Historical Overview

Brief Historical Background & Overview

The New Zealand Wars, which lasted from the 1840s to the 1870s, can be separated into three groups, which vary in the extent of their confrontations: the localized conflicts of the 1840s, the conflicts between the colonial government of New Zealand and the Maori between 1860 and 1864, and the final conflicts between 1864 and 1872. These confrontations, like most settler-native conflicts during this period, were rooted in contests over the land. Maoris possessed the land and settlers wanted to acquire it from them.

The Maoris, peoples of Polynesian descent who came to the islands of New Zealand at least 800 years ago, had had significant contact with Europeans prior to 1840. Since the late eighteenth century, European sealers, whalers, traders, and missionaries initiated sustained contacts with the Maoris. While many of these individuals were of British or New South Wales origins, there were a substantial number of non-British contacts as well. Exchanges between the Europeans and Maoris were brisk, and new dress, technologies, and biota became a part of Maori life. While some of the introduced items, such as European clothing and new food crops and livestock, brought benefits on the balance, other items, such as diseases and guns, were more malignant to the Maori population. Europeans introduced several epidemic diseases to which the Maoris had no previous exposure. Virgin soil epidemics took a substantial toll of Maoris. The introduction of guns through trade with the Europeans exacerbated the intertribal warfare that predated the arrival of the Europeans and caused further loss of life. As the New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair has emphasized, disease and "musket wars" disrupted and destabilized entire Maori communities and, in turn, muddled Maori land claims on the eve of a more deliberate British colonization of the islands.

Prompted by settlers desirous of new lands and missionaries concerned about the welfare of Maoris, the British government began to assert administrative authority over the islands in 1840. Toward these ends, the new colonial governor of New Zealand William Hobson and his staff negotiated a treaty with several Maoris at Waitangi. As the historian James Belich has noted, the Treaty of Waitangi is considered to be the "founding document" in New Zealand history; it has also been the source of much dispute between the Maoris and the colonizers. Signed on February 6, 1840, by the British Crown and forty Maori chiefs, the Treaty of Waitangi attempted to settle disputes between the Maori and the British government, but difficulties in translating the treaty rendered the English and Maori versions susceptible to misinterpretations. Whereas the English version of the treaty stipulated that the Maori would relinquish their sovereignty, the Maori version stipulated that the Maori would relinquish their "kawanatanga," a word meaning governance, leading the Maori to believe that they still retained autonomy over tribal matters. Once the extent of authority that the British wished to exercise became apparent and the pressures on the Maoris to cede their lands proved relentless, many of the signatories of the Treaty of Waitangi wished to regain what they considered to be their rightful autonomy and assert greater control over their lands.

The Maori, led by Hone Heke, first displayed their rejection of British authority by cutting down the British flagstaff at Kororareka three times. These actions initiated a war between Maoris and British military in 1845. During this war, the British strategy consisted of making punitive expeditions into the interior of Maori territory. The severity of the conflict soon escalated as Maori resisters began to organize more effectively and to build earthwork defenses called pas. Although the British possessed gunboats, which provided them with artillery to destroy these defenses, the Maori resisters, while enjoying few outright successes, were able to prevent the British from destroying or capturing large numbers of their forces, leaving the conflict largely unresolved in 1846.

Before the 1850s, Maori natives had been selling large tracts of land to the British, but Maori sentiments against further land cessions were spreading and hardening. Manifesting these sentiments in political form, the King Movement first emerged among the Maori during the 1850s. The supporters of the King Movement sought to strengthen and unify Maori resistance to any further land cessions. Maori supporters selected the Waikato chief Te Wherowhero as their leader. While many Maori did not acknowledge Te Wherowhero as their king, they still gravitated to the larger cause of standing firm against any additional land cessions. The rise of this new nationalist movement amongst the Maoris alarmed many colonials who feared the possibility of a well-organized and united Maori front against land cessions; colonial officials sought to put an end to it before it could gain greater momentum. When Colonel Thomas Gore Browne, the governor of New Zealand at the time, received an opportunity to buy a large tract of land from Teira, a Maori chief, who was selling the land against the objections of other Maori leaders, Browne leapt on the opportunity to empower those Maoris who favored land cessions. Of course, such groups of Maori were becoming fewer and farther between as opponents of land cessions became more predominant during this period. The Maori chief Wiremu Kingi, who subsequently became a supporter of the King Movement, protested Teira's land cession as Kingi held legitimate claims to the land in question and his people actually occupied it. Kingi and his people refused to cooperate and reasserted their claims to the land, which provided Governor Browne with an opportunity to weaken Maori resistance to further land cessions by invading the territories of some of the most emboldened of their numbers. A substantial British incursion conquered a large amount of Maori territory during the subsequent military conflict, but the British were forced to capture pa after pa at heavy costs. Although the two sides agreed to a truce on March 18, 1861, another confrontation would begin again just two years later. Replacing Gore Browne as governor in 1861, Sir George Grey prepared for a possible military showdown with the Maori King movement and its supporters in the Waikato region. Claiming that he was preempting a Maori attack, Grey initiated the military showdown in 1863. He dispatched forces commanded by Duncan Cameron into the region, and Cameron, thanks in significant part to his superior numbers, claimed military victory in 1864 even though the King Movement persisted.

The final military conflicts between the British colonials and the Maori brought an added dimension: religious fanaticism. While several wars were fought between 1864 and 1872, the most intensive conflicts involved spiritual leaders and warriors imbued by new syncretic religions of resistance. Te Ua Haumene created the Pai Marire, or the "good and peaceful" religion, after being visited by the angel Gabriel. Despite its Christian elements and its English translation, Pai Marire attracted some of the most resistant Maoris. They believed that if they chanted "Pai marire, hau! Hau! Hau!" they would not be killed by colonizers' guns. The spread of the faith corresponded with the proliferation of conflicts through early 1868. The expense of these conflicts weighed heavily upon the British budget, and the mother country decided to begin withdrawing its regiments. By 1866, only one British regiment remained, and it would be gone by 1870. Essentially, this left the colonists having to bear a greater share of the costs of their aggressive land policies, and with the demand for land not subsiding and Maori resistance correspondingly persisting, these costs continued to mount into the early 1870s. Continuing Maori resistance in the late 1860s and early 1870s largely centered around two more Maori prophets: Titokowaru and Te Kooti. While possessing relatively few followers when compared to the leaders of previous confrontations, Titokowaru and Te Kooti compensated for their paucity of warriors by fighting a guerrilla war against the British and their collaborating Maori allies, but both leaders eventually experienced diminished support and the possibilities of alliances with the King Movement never came to fruition. Titokowaru was effectively neutralized by 1869 and Te Kooti opted for peace by 1872; the latter date marks the effective end of the New Zealand Wars.

Sources, Suggested Readings, & Websites

Belich, James. Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Belich, James. "New Zealand Wars." In The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Edited by Ian McGibbon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Belich, James. The Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict: The Maori, The British, and the New Zealand Wars. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1989.

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Our Land Our People. http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/olop_content/OLOP_FLASH.htm.

New Zealand History Online. http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/.

The New Zealand Wars. http://www.newzealandwars.co.nz/index.htm.

Romer K. Gird. "Maori Wars." Historical Dictionary of the British Empire. Edited by James S. Olson and Robert Shadle. Westport. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Sinclair, Keith. A History of New Zealand. 5th revised ed. Additional material by Raewyn Dalziel. Auckland: Penguin Books, 2000.

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. http://www.teara.govt.nz/en.

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