NZ in the 19th century

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

The Treaty of Waitangi  paved the way for greater European settlement in New Zealand. Māori society would experience great upheaval as a consequence. Wihin eighteen the settler population would outnumber Māori. By 1870 the non-Māori population passed 250,000 and with this population growth came an insatiable appetite for more Māori land for settlement and settler control of the political landscape. Despite the promise of partnership, conflict erupted within a few short years of the signing of the Treaty. The Māori repsonse was sustained and determined with resistance was not confined to the battlefield.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi, regarded as New Zealand's founding document, has been a source of much debate and controversy in New Zealand society. While it underpins much of our history, for some, particualrly non-Māori, it is viewed as a distraction or even an irrelevancy to modern New Zealand. It is regarded as something that divides 'us' as a nation. Others see dealing with the many breaches that followed its signing in 1840 as critical to not only undersatnding our history but building our future as a nation. 

Considerable attention and debate has focussed on the the meaning of the English and Māori versions of the Treaty, and what was perhaps 'lost in translation'. Putting such discussion to one side, the British believed that Article 1 gave them sovereignty over New Zealand. Article 2 while guaranteeing Māori control over their possessions (so long as that was their desire) has becomethe focus of many of the grievances subsequently expressed by iwi and hapū. in Article 3 Māori were given the rights and protection due all British subjects. In effect Queen Victoria became their ‘mother and protector.'

Despite the assertion that the Crown had acquired sovereignty, Māori superiority of numbers meant little changed in reality in terms of who was in charge. This can be seen in the Crown's response over the killing of 22 New Zealand Company settlers who attempted to force the survey of Ngāti Toa land at Wairau in 1843. Governor FitzRoy concluded that the settlers were at fault for what happened. The settler population was outraged. 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. This was the first serious challenge to the Crown in the years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Its opening shots marked the beginning of the wider North Island conflicts that are often referred to as the New Zealand Wars. Heke was a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi but was increasingly concerned that Māori had lost status and control of their affairs to the British Crown. New rules and regulations cost Māori in the Bay of Islands trade and other economic opportunities. The imposition of customs duties and shipping levies increased prices and deprived Māori of sources of revenue. A ban on the felling of kauri and Crown control of land sales added to fears that Māori authority was being undermined. In attacking such an obvious symbol of British soveriegnty he was highlighting what he saw as a breach of the agreement he had given at Waitangi. Heke had no intention of harming settlers or hurting trade prospects. 

British troops and their Māori allies (Heke's rivals), in particualr Tāmati Wāka Nene, Eruera Maihi Patuone, Mohi Tawhai and Makoare Te Taonui fought against Heke and his principal ally Te Ruki Kawiti. Following defeats at Puketutu and Ohaeawai, FitzRoy was replaced by George Grey. Grey, one of the dominant political figures of nineteenth century New Zealand, secured more manpower and resources and claimed victory at Ruapekapeka in January 1846. Grey 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 Māori majority and that the risk of war was too great. Settlers, angered by his actions, accusewd him of behaving like an autocrat. Constitutional Associations were formed which bombarded the Colonial Office with ‘memorials and petitions'.

A new constitution was finally introduced in 1852. Elections were held the following year and New Zealand's first Parliament met in Auckland 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 29-Oct-2018

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 .