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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




It has become increasingly difficult for an historian to know what he means when he speaks of “cause”, in view of the subtle and contradictory analyses of historical explanation by modern philosophers. The Maori Wars would offer an admirable battleground for the several theorists. The student who accepted Hume's principle of regularity which asserts (to the discomfort of most historians, who believe that they deal only with the concrete case) that it is only possible to postulate “cause” where there is multiplicity of instances, would note that the British were involved in a number of similar native wars in the nineteenth century. Following the positivist theory of the “covering law”, as framed by C. G. Hempel, he might hypothesise some law such as: “If large numbers of nineteenth century British settlers intrude among a war-like primitive people, fighting will (probably) occur”. But such a statement could scarcely be made, without the “probable”, in a law-like form. Or if the student thought of historical explanation as resting on common-sense judgments about human nature, as suggested by W. H. Walsh, his account of the origins of the Maori Wars would assume some such generalisation as: “Men are likely to fight when their livelihood and social order are threatened by a rival community”; or “Racial fear and hatred are likely to produce aggression”. Collingwood's idealist army might take the field too. But the present historian must be dogmatic, because he must be brief; must largely ignore the logical status of his explanation, in order to summarise a few generalisations that appear to rest on good evidence.

The Maori Wars against the British were a product of imperialism, or more specifically, of colonisation. The two more immediate causes were racial antagonism and socio-economic competition, though these may be separated only for the purpose of analysis and exposition, the latter being the material and rational aspect, the former the irrational aspect, of a single complex rivalry. Perhaps the subject may best be approached through the obvious fact that colonisation involved a direct competition for possession of the limited areas of easily cultivable land in the North Island, where most of the Maoris and Europeans lived. For the Maoris this was not an issue purely nor even primarily economic. The land of each tribe was its homeland. To increasing numbers of Maoris, the sale of land to the European Government amounted to selling their country. The land was the scene of the tribal traditions and the ancient legends on which their youth had been nurtured, their self-regard formed. And it seemed inextricably involved with the Maoris' future as a distinctive people. The loss of the land was paralleled by the decline in their population; it seemed doubtful whether, without it, they could anticipate any future worth thinking of. Though the settlers were not New Zealand patriots, to them, too, the land was more than an economic question, for the future of their communities depended upon acquiring it.

The Land Question

From the commencement of organised colonisation, in 1840, many Maori tribes opposed the sale of land. At every New Zealand Company settlement there was a threat of fighting, or actual bloodshed, as in the so-called Wairau “massacre” (q.v.), over disputed land purchases. That their conflicting interests over land were not the only cause of war between Maoris and British may be seen from Hone Heke's and Kawiti's rebellion at the Bay of Islands, 1844–46, which resulted largely from the sheer love of fighting of turbulent young men who were throwing off the influence of their elders. Though some of their grievances related to land questions, they seem to have been more worried about the cessation of land sales than about the danger of landlessness. The situation in the north differed considerably from that in the New Zealand Company settlements, where the rapidly increasing number of settlers seemed a menace. Many settlers were leaving the north, and the Maoris, who had become accustomed to European forms of wealth, and who had never feared the settlers, resented the poverty which followed British annexation. But it is significant that, even in this situation, the Maoris were agitated by rumours, deriving from reports of a debate in the British Parliament, that the Government intended to confiscate their lands.

A Maori anti-land-selling movement appeared in the 1840s and spread rapidly in the fifties, notably in Taranaki and the Waikato. A number of attempts were made in the early fifties to form leagues of tribes pledged to sell no more land, attempts unsuccessful because there was always a minority tempted by the thought of Government money. This movement coincided with a boom in agricultural prices, 1851–56, which brought prosperity to both races, and encouraged an increased rate of European migration. It was a direct threat to the interests of the settlers, who demanded more land when the Maoris were willing to sell less. The Government Land Purchase Department was led into underhand or “secret” purchases of land, news of which exacerbated Maori resentment. Maori sentiment against land sales was one of the main stimuli which in 1858 induced the Waikato, Taupo, and some other tribes to elect a King, Te Wherowhero, an old chief who now took the title of Potatau I. In the next two years he gained the adherence of the three Taranaki tribes. These Maoris acknowledged Potatau as their “King” and placed their lands under his protection, trusting that his mana would prevent their sale. Thus there was now indeed a Maori “land league”. But the King movement was more than that; it also represented a crystallisation of Maori national feeling.

Maori Nationalism

Evidence of the existence of mutual antagonism may be found from the early years of contact between Maoris and Europeans. The attitude of many educated and Christian settlers towards the Maoris was influenced by the evangelical doctrine of the unity of man, but it is plain that the majority imported with them assumptions of superiority over non-Europeans which were strengthened by misunderstandings arising from intercourse with the Maoris and changed to fear and antagonism by Maori resistance to settlement. That the Maoris felt a growing hostility to the settlers is equally clear from their letters and recorded sayings. J. E. Gorst in The Maori King (1864) gave vivid expression to the brute force of this feeling, when he wrote, “Men who are habitually told that they emit a disagreeable smell, are not likely to feel a strong affection toward the race that smells them”.

