Maori Women’s Voices in the 19th Century

I am in want of sufficient clothing and food. 78 year old Miriama Huruwai 1891

I am writing for you to  hear …

By Roger Childs

In the last few decades of the 19th century many Maori women were active in petitioning the government.

The issues varied but many related to land and all were seeking justice.

Dr Angela Wanhalla spoke on this fascinating topic at a recent talk at the National Library.

She is the co-author of the book Women’s Voices from the 19th Century ( He Reo Wahine) in collaboration with Lachy Paterson.

Wanting answers and justice

More than 2300 petitions went to the Native Affairs Committee after 1860. This committee consisted of the four Maori MPs  and they considered the submissions before sending them on to civil servants to investigate.

A common issue was land grievances many related to the confiscations of the 1860s and the decisions made later by the Maori Land Court.

Petitions raised concerns about

  • surveys and boundaries
  • ownership and compensation
  • succession and inheritance.

Women across the socio-economic spectrum were involved from the high-born to former slaves.

Miriama Huruwai, who is quoted at the top, wrote from Canvastown in Central Otago to Native Minister Cadman stating that the government had seized her land and she had received no compensation. Consequently she was now living in poverty.

Some petitioners were after access to fishing resources.

The petitioning process

Author Angela Wanhalla

Sometimes individuals would write, but more often Maori women and communities would get together to raise concerns.

Petitions involved several hands and many voices.

Often the letters were addressed to the Native Affairs Minister or the Governor and were invariably polite, specific and deferential.

~ They started with the word Greeting

~ The last paragraph usually started with May you be pleased to consider the injustice  …

~ And they signed off with From your obedient servant

Petitions received in te reo would be translated by the Native Affairs Department.

Sometimes an individual petition would be backed up with a letter writing campaign.

One group of 145 Maori women sent in 217 petitions.


More research is needed on this. Certainly the 1893 suffrage petition which hundreds of Maori women sign did bring the ultimate prize: votes for all women regardless of their origins.

Many of the petitions received no response, however the women were persistent!

One lady petitioned in 1878, 1879, 1880, 1882, 1883, and 1884! She got no reply from Native Ministers Sheehan, Rolleston and Bryce, but eventually she received an acknowledgement.

It is not known whether anything happened as a result; the historians will be investigating further.

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