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. Within 18 years the settler population would outnumber Māori. By 1870 the non-Māori population had 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 years of the signing of the Treaty. The Māori response was sustained and determined, and 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. While it underpins much of our history, for some, particualrly non-Māori, it is viewed as a distraction or even as irrelevant 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 understanding our history but building our future as a nation. 

Considerable attention and debate has focused 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, which guaranteed Māori control over their possessions (so long as that was their desire), has become the 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 to the killing of 22 New Zealand Company settlers who attempted to enforce a survey of Ngāti Toa land at Wairau in 1843. Governor FitzRoy concluded that the settlers were at fault for what had happened. The settler population was outraged. The reality was that even had he wanted to punish Ngāti Toa, FitzRoy lacked the military 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 since 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 had signed the Treaty of Waitangi but became 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 sovereignty, Heke was highlighting what he saw as a breach of the agreement reached at Waitangi. He 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 Ōhaeawai, FitzRoy was replaced by George Grey. Grey, one of the dominant political figures of 19th-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 year a New Zealand Constitution Act proposed a form of representative government for the 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, accused him of behaving like an autocrat. Constitutional Associations bombarded the Colonial Office with ‘memorials and petitions'.

A new Constitution Act was passed in 1852. Elections were held the following year and New Zealand's first Parliament met in Auckland in 1854. Men who owned or rented property could vote, but as Māori possessed their land communally almost all were excluded. Four Māori parliamentary seats were created in 1867, but they were very much in the minority in a Parliament with 76 members. The Governor retained responsibility for Māori affairs until 1865, when this was handed over to the New Zealand government.

Access to land remained the priority for the settler population, as did its retention for Māori. In 1846 the Colonial Office instructed that all Māori land ownership was to be registered. Lands deemed to be unused or surplus would become Crown land. Only the Crown could buy land from Māori, so it was not obliged to pay a market rate. The government had the final say in any disputes.

The Kīngitanga

The settler population eclipsed that of Māori 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 Kīngitanga or King movement was formed to protect land from further sales and make laws for Māori to follow. Many Māori supported this attempt to unite their tribes, but some chiefs refused to place their mana under that of someone else.

The Kīngitanga did not consider itself as being in opposition to the Queen, but rather as complementary. The colonial government disagreed. It viewed the Kīngitanga 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 Kīngitanga and its supporters at the Kohimarama Conference. The 200 or so Māori 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, in March 1860 after one faction of Te Āti Awa opposed an offer by another group to sell land to the Crown. The Governor declared martial law and sent in troops. Those fighting the Crown in Taranaki received assistance form the Kīngitanga. A ceasefire ended the fighting in Taranaki in 1861, but warfare spread to other parts of the North Island from 1863 until the early 1870s. The Waikato War (1863-4) targeted the Kīngitanga, which had been given an ultimatum to ‘swear allegiance to the Queen ... or face the consequences.' By 1864 British troops (with some Māori 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 Tītokowaru. The second Maori King, Tāwhiao, made a formal act of peace in 1882.

From 1865 the Native Land Court required that any block of Māori land have no more than 10 named owners. Other tribal members were effectively dispossessed. The newly designated owners held their lands individually, not communally as part of (or 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 Māori 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 Māori and European communities. Even Māori 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 northern Hawke’s Bay was confiscated.

Though battered and bruised, the Kīngitanga survived. A number of new Māori political and religious movements had also emerged. But Māori would face further challenges as the pace of economic transformation 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 11-Dec-2019

Community contributions

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

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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 .