The Maoris in pre-European times had little (if any) sense of unity, and no word for themselves as a people. The word “maori” meant “normal”. They thought of themselves as members of tribes as distinct as European nations. A sense of nationality arose after the Europeans came, and led to the kotahitanga or “unity” movement, which joined with the anti-land-selling movement in inspiring the election of the Maori King. Maori nationalism was a product of contact with foreigners, but not, as in many parts of the world, of foreign rule, for the European Government had not seriously attempted to bring the bulk of the Maoris under European law and its penalties, other than by suppressing armed rebellion. Enlightened contemporary observers, like the Chief Justice, Sir William Martin, considered that the King movement was an attempt to introduce a political order to replace decaying tribal authority, which certainly was one motive of Wiremu Tamihana, its most distinguished leader. But his conclusion, that if the Government had governed the Maoris they would not have sought to create their own organisation, would not be accepted by many modern students, who are likely to judge, in the light of the history of nationalism since 1860, that more European interference with the native society would have stimulated, rather than prevented, Maori nationalism.

The King Movement

The loose federation of King tribes had little real political coherence and no effective institutions for cooperative action, but as the focus and symbol of Maori national feeling and resistance to land sales Potatau I was stronger than the Government was willing to believe. Official policy was to ignore him, in the expectation that his support would rapidly disintegrate. This did not occur, and the settlers soon came to regard him as a barrier to their purposes, an affront to their Queen, and a challenge to their Government. The Maori nationalists and the settlers, whose Ministers had since 1856 governed their domestic business, other than Maori affairs, under the system of responsible government, now had incompatible views of the future of the country, and had potentially conflicting political organisations. Two nations or one, the progress of colonisation or the conservation of Maori tribal society on its territories, were the alternatives presented by the coexistence of colonial ministry and Maori King. The situation had become very dangerous, and it was widely felt on both sides that war was imminent. The Maoris learned from the 1858 census that in numbers they were already inferior to the settlers. If they were to resist colonisation, the lesson was clear that they must do so soon. In Taranaki, where the Europeans had little land, there had been since 1854 a feud between the Maori land sellers and land holders in which the settlers longed to join. And while racial relations deteriorated, the Government had since 1856 been effectively paralysed by the rivalry of Governor and his officers on the one hand, the Ministers and the House on the other, to govern Maori affairs. Scarcely any attempt had been made to control the situation.

There is no need, in the case of the New Zealand wars of the sixties, to distinguish underlying causes and immediate occasion, for the latter directly arose from and exemplified the former. Nor is there space to relate details of the Waitara purchase: it must be sufficient to say that fighting began over an attempt by the Government to buy land, urgently needed by the settlers, against the wishes of the local chief, Wiremu Kingi, and the majority of his tribe. Kingi was not at that time a supporter of Potatau (though he joined his party when war began) but he opposed further land sales and the authorities believed that he was acting as the agent of a “land league” to prevent the rightful owners of the land from selling. For different reasons they were antagonistic to him, and determined to acquire the land, which the local settlers, who were openly hostile to Kingi, had long urged. Later investigations showed that what the authorities regarded as his “pretensions” were clear rights to a paramount voice in the disposal of the land.

The first campaign of 1860–61 in Taranaki was succeeded in 1863 by another which arose in part from the same situation. The Maoris held European land at Tataraimaka as security for the land at Waitara, which was occupied by troops. Sir George Grey reoccupied Tataraimaka before instigating an investigation of the title to the Waitara Block which convinced him that the Government had been in the wrong. Before he had induced the Ministers to agree to return the Waitara Block to its Maori owners, hostile Maoris had ambushed a party of troops near Tataraimaka. Having inflicted a severe defeat on the Taranaki “rebels”, Grey launched an invasion of the Waikato to put down the King party, which was the strongest centre of Maori disaffection. A long wearying war, which the Maoris appropriately called the “white man's quarrel”, had commenced.

  • The Maori King, Gorst, J. E. (1864; 2nd ed. 1959)
  • Sir George Grey, A Study in Colonial Government, Rutherford, J. (1961)
  • The Origins of the Maori Wars, Sinclair, K. (1957; 2nd ed. 1961).

by Keith Sinclair, M.A., PH.D., Professor of History, University of Auckland.


Keith Sinclair, M.A., PH.D., Professor of History, University of Auckland.James Rutherford, M.A.(DURHAM), PH.D.(MICH.) (1906–63), Historian, Auckland.Maurice Peter Keith Sorrenson, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL. (OXON.), Senior Lecturer in History, University of Auckland.