by Roger Childs

Do not thou go away from us; remain for us – a father, a judge, a peace-maker. Tamati Waka Nene (1840) in a letter to Captain Hobson: 

No law or unity

New Zealand in the 1830s had no government or political structure; either Polynesian or British. The native iwi were frequently at war with one another and there was no concept of a united Pacific nation.

This was despite the fact that in 1835 there was a Declaration of Independence, hastily put together by British Resident, James Busby. Although signed by a number of chiefs, mostly from Northland, and accepted by the British government, the Declaration did not succeed in setting up a unified Maori nation.

Up until 1838, the British government had no desire to get involved in New Zealand and establish another expensive colony. It was nevertheless well aware that British settlement was increasing, but was reluctant to interfere. In the meantime it was happy to let the Governor of New South Wales in Sydney monitor the changing New Zealand scene from across the Tasman.

However, ultimately it was the expanding European (mainly British) economic activity, trading and settlement, as well as concerns over the impact of this on the native peoples that forced the hand of the British government.

The Maori Dark Age and cultural interaction

The scattered native tribes (variously called indigenous people, Aborigines, savages, natives, New Zealanders, but not Maori at this stage), had been rapidly killing each other off since the 1800s in devastating inter-tribal conflicts, sometimes called the Musket Wars.

In over 500 battles prior to 1840, tens of thousands of indigenous people had been killed or wounded, including many innocent men, women and children senselessly slaughtered and often eaten. Hundreds of others had been taken into slavery. Also taking its toll on the population were unfamiliar diseases, notably amongst Ngai Tahu in the South Island.

European influences on the native peoples increased as the 1830s unfolded, but the degree of interaction varied enormously. The tribal groups in Northland had the greatest contact with white missionaries, traders, settlers, escaped convicts and travellers.

Inevitably there was inter-marriage and this would ultimately mean that today all Maori are in fact part-Maori, and most have more ancestors of European origin than Polynesian.

A highly beneficial treaty for the time

The1840 Treaty of Waitangi brought an end to the worst features of Maori culture:

  • inter-tribal warfare which threatened to wipe out the population
  • “war crimes” such as the slaughter of prisoners and killing of innocent people
  • slavery, torture, cannibalism and female infanticide.

With the establishment of peace, the best features of Maori culture could flourish: economic ingenuity and initiative, communal cooperation and close whanau ties.

Furthermore all Maori were given the status of citizens on an equal footing with the European settlers, a situation unheard of in other colonial agreements made between the British and native inhabitants.

Despite many unsubstantiated views to the contrary, the reality was that the far-sighted Treaty of Waitangi, and the subsequent colonisation by new immigrants, proved to be greatly beneficial for most Maori and ensured that they ultimately shared in the evolution of modern civilisation in New Zealand.

There were unfortunately hundreds of breaches of the Treaty, some by the government, but mainly by Maori – murders of settlers and soldiers, robberies of household goods and stock, and the destruction of houses and farm buildings.

The process of compensation of the part-Maori descendants for alleged breaches committed by “The Crown” continues through the Waitangi Tribunal, but no such body exists to provide redress for Maori breaches.