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Wars without End
New Zealand's Land Wars - A Māori Perspective

Danny Keenan
New Zealand: Penguin NZ, 2021
Paperback   304pp    RRP $34.99

Reviewer: Robert Ellis, April 2021

This book is sub-titled ‘NGA PAKANGA WHENHUA O MUA’ or ‘New Zealand’s Land Wars’. It deals with two broad topics: a discussion of the system of land tenure among the Māori in the 800 or more years between the first Māori reaching New Zealand and the arrival of the first Pakeha [the white, mostly British, settlers in the period after 1810] when the first Christian missionaries, and some very un-Christian whalers arrived. Some settled around Kororareka [or ‘Russell, as it is now known] in the far north of the North Island, where the majority of the Māori had settled. It then goes to explain the wars between Māori and the Pakeha settlers, where the focus was on the either holding the land or taking it from the Māori.

Once permanent settlers arrived, there were difficulties for both sides.  Māori culture was very different from that of the British settlers, in many ways. As the newcomers were migrants seeking land upon which to settle, they were confronted by Māori who had land rights and other customs that were quite foreign to them. Outright freehold ownership of land was an alien concept to Māori, and the relevant land right clauses of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, were the base upon which future land purchases from Māori to Pakeha were built. Especially, there was confusion over the meaning of the various land deals done between settlers and Māori, which led, later, to dissent and conflict. Frequently, Māori and Pakeha had different understanding of what was being given or received in each land deal.
Māori customs had evolved in a nation which was composed of independent tribal groups, and had no written language, [although all Māori spoke much the same language]. The situation was complicated, particularly early on, because few Pakeha spoke Māori, and fewer Māori spoke English.

Danny Kennan explains the Māori concepts well, but it was plain that both sides were going into land sales negotiations without fully understanding what the other side thought they were giving or getting. Also, while the Māori usually dealt in good faith, according to their laws and customs, it seems that some Pakeha did not always carry out land deals fairly and honestly.

Given that the Māori were a war-like people, there was bound to be conflict. Once Māori warriors acquired muskets, from whalers and other adventurers visiting their shores, and  later from settlers,  inter-tribal wars became frequent and at times bloody.  Māori fought for land - for right to occupy and use, often driving the tribe occupying that land from it.  

The dispossessed tribes could, on return, claim restitution of their rights over land from which they had been dispossessed, and under Māori custom, could have these rights restored, in whole or in part.  The Māori also fought for slaves, as many defeated tribes discovered when their young men and women were enslaved by a more powerful tribe, as was often the result of a tribal war.  Their inter-tribal wars were usually short and bloody, especially after muskets became widely available.  

In 1833, King William IV appointed an Official Resident, James Busby, who was appointed as Protector of the native population under the Declaration of Independence of 1835.  In that same year, the New Zealand Company was formed to encourage migration by free settlers, with William Wakefield as its Principal Agent. The main objective of the Company was to extinguish native land title and enable the white settlers to expand their ownership of fertile, arable land. The Governors and the civil servants reporting to them had similar goals, although some tried to deal fairly with Māori who held customary tribal or kinship group rights over the land. The settlers did not always succeed in this.

Busby was weak and favoured the settlers. Wakefield tried to treat Māori fairly, when it came to land purchases by the New Zealand Company and by settlers but was unable to get the majority of the settlers, and his Company’s Board, to follow his lead.  Later Governors -  Fitzroy,  Grey and Gore Browne, tended to also favour the settlers, some more than others.  

Government officials and NZ Company agents used the armed forces of the small British garrison, often supported by volunteer armed settlers, to suppress Māori dissidents, and ensure settlers received advantageous outcomes from some land sales agreements that were often unfair to Māori.

Almost all the conflict took place on the North Island, as the Māori population on the South Island was relatively smaller than on the North Island. At Wairau, near modern-day Nelson, in 1843, 22 settlers were killed by Māori warriors, who lost only two killed, although this ‘massacre’ created uncertainty among Pakeha settlers. This attack went unpunished, as Governor Fitzroy, who had no troops to send against the Māori warriors responsible, vacillated - tensions increased, and settler attitudes hardened towards Māori

Frequently, conflict occurred. The wars about which land ownership and usage were the central issues were often minor skirmishes - perhaps five to 20 Māori facing a similar number of Pakeha settlers and soldiers.  Only occasionally did the opposing sides number more than 100 men each. In 1864, the largest encounter, involved a ‘strike force’ of 3,000 soldiers, led by Lt Gen Sir Duncan Alexander Cameron, with a further 4,000  troops and seamen manning his supply line, and protecting settlements in the area.  

The British garrison troops were withdrawn in 1868, and replaced by the Colonial Armed Constabulary, raised in 1867 and recruiting kupapa [loyal] Māori who made up about 20% of its strength. Although there were mishaps dearly, this force succeeded in keeping down any serious conflict between Māori and settlers. These many small, and a few large, conflicts are covered well in the book, with sufficient detail to make the situation clearly understandable

Under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863, the Government allowed the confiscation of Māori land, and the Suppression of Rebellion Act 1863 enabled the suspension of habeus corpus.  These actions were disingenuously described as being for the benefit of Māori, giving “better effect to the Treaty of Waitangi” but were really to benefit settlers.  The guarantees of continuing tribal land ownership for Māori were deemed to protect Māori land rights conferred under the Treaty, but this meant ownership under of land ‘according to British law’ - under individual titles, not the communal ownership which was Māori custom and law. Confiscation of land continued. Some compensation could be granted for lands taken in error, but this led to ongoing legal actions, claims for compensation, and many instances of a loss of trust, by Māori, in the national Government, especially among those Māori who had suffered injustice under the various Settlement Acts - and they were many. There were many claims that land had been returned to ‘loyalist’ groups who had no rights to that land under Māori Laws and custom, and there were many injustices, and some Māori were treated harshly through interpretations of the relevant clauses of the Treaty of Waitangi which unjustly biased decisions in favour of the settlers.

There are lessons to be learned from this, for future Treaty agreements with Australia’s First Nation people, as the Treaty of Waitangi was not as equitable as some claim it to have been.

Keenan has given a clear commentary on the conflicted land rights situation, and of the armed conflict that occurred throughout the nineteenth century, and much can be learned from his detailed discussion of the many sides to the disputes over land rights and ownership.  

In some areas, this book is lacking. There is no glossary of the Māori words used, and some of these do not translate easily. The descriptions of the battles and skirmishes of the Land Wars are not in chronological order, which makes it hard for the reader to follow the sequence of events and outcomes. The one map shows the sites of these conflicts, but few of the other places mentioned in the text appear on it, and usually the place names used are the Māori names - but modern-day atlases give the current English names.  Also, the areas where the major tribal groups were to be found are not delineated, which adds some level of confusion and limits understanding of the extent and nature of the differences between Māori and Pakeha. Despite these shortcomings, the book is well worth reading, as there are lessons that could be learned from it about developing trust and cordial relationships between dominant migrant settlers co-existing with an indigenous First Nation. The New Zealanders have almost settled these issues; Australians could learn from their successes and failures of the past 200 years, and Danny Keenan has shown us a path to achieving these goals.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this wor