputes as a sole cause.”

The most obvious cause of the New Zealand Wars was land — “Māori had it, and the British wanted it”. But it wasn’t that simple, as Vincent O’Malley explains in this extract from his latest book, The New Zealand Wars/ Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa.


If we ask what the cause of the New Zealand Wars was, then we are probably starting off in the wrong direction.

Wars arise from a complex series of events, and although there may be a single catalyst — a spark that ignites the flames — there are usually a number of underlying causes. In the case of the New Zealand Wars, we are also talking about separate conflicts that each had their own distinct features. These are discussed in the chapters to follow. But we can also discern common or recurring themes.

Let’s begin with the obvious one: land, whenua. In short, Māori had it, and the British wanted it. This tense situation became more strained as the pace of British migration to New Zealand increased sharply after 1840. Even before then, private parties, including the New Zealand Company, had claimed to have purchased vast tracts of land (actually more than there was in the whole of the country), and their questionable dealings later provoked conflicts.

After 1840, the government assumed the sole right to purchase Māori lands under Article 2 of the Treaty (though many Māori evidently thought the government had simply gained the first right to buy, rather than a monopoly).

Massive land purchases followed. The Canterbury Purchase of 1848, for example, saw 20 million acres — nearly a third of the entire country — pass out of Māori ownership, for the paltry price of £2,000 and just a few small reserves for Ngāi Tahu to live on.

Although Māori often understood these purchases quite differently from the Crown and continued to use many of the lands that had supposedly been “sold”, an influx of settlers in the 1850s increasingly pushed them to the margins of colonial society.

Many rangatira (chiefs) and their iwi became concerned about the impact of these transactions. They feared the country was slipping out of their hands, piece by piece, with their own future an uncertain one, as mere servants of the settlers. They understood that they would lose not just the land but effective control.

Some tribes responded by actively opposing further land sales. Many Pākehā branded this response a “land league”. The government did not help matters by making even more underhand and secretive land purchases, which in turn gave Māori more cause for concern.

So, land was an important, even a crucial, factor in the wars. But, as some historians have pointed out, there are problems in suggesting land disputes as a sole cause.

Troops march along the beach, with Mt Taranaki in the background, February 1865. Late in January General Cameron had led more than 1,000 soldiers north from Whanganui towards Taranaki. (Watercolour by E.A. Williams, 1865, Hocken Pictorial Collections, University of Otago, 75/162 a13210.)

For one thing, it was not the settlers but the governors who were responsible for sending imperial troops into action, and they were not always sympathetic to the land hunger of settlers. Governor Gore Browne complained soon after arriving in the country in 1855 that “[m]any of the settlers [are] insatiably greedy for land, [and] desire to obtain it, honestly if possible, but if that is not possible still they desire to have it”. Governor George Grey (who served two terms, 1845–53 and 1861–68) expressed similar frustrations.

For many Māori, fears over the loss of land fed into even more fundamental concerns about their own place in the rapidly changing colony. This was bigger than just land ownership. It went to the heart of how Māori and Pākehā would live together.

Would Māori share the fate of many other indigenous peoples around the globe, being reduced to subservience and perhaps even facing the prospect of total extinction? Or was New Zealand somehow different? Would the promises held out in the Treaty of Waitangi — that Māori land ownership would be scrupulously recognised and protected, that Māori rights to manage their own affairs would be acknowledged, and that Māori would play a full part alongside settlers in administering the affairs of the colony — be upheld by the Crown?

These issues centred on an unresolved ambiguity in the Treaty itself. In 1840, the British Crown formally proclaimed sovereignty over the islands of New Zealand. That was based on Māori consent having been secured through the Treaty of Waitangi signed by more than 500 chiefs that same year.

Yet all but a handful of rangatira signed a Māori-language version of the Treaty, or Te Tiriti, that most scholars today agree stopped some way short of ceding sovereignty to the British Crown. “Kawanatanga”, the supposed term for sovereignty employed in the Māori version of the Treaty, is most commonly translated as “governorship” or “governance”.

