The Maori wars, also known as the New Zealand Land Wars, stretched from 1843 to 1872. These continued periods of conflict occurred because of the British colonization of New Zealand, a process that began in the late 18th century. In 1840 the British officially annexed New Zealand as a colony with the signing of the Waitangi Treaty, which formally allowed the British to colonize certain parts of the archipelago and provided for the Maori to retain many of their territorial homelands. But the Waitangi Treaty held the British government to contradictory positions of protecting the Maori people while at the same time allowing European immigrants to colonize parts of the islands. Since there was only so much land available within the archipelago, land and cultural clashes inevitably occurred between British settlers and the native Maori.
After the Waitangi Treaty, there was a continued influx of British settlers, driven by the New Zealand Company, which promoted emigration from the British Isles to New Zealand. As the British settlers increasingly sought land, they began to try to purchase land from the Maori. This was a problem for the Maori, however, because there was not a concept of individual property ownership within their society. Property was held not by the individual, as in the British tradition, but by the group as a whole. Also, the Maori who signed the Waitangi Treaty provided for the use, not necessarily the sale, of land. Because the Maori did not individually own property there were a number of battles fought between different Maori groups when a small leader sold land to settlers.
The Wairau Affray, otherwise known to the settlers as the Wairau Massacre, was the first bloody conflict in New Zealand. A neighboring Maori group killed 22 settlers from Nelson, a city created by the New Zealand Company, when the colonizers tried to use a dubious treaty to expand into the neighboring Wairau Valley. This was soon followed by the Flagstaff War or Heke’s Rebellion, a war in Northern New Zealand where Hene Heke and other Maori leaders battled against the British, who were aligned with Tamati Waka Nene’s Maori group. Eventually the British and the “loyalist” Maori broke the pa, an earthen fort, defense of the Maori in late 1846, but only after a long siege campaign employed by the new governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey. Grey gave clemency to Heke and the losing Maori groups, thus ending the Flagstaff War.
After a peaceful decade in the 1850s, the tension between the Maori and the settlers began to climax into battle again. By the late 1850s the British settler population was nearly equal in number to the Maori population. The growing British population, as well as memories of the attempted Wairau expansion by the colonizers, helped to propel the King Movement, a Maori movement that promoted political unity of the Maori and placed a special emphasis on the communal ownership of land. In the Tarankai Province on the North Island, Te Atiawa tried to sell community Maori land directly to the British without gaining permission from group’s leader, Wiermu Kingi. Thomas Browne, the governor of New Zealand, decided to send troops onto the disputed land until the Maori and the settlers could litigate the land issue. Atiawa defended his land against the New Zealand militia; this proved to be the starting point of the First Tarankai War. After a year’s worth of fighting with no clear victor, the colonial New Zealand government and the Maori agreed to end the fighting in March 1861.
But this truce did not end the fighting between the Maori and the settlers. British settlers in New Zealand became angry with the King Movement, which prevented the sale of land on North Island. Governor George Grey argued that the colonial New Zealanders required the intervention of British troops from overseas on the premise that the Maori near Auckland and other Northern Island cities were a military threat. In 1863 the Waikato War began with the invasion of Waikato. George Grey formally expelled the Maori off much of the land south of Auckland and sent General Duncan Cameron to fight against the Maori.
The campaign, like the others before, involved fighting between the British troops and the Maori in their defensive pa. As the campaign continued against the Maori, the popular British press and the British Colonial Office, the governmental agency that handled colonial affairs, began to turn decidedly against the offensive. While the invasion began under the pretense of protection of Auckland and other colonial settlements, it was soon portrayed as a greedy attempt to expand the boundaries of colonial New Zealand at the expense of the native Maori. The colonial government successfully achieved their mission: they annexed and controlled large parts of the Northern Island.
Though the Waikato War was the major war of the Maori wars, there were three major conflicts in the following years in addition to a major legal blow to the Maori. The Tarankai War in the mid-1860s grew out of the Hau Hau Movement, a religious movement that became increasingly antisettler, as well as the disgust of losing many of their traditional lands. During this time the Maori also lost the advantage of group ownership of land with the passing of the Native Lands Acts in 1862 and 1865, which led to the creation of the Maori Land Court that made land ownership individual instead of community. Titokowaru’s War and Te Kooti’s War were the final wars between the colonial government and the British. At the end of the wars, the Maori were resigned to live under British law in smaller areas than they had previously lived in, especially in North Island.
- Belich, James. The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. Auckland: Penguin Books, 1986;
- The New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Penguin Press, 1988;
- Sinclair, Keith. The Origins of the Maori Wars. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1957.