The New Zealand Wars: acknowledging ‘an almost incomprehensible level of loss’

Right about now, Vincent O’Malley is delivering a mighty Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writers Festival. In this startling extract from his new book, The New Zealand Wars Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, O’Malley explains how the decimation of Māori in Tūranga “completely eclipsed” the country’s losses in Gallipoli. 

Actual fighting may have ended in 1872. But the legacy of the New Zealand Wars continues to be felt today in multiple ways. Awareness and knowledge of this history is crucial to fully understanding the present. For example, any discussion of contemporary Māori poverty that fails to acknowledge the long history of invasion, dispossession and confiscation is missing a vital part of the story. Ignoring this context leaves some observers blaming Māori themselves for their predicament. And there are other major connections between past and present. The New Zealand Wars help explain why Auckland is our largest city today, for example, or why the North Island came to dominate the south when for so much of the earlier nineteenth century, the reverse was true. So, what were some of the other legacies and consequences of the New Zealand Wars?

Most obviously, the wars left many people killed or maimed. Incomplete records mean we will never know the exact numbers. Although the returns of British and colonial casualties are likely to be reasonably accurate, any figures given for Māori are no more than estimates. The British often counted the bodies of those they found, but had no way of knowing how many others killed in battle were taken away for burial or never discovered. Similarly, returns of Māori wounded mostly just included those taken prisoner, since commanders had no reliable way of knowing how many others had been injured but managed to escape. James Cowan’s best guess was 4,250 Maori casualties, consisting of 2,000 ‘hostile’ Māori killed, 2,000 wounded, and another 250 ‘friendly’ Māori killed. For the British and colonial troops, Cowan lists 560 killed and another 1,050 wounded. That gives a total of 5,860 casualties. Cowan does not even provide a figure for the number of ‘friendly’ Māori who were wounded, although we know that many were. That figure of 4,250 total Māori casualties might be compared with a 1857–58 census of the Māori population that gave a return of 56,049 (or an estimated 59,000 when adjusted for what demographers believe was a small undercount). Such a comparison would be rather misleading, of course, because the entire Māori population was not involved in the New Zealand Wars. Some areas escaped invasion or occupation altogether. A better guide to the demographic impact of the wars might be to focus on an area that was caught up in these conflicts.

The New Zealand Wars condemned generations of Māori across much of the country to lives of poverty, destroying the economic infrastructure and wealth generated and accumulated previously. These women and children were photographed in the King Country in the late nineteenth century. At Haerehuka, King Country, photograph by Alfred Burton, 1905, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, C.010034

Here we begin to really see just how severe those losses were. The Māori population of the Tūranga district was estimated at 1,500 in 1860, a steep decline from the 2,400 figure given in 1847. In just one week-long battle, at Waerenga-a- Hika in November 1865, at least seventy-one Māori were killed (other estimates suggested over one hundred) and an unknown number were injured. Even if we assume the population had stabilised and was still around 1,500 by 1865, 4.7 per cent of Tūranga Māori died in the space of a week. If we assume a similar number of wounded, then the overall casualty rate must have approached something like one-tenth of the total population.

It gets even worse. Many more Tūranga Māori died when fighting returned to the district in 1868–69. The Waitangi Tribunal has estimated that between 1865 and 1869, around 240 adult males were killed in battle with Crown forces at Tūranga. That constitutes 16 per cent of the total population or an incredible 43 per cent of adult males, based on the 1860 figure. And it does not include the many women and children also killed, or others who were indirect victims of the wars, such as those prisoners who died when imprisoned without trial at the Chatham Islands. Once we add these further casualties, the death rate alone could easily have exceeded 20 per cent of the total population. Total casualties could have been around 40 per cent of all Tūranga Māori once the wounded are included. That is an almost incomprehensible level of loss.

In the First World War, when many young New Zealand men, including many Māori, died in the trenches and fields of Gallipoli and the Western Front, the casualty rate was about 5.8 per cent of the total New Zealand population. Of this, 4.1 per cent were wounded and 1.7 per cent were killed. That war has often been seen as the greatest bloodbath in New Zealand history, but on a per capita basis it was completely eclipsed by the losses endured by Māori at Tūranga half a century earlier, when the death rate was more than ten times higher.

There were other ways in which the wars were felt. The Māori economy was booming through most of the 1840s and 1850s, despite a downturn after 1856. That came to a sudden and crushing end for many central North Island iwi after 1860. Many tribes never recovered. Some communities had almost everything taken from them virtually overnight. The blow was a crippling and almost irreparable one.