In addition, Māori communities were promised “tino rangatiratanga” (“full chiefly authority”) over their lands and resources and clearly expected continued control over their own affairs.

It was this divide between increasing Crown assertions of sovereignty and Māori expectations of continuing chiefly authority that was to provide a key impetus for the subsequent wars fought between the Crown and Māori. At their core, many of these conflicts raised the same question: whose version of the agreement that had been entered into in 1840 was going to prevail?

Contrary to popular misconceptions, after the signing of the Treaty, New Zealand was not magically transformed into a colony ruled from Britain. Little changed in many districts. Outside a few small coastal European settlements, Crown rule remained, for much of the period prior to the 1860s, a matter of negotiation with Māori communities. Iwi in many regions continued to manage their own affairs.

Following the various East Coast conflicts, around 300 Māori were taken to Napier and from there sent to the Chatham Islands — to be held indefinitely, without trial, in bleak and unfamiliar conditions. Most of the prisoners would later escape in July 1868, sparking a further round of fighting when Crown forces demanded their unconditional surrender. (Photograph by Swan and Wrigglesworth, 1865, Hawkes Bay Museum.)

But what the Treaty did do was signal the start of a period of mass British migration to New Zealand that would see Māori reduced to a minority in their own country within two decades. And many of those new settlers were not willing to defer to a bunch of people they dismissively called “natives”.

Victorian assumptions of racial superiority, brought to these shores by many of the immigrants, contributed further to the decline in relationships with Māori. Māori may have hoped and expected to enter into a partnership based on mutual goodwill. But Pākehā expected to be in charge.

As settlers started to sense the balance of power shifting in their favour, the old order, based on a kind of “middle ground” where both parties mostly managed to rub along with each other most of the time, gave way to a new and darker phase in relations.

Settlers increasingly demanded the right to govern themselves. A new Parliament was set up in 1854, but Māori were not represented in it prior to 1868, and few were eligible to even participate in elections. The new all-Pākehā Assembly represented only settler interests. That was felt keenly by many rangatira, who feared that they were being subjected to the laws of settlers whose interests were opposed to their own. That wasn’t what they had signed up to in the Treaty.

Successive New Zealand governments seemed more intent on imposing British laws on Māori than recognising their right under Article Two of the Treaty to administer their own affairs. This situation intensified after the emergence of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) in 1858, which came about in response to Māori concerns about the loss of both land and sovereignty.

Officers of the Armed Constabulary, photographed at Parihaka in November 1881. Many of the men had previously seen action during the New Zealand Wars. (Alexander Turnbull Library)

It has been suggested that government determination to assert its sovereignty — to turn its back on Te Tiriti and instead uphold a narrow version of the Treaty — was the overarching cause of the wars. Once the government had achieved dominance, large-scale land purchases would be much easier to achieve. So too would the imposition of British law on Māori and their enforced assimilation into settler colonial society.

In the early period of European settlement, Pākehā had been forced to tolerate Māori and their customs because they had no choice. The old order worked mostly because each party had things the other wanted that could not be gained by force.

But the situation changed over time. By 1858, settler numbers matched those of Māori for the first time, and with this change in the balance of power came a belief that Pāhekā were at last in a position to assert their assumed natural dominance.

So, as causes of war, land and sovereignty were inextricably linked. Without land, sovereignty meant little. Sovereignty, involving the assertion of authority and control, made it much easier to acquire land and therefore to reinforce a position of dominance. To consider them as separate causes is to miss the extent to which they were so closely intertwined in nineteenth-century New Zealand.

And underlying this were British ideas about race and hierarchy that influenced the way many of the migrants viewed Māori: Anglo-Saxons expected to be in charge because they were at the apex of their own imagined racial pyramid.

These are issues that historians have long grappled with when writing about the wars.


This is an extract from The New Zealand Wars/Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, by Vincent O’Malley, published by Bridget Williams Books.

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