The first Europeans to enter Waikato were welcomed by Māori because of the resources they offered.
From the late 1820s traders and adventurers arrived, bringing guns and skills in building, farming and commerce. Some married Māori women, becoming Pākehā-Māori (Europeans who lived within Māori tribes).
Missionaries spread Christianity and taught reading, writing and agricultural techniques. Missions begun by the Anglican Church Missionary Society at Mangapōuri and Matamata in the 1830s failed for various reasons, but those at Waikato Heads (founded in 1839), Ōtāwhao (1841), Taupiri (1842) and Te Kōhanga (1853–54) flourished. After establishing a mission at Kāwhia in 1835, the Wesleyans started more at Raglan (1839), Aotea Harbour (1840) and Te Kōpua (1841). A Roman Catholic mission, begun at Matamata in 1841, shifted to Rangiaowhia, east of Te Awamutu, in 1844. A church, school, flour mill and roads were built there, and Māori-owned ships took farm produce to markets in Auckland, Sydney and California.
European explorers passed through, including Ernst Dieffenbach in 1841 and Ferdinand Hochstetter in 1859. They reported on the region’s rich resources and Māori achievements in learning, agriculture and trade. Consequently land-hungry speculators from Auckland looked towards Waikato with envious eyes.
The King movement – Te Kīngitanga
After signing the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, Māori tribes became concerned about pressure to sell their land to the Crown for Pākehā settlement. Their traditional system of collective ownership was often ignored by Pākehā, who made deals with individuals.
Marked by mountains
The Kīngitanga domain extended well beyond Waikato. Mountains named as territory markers included Mt Taranaki, Tararua (between Wairarapa and the Kapiti coast), Tītīokura (between Hawke’s Bay and Taupō), Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe, Bay of Plenty) and Ngongotahā (near Rotorua). In Waikato, Karioi and Te Aroha mountains were two of the markers.
Some chiefs realised that Māori would have to unite to keep their land, customs and mana. After discussions, tribes from Waikato, Taupō and the North Island’s east coast proclaimed Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero the first Māori king at Ngāruawāhia in 1858. Following his death in 1860 he was succeeded by his son Tāwhiao.
Tribal councils were set up to administer Māori laws protecting property and rights. Some of the king’s followers were separatist, but most considered themselves loyal subjects of Queen Victoria, and believed Māori and British laws could co-exist. The government disagreed, and opposed the King movement.
The road to war
When a disputed land sale led to war in Taranaki in 1860–61, and again in early 1863, some of the Māori king’s followers from Waikato supported Taranaki tribes. The government then planned an invasion of the Waikato region to punish the so-called ‘rebels’ and obtain more land for settlement.
From 1861 military posts were constructed in South Auckland and along the lower Waikato River. The Great South Road was extended from Auckland to Pōkeno, where a huge fort, bluntly called Queen’s Redoubt, was built. On 11 July 1863 Governor George Grey announced his intention to send troops into Waikato. He accused Waikato chiefs of disloyalty and planning to invade Auckland.
War in Waikato
On 12 July 1863 British soldiers, supported by colonial troops, crossed the boundary set by Waikato tribes – the Mangatāwhiri River. Māori raids north of the Mangatāwhiri prevented further movement until late October, when Meremere pā was bypassed by troops carried up the Waikato River in gunboats. After a fierce battle at Rangiriri in late November, troops marched to Ngāruawāhia, which had been abandoned, and then to Whatawhata, Tuhikaramea and Te Rore on the Waipā River.
Māori ambushed soldiers at Waiari near the Mangapiko Stream in early February 1864, but this failed to stall the British advance. Skirting the massive Pāterangi pā, troops attacked the Māori supply base at Rangiaowhia on 21 February, killing some non-combatants, and the next day overcame resistance at Hairini. In late March and early April about 300 King movement supporters made a final stand at Ōrākau, but were defeated and driven into exile south of the Pūniu River, in territory which became known as the King Country.
Confiscation – raupatu
After the war most Māori-owned land in western and central Waikato was confiscated under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863. Some was later returned, but the rest was sold or given to Pākehā settlers. This injustice has cast a long shadow over the region.