NZ in the 19th century

Page 3 – Overview of NZ in the 19th century: 1840-70

In 1840 the Maori population of 70,000 comfortably outnumbered the 2000 or so permanent European settlers. The Treaty of Waitangi paved the way for greater European settlement in New Zealand and by 1858 the settler population outnumbered Maori. In 1870 the non-Māori population passed 250,000. With this growth came greater demands for Maori land and settler control of politics.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi is regarded as New Zealand's founding document. It has also been a source of much debate and controversy in New Zealand society. It is nevertheless central to this broad survey. Many of the significant decisions made by people at the time were based on the competing perspectives and understandings of the Treaty. It was also one of the most significant historical situations of the period.

Putting the debate over the English and Maori versions of the Treaty to one side, the British believed that Article 1 gave them sovereignty over New Zealand. In Article 2 they guaranteed Maori control over their possessions (so long as that was their desire) and in Article 3 Maori were given the rights and protection due all British subjects. In effect Queen Victoria became their ‘mother and protector.'

Initially the Treaty of Waitangi changed little in terms of authority in New Zealand. The Crown took no action against Ngati Toa when 22 New Zealand Company settlers were killed at Wairau in 1843. Governor FitzRoy concluded that the settlers were at fault for what happened. The settler population was outraged. But the reality was that even had he wanted to punish Ngati Toa, FitzRoy simply lacked the resources to do so.

From Treaty to war

The Northern War that followed Hone Heke's fourth and final assault on the British flagstaff at Kororareka in March 1845 provoked a different reaction from the British. Heke was the first Maori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. He attacked the symbol of British sovereignty because he believed that since the Treaty was signed Maori had lost their status and their country to the British. His beef was with the Crown and he did not want to harm settlers or trade prospects. FitzRoy referred to the flagstaff as ‘a mere stick' but as it was ‘connected with the British flag it [was] of very great importance'.

British troops and their Maori allies fought against Heke and his principal ally Kawiti. Following defeats at Puketutu and Ohaeawai, FitzRoy was replaced by George Grey. Grey was to become one of the dominant political figures of New Zealand history. He secured more manpower and resources and claimed victory at Ruapekapeka in January 1846. He then made peace with Heke and Kawiti.

Later that same year a New Zealand Constitution Act proposed a form of representative government for New Zealand's 13,000 colonists. Grey persuaded his political superiors to suspend its introduction. He argued that the settler population could not be trusted to pass laws that would protect the interests of the Maori majority and that the risk of war was too great. Settlers were angered by his actions, labelling him an autocrat. Constitutional Associations were formed which bombarded the Colonial Office with ‘memorials and petitions'.

A new constitution was finally introduced in 1852, leading to elections the following year and the meeting of New Zealand's first Parliament in 1854. Men who owned or rented individual property could vote but as Maori possessed their land communally almost all were excluded. Four Maori parliamentary seats were created in 1867 but they were very much in the minority in a parliament with 76 members. Responsibility for Maori affairs remained officially with the governor until 1865 when it was handed over to the New Zealand government.

Access to land remained the priority for the settler population, as did its retention for Maori. In 1846 the Colonial Office instructed that all Maori land ownership had to be registered and any lands deemed to be unused or surplus would become Crown land. Only the Crown could buy land from Maori and it was not obliged to pay the market rate. It also had the final say in any Maori complaints regarding deals.

The Kingitanga

The settler population eclipsed that of Maori for the first time in 1858. The demands for land intensified. That same year Te Wherowhero of Waikato (who had not signed the Treaty of Waitangi) became the first Maori King. The Kingitanga or King movement was formed to protect land from further sales and make laws for Maori to follow. Many Maori supported this attempt to unite their tribes but some chiefs refused to place their mana under that of someone else.

The Kingitanga did not consider itself as being in opposition to the Queen but rather as complementary. The colonial government disagreed. It viewed the Kingitanga as an anti-land-selling league and the King as a direct challenge to the Crown. In 1860 Governor Thomas Gore Browne attempted to isolate the Kingitanga and its supporters at the Kohimarama Conference. The 200 or so Maori present reaffirmed the Treaty of Waitangi and pledged not to act in any way that threatened the Queen's sovereignty.  

The New Zealand Wars and land loss

The Kohimarama meeting took place against the backdrop of war. Fighting broke out at Waitara near New Plymouth. One faction of Te Ati Awa opposed an offer by another group to sell land to the Crown. The Governor declared martial law and moved troops in. Those fighting the Crown in Taranaki received assistance form the Kingitanga. A ceasefire ended the fighting in Taranaki in 1861 but warfare spread to other parts of the North Island between 1863 and the early 1870s. The Waikato War (1863-4) targeted the Kingitanga, which had been given an ultimatum to ‘swear allegiance to the Queen ... or face the consequences.' By 1864 British troops (with some Maori supporters) had occupied most of the Waikato. War continued sporadically for another decade. Hundreds of lives were lost during these campaigns and those that followed involving Te Kooti and Titokowaru. The second Maori King Tawhiao made a formal act of peace in 1882.

From 1865 the Native Land Court required that any given block of Maori land name no more than 10 owners. All other tribal members who may have been owners were effectively dispossessed. The newly designated owners held their lands individually, not communally as part of (or as trustees for) a tribal group. Essentially they could manage this land as they saw fit.

The government also passed laws to allow for the confiscation of land from Maori deemed to have been in rebellion against the Crown during the wars. Military settlers were placed on confiscated lands to act as a buffer between Maori and European communities. Even Maori regarded as ‘loyal' found themselves caught up in the process of confiscation. Approximately 500,000 hectares of land in Taranaki, Waikato, Tauranga, Eastern Bay of Plenty and Mohaka-Waikare was confiscated.

Though battered and bruised, the Kingitanga survived. A number of new Maori political and religious movements had also emerged. But Maori would face further challenges as the pace of the economic transformation of New Zealand increased in the 1870s.

Further information

How to cite this page

'Overview of NZ in the 19th century: 1840-70', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Aug-2014

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Overview of NZ in the 19th century: 1840-70

What do you know?

professor j a s grenville u k

Posted: 28 Aug 2010

this is an excellent contribution which stimulates further reading .clear and informative a great introduction .