Women mourn over the spear of a relative killed at the battle of Te Ranga. Although it is impossible to ascertain exact numbers, Māori casualty rates relative to their population were extremely high, in some campaigns far exceeding the casualties suffered by New Zealand forces during the First World War. Watercolour by Horatio Gordon Robley, 1864, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1992-0035-737

Directly related to the theme of impoverishment, many iwi suffered raupatu – the confiscation of their lands. More than three million acres of land was confiscated under the New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863 at Waikato, Taranaki, Tauranga, Eastern Bay of Plenty and Mōhaka–Waikare. Other lands, subject to a unique confiscation regime in the East Coast area, were also taken or ‘ceded’ at Tūranga, Wairoa and Waikaremoana. Māori who did not fight against the Crown were promised that their lands would be protected. That did not happen. Confiscation was applied indiscriminately across entire regions. The 1863 Act was clear that lands could only be confiscated if they were suitable sites for settlement, but so indiscriminate were the takings that mountains, hills, lakes, swamps and other sites were included. Vast areas that had been confiscated remained unsettled and unsold. Many of these lands still form part of the Crown estate today.

Fearing that sweeping and excessive confiscations would prolong Māori resistance and thereby increase the military and financial burdens on British taxpayers, the British government tried to impose restrictions on how the Settlements Act would be implemented. Most of these were ignored. Rather than intervening to stop what they knew was a gross injustice, ministers in London washed their hands of the matter, concerned only with how soon they could withdraw their troops from New Zealand. Many of those soldiers, including their commander, Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron, had become increasingly disillusioned with what they were being asked to do, and began to question why they should fight a war of conquest for the exclusive benefit of New Zealand settlers.

Far from turning a quick profit, the Crown was plunged deep into debt. A few Pākehā got very rich buying up sections from military settlers at bargain prices and sitting on these until land values recovered, and many of the lands later became central to New Zealand’s booming pastoral economy. But for Māori, the results were shattering. One member of Parliament, James FitzGerald, described the Settlements Act as an ‘enormous crime’ and ‘contrary to the Treaty of Waitangi’ when it was being debated in 1863. Two years later, as Native Minister, FitzGerald was personally responsible for signing off some of the largest land confiscations under the legislation. Few Pākehā in positions of power came out of the saga unsullied.

A process for compensating ‘loyal’ Māori – initially with money but later with some land – was established under the New Zealand Settlements Act and subsequent amendments. But the Compensation Court returned only a fraction of the lands taken and often not to the original owners. The lands were returned under Crown grant rather than customary title, making it much easier for them to be on-sold. Many of these areas quickly passed into Pākehā ownership. An official return published in 1900, which identified Māori rendered landless as a result of confiscations, listed thousands of individual names. Behind each name there lay a story of dispossession and sometimes exile that was likely to have resonated over many generations. The New Zealand Wars touched the living, along with those yet to be born.

The New Zealand Wars enabled the Crown to extend its control over Māori communities throughout the country. New, more coercive policies followed, including the introduction of a native school system in 1867 that was intended to promote an assimilationist agenda. These children, photographed probably in the early twentieth century, stand in front of Pipiriki Native School near Whanganui. Archives New Zealand, R307344

Although the government did not achieve the total victory it hoped for (especially in the Waikato War), it did manage eventually to assert its control over the entire country. The wars tipped the scales. In the battle between two competing ideas of what the Treaty of Waitangi stood for, it was the Crown’s version that won. This envisaged a treaty of cession and unbridled sovereignty, not mutual partnership and dialogue. There was to be no consultation with iwi or hapū: just an expectation that Māori would comply with the laws of the land. By 1865 full responsibility for governing the colony had passed to the New Zealand Parliament, and although four Māori members were admitted after 1868, they were hugely outnumbered by the seventy-two Pākehā members. In these circumstances, the ability of Māori to influence legislation was at best limited.

Achieving control of the country through the wars allowed the Crown to introduce new measures for separating Māori from their remaining lands. These included the establishment in 1865 of the Native Land Court, which individualised land titles, undermining tribal control and resulting in a massive wave of land sales. The Crown was also able to enforce new policies to encourage Māori assimilation, notably through the native schools system set up in 1867. There was little sympathy for or recognition of rangatiratanga under the new regime. The Treaty was sidelined for the next century or more, and politicians no longer felt obliged to pay even lip service to Māori interests. These policies were felt by Māori throughout the country, whether or not they had taken part in the wars. The rough-and-ready balance of power between Māori and Pākehā, which had existed since before the Treaty was even signed in 1840, finally came to an end. Pākehā were no longer required to treat Māori as their equals. With their longstanding expectations of racial dominance, settlers were moreover unwilling to share power with Māori communities. Instead, it was to be exercised for the benefit of Pākehā. Not until the 1970s did this situation begin to change in any meaningful way.

The New Zealand Wars Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99) is available at Unity Books. 

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