Revising NZ History 6: The Waikato King’s Land Rejection

A government land offer rejected

By John Robinson


In 1878 the New Zealand government offered to the defeated rebels of the king movement the return of all confiscated Waikato land not disposed of by the Government to Europeans.

That generous offer was refused by ‘king’ Tawhiao.

The very reason why many Waikato Maori continued without land was that decision by Tawhiao to turn down the offer, with his refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. 

Misleading Te Ara and New Zealand online entries

There was no desire by government to strip them of land, or to pander to the supposed greed of settlers.

This fact must not be forgotten.  But it is lacking, expunged from modern accounts.  Here is the full account from the Government website, Te Ara Dictionary of New Zealand, “Confiscation of Māori land”.

After the Waikato war, Māori-owned land in west Waikato was confiscated. Most of the Māori population withdrew behind the ‘aukati’ or boundary line of the Pūniu River, in what became known as the King Country (because the Māori King had taken refuge there). This map shows the boundaries of the land confiscated by proclamation of Governor George Grey in December 1864. That year soldier settlers moved into abandoned Māori villages, former military posts and new militia towns which were specially established to guard the frontier.”

That account ends with all Waikato confiscated.

It leaves out two major facts.

  1. That initial confiscation was recognised as being too sweeping and commissions set up, resulting in the return of three-quarters of the confiscated land in areas outside Waikato. 
  2. An offer was made for the return of all unsold land in Waikato, as described above.

Another official website, ‘New Zealand online’, similarly fails to mention these facts.

Land confiscated in line with international law

A partial truth, such as these incomplete, brief accounts, is misleading.  It can create an impression that is far from the truth, and effectively tells a lie.

The setting must be understood if these confiscations are to be understood.  When in 1863 rebellion threatened, Governor Grey made it clear that, in accord with international law, land held by rebels would be confiscated.

Those who wage war against Her Majesty, or remain in arms, threatening the lives of Her peaceable subjects, must take the consequences of their acts, and they must understand that they will forfeit the right to the possession of their lands guaranteed to them by the Treaty of Waitangi.”

Rebellion escalated and subsequently an enormous area of the Waikato and neighbouring country was confiscated, as shown in the map.

Much confiscated land was returned

Waitara today looking south

The extent of confiscations was hotly contested, with widely differing opinions among politicians and officials.  The initial area was considered unfair and too sweeping by many.

Consequently there were a number of changes over the years, such as by the West Coast Commission that reported on settlements for Taranaki in 1884, and a majority of the land outside the Waikato was returned.

Great efforts were made in an attempt to avoid the conflict that began in 1860 at Waitara and in 1863 in the Waikato, and Governors Browne and Grey had gone many times to seek compromise.

After the fighting was over Grey and other officials went again to put a final end to conflict.

Difficulty getting cooperation from the kingites

But Tawhiao was evasive.  In December 1864, Grey issued a pardon for those who had fought against the Government in arms provided they gave up their arms and took an oath of allegiance, but the kingites refused.  They had not surrendered.

In 1867, the Government hoped that the impending visit of one of the Queen’s sons, the Duke of Edinburgh, might provide an opportunity of sufficient mana to sway Kingitanga, and Grey invited them to confirm peace with the Duke.

Some, including Rewi Maniapoto, supported the proposal, but the king, his senior adviser, Manuhiri (Ngapora), and his family decided against.

Governor Grey makes a generous offer

There seemed to be a breakthrough in 1878 when Governor Grey met twice with the kingites at Te Kopua.  Although Tawhiao started with the unrealistic demand for all the Waikato south of the Maungatawhiri River, and the withdrawal of all Europeans, Grey countered with an extremely generous offer.

Tawhiao would continue as a dominant chief, and he would be given the portions of land not disposed of by the Government to Europeans on the western sides of the Waikato and Waipa.

The expectation amongst Maori was that this would be accepted.

This was not the action of a Governor, or of a Government, determined to strip Maori of their land.  It was the very opposite.

