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The Treaty in practice

Page 2 – Slide to war

Slide to war

War dominated the North Island in the 1860s. The causes of the conflict have been much debated, but settler hunger for land and the government's desire to impose real sovereignty over Māori were key factors.

A shift in power

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 set up the country's parliamentary system, based on the British model. Elections were held in 1853, and in May 1854 New Zealand's first Parliament sat. A property qualification based on European land tenure decided who could vote. This effectively denied many Pākehā and most Māori (who owned land communally) the right to vote or participate in parliamentary processes. The governor retained responsibility for Māori affairs, but Parliament become a vocal mouthpiece for Pākehā interests. Things changed from 1864 when the New Zealand government took over Māori affairs. In practice, the New Zealand government became the Crown, but Māori still looked to the Queen and the British Parliament for their promised protection.

Power had moved from the governor – the Queen's representative, with whom Māori had signed the Treaty – to an often unsympathetic institution in which Māori interests were excluded or marginalised. The shift revealed the underlying struggle for control between Māori and the settlers.

Influential chiefs such as Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi called for a role in the governance of their own affairs. Such requests fell on deaf ears. Legislation passed in 1858 (the Native Districts Regulation Act and Native Circuit Courts Act) allowed meaningful Māori involvement in the administration of their affairs, but these laws did not take full effect until the early 1860s, which was too late to ease Māori anxiety.

Kingitanga – the King movement

Some tribes, led by Waikato–Tainui, wanted a Māori king to hold their lands and people together. Potatau Te Wherowhero became the first Māori King in 1858. He and Tawhiao (his son and successor) made it clear that they were not opposed to Pākehā settlement or to the Crown's sovereignty over the Crown's lands. They wanted to administer the affairs of their own people under the protection of Queen Victoria, in much the same way that Parliament administered the affairs of the settlers. Some prominent settlers saw the Kingitanga as a chance to bring law to previously ungovernable Māori districts. Governors Grey and Browne saw the movement as a treasonable land league that challenged the authority of the Crown and future British settlement.

The Kohimarama conference

At Kohimarama, Auckland, in July 1860 Governor Browne convened a conference of chiefs he considered loyal. He hoped to gain their backing for the Crown's actions that had led to war over the Waitara block purchase in Taranaki earlier that year. He also wanted to isolate the Kingitanga, which had supported the defenders of Waitara. Browne got lukewarm support, but more than 200 chiefs attended the month-long conference, which concluded with a strong endorsement of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Some tribes later dated their attachment to the Crown from this event. The conference also allowed Crown officials to confirm their commitment to the Treaty at a time of great tension. The event seemed to promise Māori a meaningful say in the governance of issues affecting them.

The chiefs wanted the conference to be a regular event, and New Zealand's Parliament voted the funds to stage another conference. George Grey, governor again from 1861, had other ideas. He cancelled the plans, partly because he did not think it wise 'to call a number of semi-barbarous Natives together to frame a Constitution for themselves'. He proposed, instead, that Māori districts be administered through runanga (tribal assemblies), supervised by the Crown. This was based on the 1858 legislation giving Māori a greater role in their affairs. The runanga were reasonably successful in some more settled areas. In the end, they could do little to overcome huge distrust of the Crown in many disaffected Māori communities.

The New Zealand Wars

The New Zealand Wars is the title most commonly used for the conflicts that occurred in the North Island from 1860 to the early 1870s. The first shots rang out in Taranaki early in 1860. In 1859 Governor Thomas Gore Browne agreed to buy land at Waitara, in Taranaki, against the express wishes of superior chief Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake and other claimants. Māori resistance to land sales had grown in the 1850s. When Browne ordered the army to support the survey of the block in February 1860, armed conflict erupted and continued for about a year. Governor George Grey later admitted the Crown had been at fault and returned the block to its owners.

In July 1863 the Waikato War began when British troops invaded the heartland of the Kingitanga. Grey believed the Waikato to be the centre of resistance to British authority, and he feared an attack on Auckland. A year and several bitter battles later, conflict in the Waikato ended. The Kingitanga was seriously weakened, and much of the district was devastated. Fighting continued elsewhere in the North Island until 1872.

War provided the opportunity to gain Māori land for settlement. The New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 allowed land to be taken within proclaimed areas. This was usually without due inquiry or the legal protections given to other British subjects and despite some formal compensation procedures being available. The title of the act suggested that it was to assist European settlement, but its intention was to punish Māori by confiscating their lands. Vast areas in the Waikato, Taranaki, Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay districts were said to be confiscated. In places such as Poverty Bay, land was said to be ceded to the Crown under pressure. Confiscation, known to Māori as raupatu, prolonged Māori resistance, partly as many so-called Crown loyalists found their own lands included.

More than 4 million acres (16,200 sq km) of Māori land was confiscated. About half of this was subsequently paid for or returned to Māori, but it was often not returned to its original owners. Land was never returned to tribal ownership under customary title but always to individuals under Crown grant.

How to cite this page

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