Story: Police

Page 2. Provinces, war and gold, 1850s to 1870s

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After the 1840s wars Armed Police Force (APF) constables functioned as an occupying and peace-keeping force. Sections of the APF, especially in the South Island and other areas which did not experience Māori opposition, began to move towards civil rather than paramilitary policing. Police were stationed for longer periods at the same barracks and became less likely to display and use firearms.

This was in line with policing theory for settler colonies. Colonial forces were expected to move gradually away from reacting to offences and towards preventing them. Preventive policing using minimum force was expected to come about by regular patrolling, on routes known as ‘beats’ in urban areas, and by winning the confidence and consent of the population. Ideally, constables would eventually need to control only the small minority of criminal offenders.

At the end of his tether

One of the most intrepid policemen in the provincial forces of the 1850s was London-born Edward Seager. He once marched a suspect through a cold, stormy night across the Canterbury Plains to Lyttelton. His prisoner walked in front tied to a rope and Seager threatened to blow his head off if the rope slackened. He later fought a gun battle with two escapers from Lyttelton Gaol. Seager’s most famous capture came in 1855 when he disguised himself to track down James Mackenzie, an alleged sheep-stealer. Crime writer Ngaio Marsh was Seager’s granddaughter.

Provincial police

In 1853 New Zealand was divided into six (eventually 10) provinces, and responsibility for policing passed to these. Where Māori were still seen as a threat to peace, paramilitary methods of policing continued within the provincial armed police forces. Elsewhere, and increasingly, a civil police style continued to develop. In quiet areas a type of community-based policing emerged, at least among Pākehā. Māori were increasingly marginalised in all areas of life, including within provincial police forces.

Policing the New Zealand wars

The outbreak of large-scale warfare between Māori and the government in the North Island from 1860 caused several provincial forces to return to paramilitary policing. In troubled areas new forces which combined military and police functions were established. These included military settler regiments, whose troops would later have a policing role after settling on land confiscated from defeated ‘rebels’.

In 1861 Grey was brought back to New Zealand for a second term as governor, and renewed the heavy involvement of Māori in policing. He established a system of officially recognised rūnanga with their own police forces. The runanga police chiefs worked in conjunction with resident magistrates and other officials.

When these rūnanga failed to prevent further war, they were abolished. However aspects of their policing function remained and were eventually formalised in the system of ‘native constables’. These survived well into the 20th century and, from 1900, supplemented another state policing mechanism within Māori communities – that attached to Māori councils.

The Fortrose liar

The goldfields police under Otago Police Commissioner St John Branigan faced a difficult task trying to pacify unruly prospectors. In November 1861 Sam Perkins, known as the ‘Fortrose liar’, convinced many diggers to follow him to a new location where he claimed gold had been discovered. They arrived to find nothing but Perkins’s store selling expensive supplies. A ‘popular court’ of diggers sentenced Perkins to a whipping and the punishment was being carried out when Branigan’s men arrived on horseback and arrested him. He was later imprisoned for false pretences.

Gold rushes

From 1861 huge gold rushes took place in New Zealand. Thousands of rootless young men poured into remote areas of the South Island, immediately overwhelming small civil-style provincial police forces. The authorities quickly responded by reintroducing heavily forceful, Irish-style policing methods that had been adapted for use in the Australian goldfields. Senior Australian goldfields police were imported to head these new forces, most notably St John Branigan, commissioner of police in Otago. Irish-Australian policing methods spread throughout the South Island, because goldfields-based economies created social unrest in nearby areas. As the gold ran out and prospectors and miners moved on, civil-style policing re-emerged.

Armed constabulary

In 1867, after war and land seizures in Waikato, Taranaki and elsewhere, the government believed the colony was finally at peace. Most imperial troops had been withdrawn, but a permanent colonial army was seen as unnecessary and too expensive. Instead the Armed Constabulary (AC) was established to occupy and police the conquered regions. Based on Irish Constabulary principles, its practice was modified by lessons learnt from the experience of the APF and other paramilitary units.

In 1868, when warfare broke out again on both sides of the North Island, the AC formed the core of colonial defence against Māori forces led by the prophets and military leaders Tītokowaru and Te Kooti. It quickly expanded, assisted by Māori units including ‘flying columns’ (highly mobile units) recruited from ‘kūpapa’ (pro-government) tribes. After the AC regained control in 1869, the colony was once again declared ‘pacified’. The constabulary was greatly reduced and demilitarised by its new commissioner, St John Branigan.

New Zealand Constabulary Force

In 1876 the provincial governments were abolished and the Armed Constabulary absorbed the provincial police to become the colony’s only police force. Once this merger was complete, in 1877, it was renamed the New Zealand Constabulary Force. The new force had two main divisions – the Policing Branch in the cities and settled areas, and the Reserve Division (later the Field Force) which continued to exercise military-style surveillance over Māori in some areas. The last significant operation of the Field Force was the crushing of Te Whiti’s and Tohu’s passive resistance movement at Parihaka, Taranaki, in 1881.

How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill, 'Police - Provinces, war and gold, 1850s to 1870s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/police/page-2 (accessed 10 December 2018)

Story by Richard S. Hill, published 20 Jun 2012