The effects of British imperial rule on New Zealand’s Maori people have left a mostly negative but also somewhat ambiguous legacy. During the 1860s, the British imposed undeniably harsh conditions on the Maori, inflicted considerably violence on them, and marginalized them both politically and economically, but the Maori did not suffer to the same extent as other peoples. Even before 1840’s Treaty of Waitangi, which made New Zealand a Crown colony and theoretically granted equality to all Maori New Zealanders, the British dealt harshly with the islands’ native people.
Whalers who settled there in the early nineteenth century treated the Maori brutally, and British settlers (many of whom created farms and sheep ranches on Maori land, which was often simply appropriated) arrived ready to fight the Maori; during the 1820s alone, says historian Tom Brooking, European-borne diseases and violence reduced the Maori population by roughly 40 percent, from 100,000 to about 60,000. Though this was a far less drastic rate than seen in Australia’s anti-aborigine violence or the United States’ wars against Native Americans, it was nonetheless slaughter on a significant scale.
In the 1860s, the British ruthlessly suppressed Maori uprisings, particularly between 1860 and 1872. British settlers comprised a majority in New Zealand by 1860 and increasingly appropriated native lands, and the Maori, fearing that they would all of their communally-held territory, waged a long resistance that brought a brutal reaction from the Crown. 18,000 British troops waged scorched-earth warfare not unlike what Sherman inflicted on the American South at roughly the same time, killing 4 percent of the remaining Maori.
During these wars of resistance, the Crown government also created a “Native Land Court,” which took five million acres of Maori land on North Island between 1865 and 1891, further diminishing the amount of arable land left to the Maori. Of this body (on which no natives served), historian Philippa Mein Smith writes: “The court was set up to bring land owned by Maori outside the confiscation areas ‘within the reach of colonization’ . . .
and to effect the ‘detribalization of the Natives,’ to destroy . . . [barriers] to amalgamating Maori into European culture. ” Despite the Treaty of Waitangi’s call for equality among whites and Maori alike, the British also effectively excluded the Maori from political life as well. Under the 1852 Constitution, land ownership allowed adult males to vote, and while this theoretically extended to the Maori as well, added legal provisions stymied their political participation.
As some Maori men began owning land individually (instead of by the traditional collective means), they became eligible to vote, but Brooking maintains that the imperial government found a way to hinder this: “The white settler government was able to limit [Maori] influence by granting all Maori men over 21 years of age the right to vote, but only for four Maori seats [in the legislature]. This was grossly disproportionate to the number of Maori people in the colony.
” The Maori would have received sixteen seats had the franchise been truly fair. After the wars of resistance in the 1860s, many Maori were confined to remote areas of New Zealand and suffered from gross inequalities in education, housing, income, economic opportunities, and political life. British assimilation policy in the colony demanded that the Maori assimilate and join British imperial society, but the Maori were denied the opportunities to advance beyond a decidedly lower position than whites occupied.
Geoffrey Rice asserts: “Forcing Maori to stand on their own feet in an unregulated exchange economy . . . threatened them with landlessness, possibly even extinction. ” However, the Maori were not quite as severely marginalized as indigenous peoples elsewhere in the British Empire. They did enjoy some political participation as imperial subjects (albeit disproportionately small), and they were allowed to participate in the colony’s economic life, particularly whaling, fishing, and small-scale farming.
In addition, they attended school in growing numbers (mostly in segregated schools but occasionally with whites). Smith claims, “Maori seized every opportunity presented by culture contact to improve their circumstances and break out of ecological constraints. ” In addition, the fact that many adopted Christianity rather readily (perhaps to replace disrupted traditional beliefs and practices) by 1860 attests to the fact that they were welcomed to a small degree within British imperial society.
Smith argues that Christianity, brought by British missionaries, was a positive development for the Maori; also, New Zealand’s colonial rulers believed that they could be assimilated to some modest degree and be allowed to participate in colonial life. Says Brooking, “Maori had . . . the capacity to elevate themselves to become brown-skinned Englishmen” and were thus not wholly shut out of the colony’s mainstream. Under British rule, the Maori received clearly unequal treatment as imperial subjects; most were dispossessed, some died in brutal wars of resistance and conquest, and the British deemed them assimilable but inferior.
However, the Maori did not suffer as much as other native peoples the British Empire conquered; by adopting Christianity and finding some place in the economic and political order, the Maori were able to mitigate this suffering and survive as a people.
Belich, James. The New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986. Brooking, Tom. The History of New Zealand. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. Rice, Geoffrey W. Ed. The Oxford History of New Zealand. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Smith, Philippa Mein. A Concise History of New Zealand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.