Story: Ngā take Māori – government policy and Māori

Page 2. A new colony, 1840s to 1850s

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Protector of aborigines

Two months after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Governor William Hobson appointed a protector of aborigines. The first protector was George Clarke, an Anglican missionary. He set up the first government organisation to protect Māori interests and implement the promises of the treaty. Its original powers included protecting Māori from the harmful influences of colonists, advising the governor on Māori issues and purchasing Māori land. At that time only the Crown could buy land from Māori, a contentious policy known as ‘Crown pre-emption’. Clarke found that being a land agent for the government placed him in a compromised position and aroused Māori suspicion. Eventually, the governor relieved him of this duty.

Clarke built up his office to become chief protector of aborigines, supervising five regional protectors. He believed that legal cases involving Māori should be heard by native courts. Cases involving only Māori would be heard by chiefs and an all-Māori jury. A magistrate and mixed-race jury would hear cases involving Europeans as well. This plan was rejected.

Māori rights

George Clarke lost his position as protector of aborigines in 1846, after George Grey became governor of New Zealand. In a final message to the governor, Clarke reminded him that New Zealand had been an independent country prior to 1840, and that the Treaty of Waitangi was subsequently regarded by Māori as their ‘Magna Charta’. He advised Grey that Māori should be given ‘the common rights and privileges of British subjects … and that they should be led, not forced, into the observance of British law.’1

Protectorate abolished

Relations with some northern Māori became violent in 1845 and the British Colonial Office appointed a new governor, George Grey. Grey believed that retaining the chiefs’ traditional authority would hamper the process of colonisation. In 1846 he abolished the position of protector of aborigines and personally assumed responsibility for dealing with Māori chiefs. In this capacity he oversaw the government purchase of much of the South Island in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The position of native secretary was created to assist Grey in this work, but at first it was a purely administrative role with no political or economic authority.

Māori voting rights

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 gave the vote to all adult males owning property of a certain value. Communally held Māori land was not recognised, so almost all Māori were effectively denied the vote. However, section 71 of the act enabled separate districts within which Māori could govern themselves to a considerable extent. This section was never implemented.

Media for Māori

Government agencies have produced a number of periodicals to communicate with Māori about their policies. For four years, starting in 1842, Protector of Aborigines George Clarke published the monthly Māori-language newspaper Te Karere o Nui Tireni (The Messenger of New Zealand). In 1861, after war broke out between Māori and the government, the Native Department produced Te Waka Maori. It was published until 1876. Between 1952 and 1976 the Maori Affairs Department published the bilingual quarterly magazine Te Ao Hou, ‘to provide interesting and informative reading for Maori homes … like a marae on paper, where all questions of interest to the Maori can be discussed.’2


Since they lacked political power through the electoral system, Māori set up their own unofficial rūnanga (tribal councils) where chiefs and elders could hear disputes and administer their own people. Francis Fenton, a temporary native secretary who later became resident magistrate in the Waikato, encouraged the government to grant official status to these rūnanga. He believed this would make Māori more willing to sell their remaining lands and less likely to rebel against the government. Legislation was passed in 1858 to set up ‘native districts’ headed by rūnanga – but again, little effort was made to implement these new laws.

Chief land purchase commissioner

Donald McLean, a migrant from the Scottish Highlands who spoke fluent Māori, had been a protector of aborigines under George Clarke in 1844. From 1853 he held the newly created post of chief land purchase commissioner, and from 1856 he also took over Francis Fenton’s position as native secretary. McLean oversaw the purchase of huge tracts of Māori land. The undertakings made in Lord Normanby’s 1839 instructions and in the Treaty of Waitangi, to preserve lands and other resources needed by Māori, were not honoured by these land deals. The government made little effort to uphold the authority of the chiefs in their own regions.

  1. Quoted in G. V. Butterworth and H. R. Young, Maori Affairs. Wellington: Iwi Transition Agency; GP Books, 1990, p. 23. Back
  2. Te Ao Hou 1 (Winter 1952), p. 1, (last accessed 11 October 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Ngā take Māori – government policy and Māori - A new colony, 1840s to 1850s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2019)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012