Story: Ngā take Māori – government policy and Māori

Page 3. Conflict and compromise, 1860s to 1920s

All images & media in this story

The Kīngitanga

In 1858 Māori formed a large intertribal movement headed by a Māori king. The Kīngitanga (King movement) aimed to foster unity between tribes and give Māori greater authority in national affairs. One of its main goals was an end to sales of tribal land. However, Governor Thomas Gore Browne was determined to force land sales in spite of opposition from the chiefs. From 1860 this policy led to war between Māori and the government, first in Taranaki and then in other parts of the North Island.

Sewell’s criticisms

Henry Sewell, a Canterbury lawyer and politician in the 1850s and 1860s, believed the government often failed to meet its responsibilities to Māori. He supported former Native Secretary Francis Fenton’s rūnanga policy and felt the Kīngitanga should be officially recognised, as an example of Māori claiming authority that the colonial government should have provided to them.

District rūnanga

To end conflict with the Kīngitanga, George Grey was brought back for a second term as governor. In 1861 he proposed a ‘plan for native government’, the first government system to give tribes significant administrative and legal authority in their own districts. It set up 20 Māori districts, each headed by a Pākehā civil commissioner who presided over Pākehā resident magistrates and Māori district rūnanga. Each rūnanga selected its own assessors (native magistrates). However, few district rūnanga were successfully established. The Taranaki, Waikato and Maniapoto districts remained suspicious of the government’s intentions, and in 1863 war broke out again.

Māori schools

In 1865 a new native minister, Andrew Russell, began to dismantle the rūnanga system. He believed that ‘the object of the Government must be to identify the Natives with ourselves, to become one people’.1 His under-secretary, William Rolleston, set up a colonywide system of schools for Māori. These taught in English and lasted well into the 20th century. They gave some Māori an opportunity to engage effectively with non-Māori society.

Reviving the rūnanga

Once the Native Land Court began operating in 1865, the Native Department ceased to be the government’s land purchasing office – but its main activity remained the negotiation of sales of Māori land. By 1870 some tribes no longer owned enough land to sustain their people, and others had withdrawn to remote regions where they had little contact with Europeans. Over the following decade, the government under Julius Vogel attempted to engage with Māori to advance its ambitious public works programme.

Donald McLean was native minister from 1869 until his death in 1876. He revived Grey’s rūnanga system, based on resident magistrates and native assessors who worked closely with Māori in their districts, ‘leading them to cleanliness and order and gently weaning them from their communistic practices’.2 However, the rūnanga already formed by Māori themselves were not recognised by the government, despite many requests from chiefs. This meant that Māori were still unable to control or prevent further loss of their land.

Poor treatment

In 1890 the government set up a three-person commission to investigate and advise on the effects of official policies on Māori. One of its members was the Māori MP James Carroll, who disagreed with many recommendations of the other two members. He wrote, ‘Scarcely is there a portion of the North Island where the Natives have had experience of the Native Office but they remember it with feelings of regret. Everywhere one hears complaints of its deceitful practices, overreaching, unfulfilled promises, and treachery, in all of which the Natives are the helpless victims.’3

Abolishing the Native Department

In the 1880s the government returned to a ‘one people’ policy, making fewer special provisions for Māori. The only area of the Native Department’s work to expand was its activity of buying Māori land. In 1892 the department was abolished altogether and responsibility for Māori affairs was shared between the Justice Department and the Native Land Court. The health and education departments also had substantial Māori programmes.

Māori councils

The Maori Councils Act 1900 set up Māori councils and marae committees in almost every Māori district in the country. These councils gave Māori powers comparable to those of local governments. At a 1901 hui in Rotorua to welcome the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, 6,000 Māori lived in a model village run on Māori Council lines. The fortnight-long hui passed without sickness, disorder or drunkenness. However, lack of central funding greatly limited the councils’ effectiveness.

Native difficulty

Canterbury MP William Rolleston was strongly critical of the 1892 decision to dissolve the Native Department. He said in Parliament, ‘We are given to understand that the Native difficulty is at an end and that there is no necessity for any special department… But I venture to say that the Native difficulty is beginning now – a Native difficulty that requires very intelligent dealing, and demands a special knowledge that, perhaps, was not wanted to the same extent before.’4

Re-opening the Native Department

In 1906, as the MP for Waiapu (later renamed Gisborne), James Carroll of Ngāti Kahungunu re-established the Native Department. In the decade to 1922, a further million acres of Māori land was bought by the government, and an even larger area alienated by other means. However, Young Māori Party leaders such as Apirana Ngata began to replace land sales with a variety of consolidation, leasing and development schemes to make remaining areas of Māori land more profitable.

Commissions on Māori land issues

In 1890 a commission headed by Auckland lawyer William Rees investigated the validity of Māori land sales and found that the Native Land Court was responsible for ‘the difficulties, the frauds, and the sufferings’ of Māori landowners.5 In 1920 a commission of inquiry into the 1848 sale of much of the South Island eventually resulted in compensation payments. In 1928 another commission, headed by Supreme Court Judge William Sim, found that the confiscation of Taranaki and Waikato land after the wars of the 1860s was unjust, and annual payments of compensation began.

  1. Quoted in G. V. Butterworth and H. R. Young, Maori Affairs. Wellington: Iwi Transition Agency; GP Books, 1990, p. 38. Back
  2. Quoted in Maori Affairs, pp. 41–42. Back
  3. Quoted in Maori Affairs, p. 52. Back
  4. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 78 (1892), p. 880. Back
  5. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1891, G-1, p. vii. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Ngā take Māori – government policy and Māori - Conflict and compromise, 1860s to 1920s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 December 2023)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012