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Māori King movement - 1860-94

Page 2 – Build-up to war

Like his father, King Tāwhiao had no intention of becoming involved in the war in Taranaki. The government, however, was unconvinced of this. In July 1860 Governor Gore Browne, seeking to isolate the Kīngitanga, invited about 200 chiefs to a conference at Kohimarama, Auckland. Chiefs from areas deemed to be in rebellion, such as Taranaki and Waikato, were not invited. The conference reaffirmed the Treaty of Waitangi and the sovereignty of Queen Victoria. However, those present neither endorsed the government's military action in Taranaki nor condemned the Kīngitanga.

Gore Browne was not pleased. Many Pākehā were critical of his performance as governor, and no significant military progress had been made in Taranaki. A breakthrough came in March 1861, when Kīngitanga leader Wiremu Tamihana visited Taranaki in an attempt to broker a truce with Native Secretary Donald McLean. The guns fell silent on 18 March. Despite the fact that he ended the fighting, some Pākehā interpreted Tamehana’s intervention as a veiled recruitment drive for the Kīngitanga. While the peace terms required Taranaki Māori to submit formally to the Queen's authority, few actually took the oath of allegiance.

In April 1861, Gore Browne upped the ante by demanding that the Kīngitanga submit ‘without reserve’ to the British Queen. His plan to invade Waikato was thwarted when he was reassigned to Tasmania, but it was soon revived by his replacement, Sir George Grey. For the Colonial Office, Grey's success in the Northern War and his neutralisation of the powerful Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha during his first term as governor (1845–53) made him the man most likely to resolve its New Zealand problem.

Grey began by using flattery and patronage to try to buy Māori support. Then John Gorst was appointed as resident magistrate for Waikato in an attempt to undermine the Māori King's authority. Gorst used his newspaper, Te Pihoihoi Mokemoke – a rival to the Kīngitanga newspaper Te Hokioi – to ridicule the King movement.

Grey's backup plan was to use military force to assert European authority. A courthouse that could double as police barracks would be built inside the King’s territory. New roads to Mangatāwhiri (the Great South Road) and inland from Raglan would facilitate the movement of troops and supplies in the event of war. A redoubt would be built at Te Ia on the Waikato River, which would be patrolled by armoured paddle-steamers.

The threat of war undermined the unity of the King movement. Wiremu Tamihana’s supporters were ready to accept magistrates and courts, and Tāwhiao's advisers and immediate followers were also committed to peace. Other factions were less conciliatory.

At Taupiri in January 1863, Grey announced his intention to dig around the Kīngitanga until it fell. Tamihana responded that just as the nations of Europe had their own sovereigns, Māori should be able to choose one. This statement was taken as proof that sovereignty was at the root of the Waikato ‘rebellion’. Baseless rumours of an imminent Māori attack on Auckland increased the tension. Settlers and missionaries fled from Waikato after several violent incidents. Grey exploited the situation to secure more British troops.

Fresh fighting erupted in Taranaki in the autumn of 1863 over the government's reoccupation of the Tataraimaka block. Rewi Maniapoto's alleged involvement in Taranaki gave Grey the excuse he needed. In July he issued an ultimatum to all Māori living between Auckland and the Waikato River: swear allegiance to the Queen and give up arms or be deemed to be in rebellion and face the consequences. Grey could call on thousands of British troops, as well as settler militia and some Māori forces, who were known as kūpapa or Queenites to distinguish them from the Kīngitanga or ‘Kingites’.

On 12 July 1863 British troops crossed the Mangatāwhiri stream, which the Kīngitanga had declared an aukati (a line that should not be crossed). The invasion of Waikato had begun.

Kūpapa Māori

Māori seen as loyal to the British were often referred to as kūpapa, a word which had originally meant neutral. Another term used was Queenite, signifying loyalty to Queen Victoria. These Māori were often cited as evidence that Māori fighting against the British were rebels or did not reflect mainstream Māori opinion.

This interpretation is misleading. Kūpapa often fought against other Māori not out of loyalty to the Crown, but because the British were fighting traditional rivals and could be made use of to help settle old scores.

Historian Michael King believed kūpapa Māori generally prospered in the aftermath of the New Zealand Wars. Their land largely escaped confiscation and they received positive government attention, as well as 'ceremonial swords for their leaders, monuments for their dead, and consultation on some matters of public policy'.

How to cite this page

Build-up to war, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated