Story: Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state

Page 2. Implementing kāwanatanga

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Accommodating Māori custom

In the first years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the colonial administration found it practically impossible to extend its control to all Māori districts. The first governors had almost no military force at their disposal and a limited civil administration. They therefore had little choice but to tolerate and even accommodate Māori law and custom.

For example, in 1844 Governor Robert FitzRoy introduced the Native Exemption Ordinance. This provided that in legal cases involving both Māori and non-Māori, convicted Māori thieves could pay up to four times the value of goods stolen in lieu of other punishment. This was a legal equivalent of the traditional Māori custom of muru, or retribution for a crime.

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 provided for the establishment of native districts within which many Māori ‘laws, customs, and usages’ would ‘be maintained for the government of themselves’. However, no such native districts were actually established.

Legally European

One example of the government’s policy of assimilating Māori into European life came in 1912. A provision was introduced to the Native Land Amendment Act enabling Māori to apply to the Native Land Court to be declared a European in law. This Europeanisation was not based on their proportion of non-Māori blood but on social factors such as knowledge of the English language, basic European education, and sufficient income from a profession, trade or land. Before the provision was repealed in 1931, 77 Māori were declared Europeans.

Assimilation and British law

The government’s limited recognition of Māori customary law was intended as a temporary measure, until a later generation of Māori accepted British-based law. Persuading Māori to embrace European habits, customs and language was part of this process. Government-sponsored Māori-language newspapers such as Te Karere Maori or the Maori Messenger Te Manuhiri Tuarangi and Maori Intelligencer invited Māori to surrender to Pākehā ‘the regulating of all things, for with him is wisdom and power and wealth and nobility, and he will preserve the government (Kawanatanga) of your island … cast aside the Maori life, and adopt the usages of the Pakeha’.1 Many Māori followed this advice, but the majority chose to retain at least some features of ‘the Maori life’.

Armed enforcement

At times the government resorted to armed force to assert its kāwanatanga and counter challenges to its authority. In 1844–45 the northern chief Hōne Heke Pōkai and his followers repeatedly chopped down the flagstaff at Kororāreka (later Russell), which flew the symbol of British kāwanatanga, the Union Jack.

Governor Robert FitzRoy eventually employed armed force to quell Heke and his allies. A later governor, Thomas Gore Browne, asserted kāwanatanga by refusing to recognise customary Māori ownership of land at Waitara in Taranaki. This action led to the outbreak of war in 1860.

Governor George Grey’s unwillingness to accept a rival sovereignty in New Zealand led him to order a military invasion of the Waikato region, the centre of the Māori King movement, in 1863. A large military force was used again in 1881 to break up the Parihaka community in Taranaki, whose leaders, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, were committed to peaceful resistance to the colonial government.

When Māori in the Far North refused to pay a tax on dogs in the late 1890s and when Rua Kēnana and his followers at Maungapōhatu, in Te Urewera, opposed the war effort during the First World War, the government again resorted to the use of armed force to assert its kāwanatanga.

  1. Te Karere Maori or the Maori Messenger 2, no. 3 (2 May 1862), p. 30. Translation by Paul Meredith. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, 'Kāwanatanga – Māori engagement with the state - Implementing kāwanatanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Paul Meredith and Rawinia Higgins, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Aug 2016