Story: History

Page 4. War, expansion and depression

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Early clashes

In the 1840s there were clashes between Māori and Pākehā. In Marlborough’s Wairau Valley in 1843, a dispute over land led to bloodshed. The war in the north (1845–46) began when Hōne Heke cut down a flagpole flying the British flag at Russell. There was also fighting over land in the 1840s in Wellington and Whanganui. In the 1850s, disputes between Māori over the sale of land to Europeans kept Taranaki in ferment.

Land as the issue

Until the late 1850s, the government managed to purchase enough land to meet settler demands. But many Māori became increasingly reluctant to sell their land, which tribes owned collectively. The Māori King movement, under the leadership of Wiremu Tāmihana, grew in part out of Māori resistance to land sales. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero was chosen as the first Māori King in 1858.

War in Taranaki and Waikato

The flashpoint was Taranaki. The refusal of Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke to sell land at Waitara led to war in 1860. The efforts of Māori to retain their land were depicted by the settlers as a challenge to British sovereignty. Māori resistance was effectively crushed after Governor George Grey took war into Waikato in 1863–64.

Two chiefs, Te Kooti and Tītokowaru, campaigned in the late 1860s, but by 1872 fighting over land had ended. Large areas of land were confiscated from ‘rebellious’ tribes. A Native Land Court gave land titles to individual Māori, to facilitate sales to Pākehā.

After the wars, many Māori drew back from contact with European settlers. Most lived in isolated rural communities. Māori land continued to pass into Pākehā hands, usually by sale through the Native Land Court. In the 1870s the village of Parihaka became the centre of a peaceful protest, led by the prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, against occupation of confiscated land in Taranaki. In 1881 government forces invaded Parihaka in an attempt to crush this resistance.

‘No resting place’

When he was under pressure to sell his tribe’s land at Waitara, Te Āti Awa chief Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke wrote to Donald McLean, the chief land purchase commissioner: ‘These lands will not be given by us into the Governor’s and your hands, lest we resemble the sea-birds which perch upon a rock, when the tide flows the rock is covered by the sea and the birds take flight, for they have no resting place.’ 1

Gold and wool

While progress in the North Island was held back by war, the South Island forged ahead on the proceeds from wool and gold. Sheep were turned loose on South Island grasslands. After gold was discovered in Otago in 1861 and then on the West Coast, settlers flooded in. Six years later the discovery of gold at Thames boosted the town of Auckland.

Wool ensured that Canterbury became the wealthiest province, and gold made Dunedin the largest town.

Vogel’s programme

Towards the end of the 1860s, gold production fell and wool prices slipped. A new boost to growth came in 1870 when Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel proposed a loans-funded programme of public works, including the building of railways and assisted immigration. The population increased dramatically. The (non-Māori) census of 1871 recorded a total of about one-quarter of a million people; 10 years later there were half a million. Vogel’s policies, like those of Wakefield before him, were based on a belief that New Zealand would only grow if people and capital could both be attracted. This stimulated a sense of a single colony rather than separate settlements, and led to the abolition of the provinces in 1876.

A long depression

The aftermath of Vogel’s borrowing was an economic depression that lasted into the 1890s. After a brief boom in wheat, prices for farm products sagged. The market for land seized up. Hard times led to urban unemployment and sweated labour in industry. The country lost people through emigration, mostly to Australia.

The frozen-meat industry

Scarcely had depression gripped the country than future prosperity was anticipated with the first successful shipment of frozen meat to England in 1882. Exporting meat (frozen) and butter and cheese (chilled) became possible. After initial setbacks in refrigerated shipping, New Zealand became a British farm. With an economy based on agriculture, the landscape was transformed from forest to farmland.

  1. Quoted in Ann Parsonson, ‘Te Rangitāke, Wiremu Kīngi, ?–1882’. Dictionary of New Zealand biography, › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'History - War, expansion and depression', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Apr 2020