New Zealand's 19th-century wars

Page 2 – Pre-1860 conflicts

During the Musket Wars of the 1810s-1830s thousands of Māori fled from their traditional lands, opening large areas to potential Pākehā (European) settlement.

In 1840, Europeans bought one desirable depopulated area, Auckland, for a small sum. This purchase sowed the seeds of interracial conflict. Ngāpuhi led by Hōne Heke felt betrayed when trade slumped after the colonial government quit the Bay of Islands for Auckland. In 1845, Heke and Te Ruki Kawiti (an expert at designing modern pā capable of resisting artillery bombardment) launched a campaign that threatened British control in the north. But other Ngāpuhi allied themselves with the government, and the conflict fizzled out. (Read more about the Northern War).

Further south, 22 Europeans and four Māori had been killed on 17 June 1843, when an armed party of New Zealand Company settlers clashed with Ngāti Toa over the ownership of land in the Wairau Valley near today's town of Blenheim. The new governor, Robert FitzRoy, decided that the Māori had been provoked by the unreasonable actions of the Europeans and took no further action.

After the Northern War ended, FitzRoy's successor as governor, the energetic George Grey, moved to secure the towns of Wellington and Whanganui against allies of Te Rauparaha. Fighting flared in both regions but died away when other iwi backed the economically valuable Pākehā.

The 1850s was a decade of uneasy peace. Settlers and sheep spread across the South Island, which had never had many Māori inhabitants. But in the North Island, most colonists remained stuck in coastal settlements.

In 1854 the first New Zealand Parliament met in Auckland. Initially the governor retained most of his power, but by 1856 the settlers had achieved ‘responsible’ government. The development of settler government (there were at first no Māori MPs) reflected the increase in Pākehā numbers. By 1858 there were more Europeans in New Zealand than Māori. As new settlements grew, the pressure on Māori land increased. 

The British government had always wanted the colony to pay its own way. In 1860 Māori still owned 80% of the North Island, and many hapū had taken up commercial farming to supply the settlers. Acquiring Māori land – especially land that Pākehā chose to see as unoccupied ‘waste land’ – was now a key policy.

How to cite this page

'Pre-1860 conflicts', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Sep-2021