Pre-1860 conflicts - New Zealand Wars

The Musket Wars of the 1810s-1830s caused thousands of Maori to flee their traditional lands, freeing large areas for Pakeha (European) settlement.

In 1840 Europeans bought one desirable but depopulated area, Auckland, for a tiny amount. This purchase sowed the seeds for interracial conflict. Ngapuhi, led by Hone Heke, felt betrayed when trade slumped after the new colonial government quit the Bay of Islands for Auckland. In 1845 Heke and Kawiti (an expert at designing modern pa able to resist artillery bombardment) launched a campaign that threatened British control in the north. But other Ngapuhi supported the government, and the conflict fizzled out. (Read more about the Northern War).

On 17 June 1843, 22 Europeans and four Maori were killed when an armed party of New Zealand Company settlers and Ngati Toa clashed over the purchase of land in the Wairau valley near today's town of Blenheim. The new Governor, Robert FitzRoy, maintained that the Maori had been provoked by the unreasonable actions of the Europeans and no further action was taken.

Then FitzRoy's successor, the energetic Governor George Grey moved to secure Wellington and Whanganui against allies of Te Rauparaha. Fighting flared briefly but died away when other southern North Island Maori backed the economically valuable Pakeha.

The 1850s brought uneasy peace. Settlers and sheep spread across the South Island, which had never had many Maori inhabitants. But in the North Island most colonists remained stuck in coastal settlements.

In 1854 the first New Zealand parliament met in Auckland. Initially the Governor retained more power but by 1856 the settlers had achieved ‘responsible’ government. The development of responsible settler government reflected the increase in Pakeha numbers. By 1858 there were more Europeans than Maori. As new settlements grew, the pressure on Maori land increased. Most members of Parliament believed their first responsibility was to the settlers who had elected them to office.

The British government had always intended for New Zealand to pay its own way. In 1860 Maori still held 80% of the North Island. Many Maori had taken up commercial farming to supply the settlers. Acquiring Maori land – especially land that Pakeha deemed to be ‘wasteland’ or unoccupied – was an important part of that policy.

How to cite this page: 'Pre-1860 conflicts - New Zealand Wars', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012