New Zealand’s civil war


The Americans had a civil war, as did the Spanish and the English. Did New Zealand have a civil war too?

In 1965, prominent historian John Pocock said of the New Zealand Wars that “it would be good to be able to call them ‘civil wars’”, but cautioned that the country did not have a single civil polity at the time.

A Marsden Fund project by Massey University Professor Michael Belgrave, lecturer Dr Peter Meihana and PhD student Samuel Carpenter is re-evaluating New Zealand society between the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and the invasion of the Waikato in 1863, to test Pocock’s assumption and explore the intriguing question of whether this country experienced a civil war.

It will focus on the exchange of new ideas in the colony between settlers and Māori and between Māori and Māori, exploring how these ideas were adopted and adapted to support Māori attempts to participate in the political, constitutional and economic challenges brought by European immigrants. Examining these ideas will allow the researchers to assess the extent to which some form of civil society was created or imagined in the two decades before the Waikato War.

Professor Belgrave, who has 36 years’ research experience and has published widely on the Treaty and Māori history, says that by 1863, many but not all Māori were losing confidence in this society. “Our research will review the extent that Māori attempts to be part of a civil society, however differently they may have understood this from the settler society growing around them, were frustrated by the late 1850s.”

Newly available digital sources

Professor Michael BelgraveThe research will draw on newly available digital sources including Papers Past, the National Library’s digitised collection of New Zealand newspapers and periodicals from 1839 to 1948, and the British and Australian equivalents, as well as a wide range of other digitised sources. This examination of so many primary sources would have been impossible two decades ago due to the time it would have taken, Professor Belgrave says.

“Writing history today is so different to what it used to be. It’s facilitated by the increasing number of digitally available resources. History is as much on the cutting edge of technology as any other discipline. More and more of the world’s most valuable archives are going online. Those that are not can be photographed and examined later. We are learning new ways of exploring the much greater range of sources now available to us.”

The civil war research is drawing on new imperial history, a historiography that looks at the expansion of empire more holistically, with a much greater emphasis on the perspectives of indigenous people. New imperial history focuses on communication exchange, cultural transformation, exchanges throughout the empire and the way the empire affected Britain as much as the way Britain affected the empire.

The wars of the 1860s were over the nature of New Zealand society and its constitution rather than interracial conflict, land ownership or the imposition of sovereignty, Professor Belgrave says. Civil society had broken down, power had shifted from Māori to settlers, and economic, peacekeeping and religious promises made when Māori engaged with the European world as Māori understood them were not kept.

Māori made choices about how they engaged with European ideas, religion and economy according to their own priorities, and not simply in response to colonisation.


Māori excluded

“The development of the New Zealand constitution excluded Māori and made clear what had been unclear until then—Māori participation in decision-making was marginal or non-existent,” he says. “Towns once receptive to Māori presence had become hostile, and chiefs expecting to be treated as equal had their status neglected or ignored.”

Professor Belgrave says an extensive review of the intellectual interaction between Māori and non-Māori is important given that debate about where Māori sit today and the nature of New Zealand society often rests on understanding what has happened in the past. This understanding can be more simplistic than historians would like, he says.

“Māori made choices about how they engaged with European ideas, religion and economy according to their own priorities, and not simply in response to colonisation.”

A popular view of history tends to portray Māori as little more than victims, but Māori chose to be on both sides of the 1860s wars. “This view tends to denigrate those who fought with the Crown, even though iwi had complex and understandable reasons for this decision. We need to understand the relationships that contributed to the wars of the 1860s, relationships that in many ways are still with us today.”

Professor Belgrave says historians have not looked at the causes of the wars for a couple of generations, with recent research focusing on the actual events. “Despite the wars’ importance, we still rely on 1960s interpretations and methods in considering their causes. I think it’s time we revisited the causes, using our current perspectives and our current resources.”

The research project will produce one book, Mr Carpenter’s PhD thesis and three conference papers—and will no doubt challenge contemporary thinking about our country’s history.

Project details

Funder Marsden Fund
Dates 2016 to 2019