Grey becomes frustrated with the intransigent Tawhiao

For a year that offer sat on the table waiting a response from Tawhiao until a substantial official party, led by Governor Grey and Native Minister Sheehan, with their officials, accompanied by chiefs from across the country, came expecting the completion of the agreement.

They were taken by surprise by the negative and aggressive opening statement of Tawhiao, which indicated a complete change of mind.  This met with forthright condemnation by many of the chiefs present.

“King” Tawhiao would not swear allegiance to Queen Victoria

After more days of discussion, including one day when Tawhiao and a group of his friends sat with his back to the European visitors, Grey had enough.

Three times I have had to come to you at very considerable personal trouble and annoyance.  I have had many troubles and many discomforts to go through.  I have hurt my health by so doing. … Now, the offers which were made to you at Hikurangi were promises of gifts to be given without your undertaking to do anything in return for them.

 I shall wait until to-morrow at 10 o’clock in the morning.  If then you send to me, to tell me you accept these offers, or that you are prepared to discuss them, I will remain to discuss them.  If I do not hear from you that you will discuss them, after 10 o’clock to-morrow morning they will be withdrawn absolutely.”

No message came, and the offer lapsed.  The kingites remained outside their homelands in Maniapoto territory to the south of Waikato.

Native Minister Bryce tries to negotiate a deal in 1882

Despite the intransigence of Tawhiao, there were further offers for the return of land.  The process was repeated in 1882 when Native Minister Bryce went to Whatiwhatihoe to negotiate.

Tawhiao again demanded all the territory south of the Mangatawhiri River, and Bryce proposed to return most of the land that remained under the Waikato Confiscated Lands Act.

Acceptance of the Government was a necessary requirement.  Although the chiefs were to have authority over their own people, the Queen’s sovereignty must extend over everyone.

There were days of delay, of discussions among Tawhiao and his advisers, with Tawhiao refusing to make a clear statement that he would acknowledge the sovereignty of the Queen.  He kept insisting for more time to consider the issue, until Bryce became frustrated and withdrew.

1888: same process and outcome

In 1888 came ‘deja vu, all over again’, with another round of debate, offer, acceptance and refusal.

The Native Minister, Mitchelson, visited Tawhiao at Whatiwhatihoe to made a new offer.  When Tawhiao indicated that the Treaty of Waitangi provided an acceptable basis for making arrangements between the races, there should have been no objection to taking the oath of alle­giance.

But Tawhiao consequently wrote to Mitchelson that he accepted all of the provisions except the oath, and another offer lapsed.

The refusal of the oath of loyalty was nothing other than treason, particularly from a man who claimed to be a rival monarch.

That foolish refusal cost Waikato Maori dearly.  Only 26% of confiscated land was returned in Waikato, compared with 64% in Taranaki and 83% in Tauranga.

The facts: rebellion, war, confiscation, offers

These are the facts:

  • The followers of this king were rebels. They refused to accept the legitimate government, had tried to set up a rival kingdom and to force others out of their territory.  They had fought against the Government in Taranaki, threatened Auckland, and killed settlers.
  • After war, their land was confiscated. This was legitimate under law and the rebels had been forewarned.
  • There were disagreements among British and New Zealanders (both Maori and European) with many believing that the confiscations were excessive, and that much should be returned. Action was taken to do so.
  • That action included extremely generous offers to Tawhiao and his followers, which quite properly included an end to rebellion. He refused.

Tawhiao resists cooperation while Rewi embraces it

Rewi Maniapoto

The one principle reason why Waikato Maori remained without adequate land was NOT any failure on the part of Government.

It was the refusal of Tawhiao to formally end his rebellion and accept the several offers, which were repeated despite his intransigence.

I have interrupted the sequence of articles to put the spotlight on two key issues, which arose in the fourth article.

Here we have considered the offers to return confiscated land, and their refusal.

The next article will describe how Rewi Maniapoto, believing that the 1878 offer was generous and would be accepted by Tawhiao, set off to organise a meeting to celebrate peace and the coming together of the former combatants.

He wanted to resolve there the one remaining issue of land at Waitara, where the conflict had begun.  That action was a great success.