Story: Empire and Commonwealth

Page 4. War and empire

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War was a recurrent feature of empire, enlarging or reducing Britain’s colonial holdings. It was also a local concern during New Zealand’s first 100 years – British troops fought in the New Zealand wars and the Royal Navy provided external security.

Imperial troops in New Zealand

Once established, the elected New Zealand government handled all internal matters except those concerned with Māori. The British government, sick of settler land-grabbing, wanted out. In the early 1860s Britain moved to reduce its expenditure on the internal security of self-governing colonies.

At this point the New Zealand wars started. The colonial government was dependent on imperial troops. Numbers reached a peak of 18,000 in 1864, and their withdrawal was delayed for several years. Despite New Zealand’s pleas, the last regiment left in February 1870, prompting a furious reaction – the mother country was seen by some as abandoning the colony.

External security

The question of how New Zealand would be defended against an outside attack was raised by Premier William Fox in December 1870. The solution was a strategy known as the Jervois Doctrine or ‘blue water school’. In return for British naval protection, the colonies would provide bases, contribute expeditionary forces to Britain’s wars and help pay for local units of the Royal Navy. From the late 1880s, two Royal Navy vessels were stationed in New Zealand waters. New Zealand contributed £20,000 per year towards their cost (about $4 million in 2020 terms), an amount that increased to £40,000 ($8 million) in 1903 and £100,000 ($17 million) in 1908.

South African War

At the end of the century, when the British fought the South African War (1899–1902), 6,500 New Zealanders enlisted in 10 volunteer contingents. Enthusiasm for the empire was at a high point. Within the government this was boosted by concern for New Zealand’s own security. The New Zealand and Australian governments competed to see who could be the most imperially patriotic, and 40,000 Wellingtonians farewelled the first contingent in 1899.

The South African War established the pattern later New Zealand military contributions would follow. Specially raised units were sent to serve overseas, fighting alongside forces from elsewhere in the empire.

First World War

The 1914–18 war provided a territorial boost to the empire. Germany’s colonies and parts of the former Ottoman Empire were shared out as ‘mandates’ – territories whose overlords would be accountable to the newly established League of Nations.

In the Pacific, New Zealand held on to German Samoa, and Australia to German (north-eastern) New Guinea, which included the Bismarck Archipelago and the northern Solomon Islands. Britain, Australia and New Zealand jointly took control of Nauru, which was administered by Australia. Nauru’s phosphate was mined for use as fertiliser by an Australian–New Zealand–British joint venture, the British Phosphate Commission.

Colonial rule

New Zealand’s occupation of German Samoa at the outset of the First World War gave it a taste of colonial rule. In 1920 the League of Nations allocated the mandate for the territory to New Zealand as Western Samoa. The difficulties of governing were soon apparent. The Mau independence movement of the 1920s culminated in Black Saturday, when New Zealand military police fired on a peaceful demonstration in December 1929, killing at least eight Samoans, including prominent leader Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. Several others later died of their injuries.

In 1914 Britain’s declaration of war applied also to the dominions, India and all other colonial dependencies, but the dominions made their own decisions about the form their participation took. They also demanded a voice in policy. To coordinate the war effort and to plan for peace, imperial war conferences and imperial war cabinets were held in 1917 and 1918.

Second World War

During the Second World War, the Commonwealth came under serious challenge and a number of territories were overrun. From the fall of France in 1940 until the German attack on the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on the USA in 1941, the British war effort was underpinned by the dominions, India and the colonies.

The fall of Singapore, then under British control, in 1942 was a decisive event for New Zealand, whose international alignment began to shift to the United States.

At the end of the war, the lost British territories were all recovered, and in Europe, the Mediterranean and Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia, new territories were occupied. In 1946 the ‘British world system’ reached its maximum territorial span.

How to cite this page:

W. David McIntyre, 'Empire and Commonwealth - War and empire', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by W. David McIntyre, published 20 Jun 2012