This week, New Zealand marked Waitangi Day, which commemorates the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
The treaty allowed Britain to establish government over its settlers (Article One), guaranteed ongoing Māori authority over their own affairs (Article Two) and gave Māori the rights and privileges of British subjecthood, which over time has become New Zealand citizenship (Article Three).
The debate about the treaty’s precise meaning continues to this day. For some, it is a blueprint for constitutional order and justice. For others, a path to ethnic privilege – a Māori “birth right to the upper hand”. There are many interpretations in between and the treaty has important public policy significance.
Treaty debate focuses mostly on the agreement’s first two articles, and I argue that its third promise, of citizenship, is not getting enough attention. Discussions tend to place Māori and the Crown in a “them” and “us” binary, but citizenship means that Māori are also the Crown.
From subject to citizen
In 1840, British subjecthood was a limited promise. It contained few “rights and privileges”. There was certainly no right to participate in government. No expectation that one’s voice mattered.
But subjecthood evolved. In 1949, New Zealand citizenship became a legal category.
Citizenship is much more than the right to vote, receive a welfare benefit or go to school. It is a body of political capacities – the capacity to have a meaningful say in how society works. Not just in the decisions that governments make, but in working out the values that inform decision making.
In 2019, it competes with alternative possibilities for self-determination. For example, several iwi (Māori tribes) have received financial and land settlements in compensation for confiscations that breached the treaty’s promises. Māori language and culture are continuing to grow in strength. A better educated population and the continuation of intermarriage mean that this kind of biculturalism – a “them” and “us” worldview – provides an increasingly limited way of thinking about political possibilities. It stops people thinking about what it means to be a Māori citizen – what it means to help determine the ways in which the state works.
From biculturalism to binationalism
While the English version of the treaty’s first article surrendered Māori sovereignty to the British Crown, the Māori text (which was the signed document), used the term kāwanatanga (governorship). In 2014, the Waitangi Tribunal, the body that deals with alleged breaches of the treaty, accepted Ngā Puhi’s argument (widely shared among Māori) that the treaty did not cede sovereignty.
Nevertheless, then minister of Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, Chris Finlayson, argued that:
There is no question that the Crown has sovereignty in New Zealand. This report doesn’t change that fact … The tribunal doesn’t reach any conclusion regarding the sovereignty the Crown exercises in New Zealand. Nor does it address the other events considered part of the Crown’s acquisition of sovereignty or how the treaty relationship should operate today.
But what is the Crown, what is sovereignty and how do these relate to citizenship as it has developed from the British subjecthood that the treaty promised?
Sovereignty is not an absolute and indivisible power, exercised over subjects by an all-powerful Crown, as it was in 1840. It is a collective political authority in which all citizens participate. Helping to shape public sovereignty is an essential part of what it means to be a citizen.
At the same time, citizenship is not a panacea for creating just political relationships between Māori and others. Nor does it guarantee the political space for Māori to exercise rangatiratanga (authority) over their own affairs. But it does mean that sovereignty belongs to Māori as much as it belongs to anybody else. At least theoretically, it is not an oppressive force.
Bringing that theory into practical politics requires that article three receive much greater attention in treaty discourse. Guaranteed Māori representation in parliament is an example of Māori exercising the right to citizenship in a distinctive way, but sovereignty is not found in parliament alone.
Questions of where else Māori might exercise their citizenship and what it means to do so in authentically Māori ways are not thought about as widely as their importance justifies. This is because the Crown/Māori bicultural binary continues to separate Māori from the collective authority of national citizenship.
Globally, there has been a crisis of confidence in the promises of liberal democracy in recent years. In the United States, the president wants to build a border wall. The United Kingdom is agonising over Brexit. The leaders of the Philippines and Brazil proclaim a willingness to flout rule by law, and strike terror into “undesirables”. Authoritarian rule has not decreased in China, despite rising GDP.
I argue that the Treaty of Waitangi, whose 1840 signing New Zealand marks today, has endowed New Zealanders with a convention for working through issues of equality and inequality, inclusion and exclusion; where some commitment to cultural diversity is threaded through the processes for constructing national identity.
The visibility of culture and ethnicity at the heart of this foundational document of New Zealand sovereignty provides its people with a degree of inoculation against the worst of race-based nationalism.
The 1840 signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi between Māori chieftains and the British crown is today regarded as the single most important event in New Zealand’s history. It ceded rights of governorship (but not sovereignty) to the Crown, guaranteed continuity of property rights for Māori (and exclusive rights to purchase these from Māori by the Crown), as well as rights to British citizenship for Māori.
It provided a framework for colonial settlement. But this deteriorated into warfare as the legality of land sales was questioned amid debate about who was actually sovereign. At its peak in the 1860s, the New Zealand wars required 10,000 British regulars to subdue skilled and innovative Māori warriors (who established the world’s first artillery bunkers to resist cannon fire). But by 1877, a judge had declared the treaty a “simple nullity”, in line with accelerating settler demands for farmland and reduced Māori capacity for resistance.
Even as land was alienated from Māori at an accelerating rate in the late 1800s, New Zealand governors’ talk about the two groups remained civil. There has not been an expression of biological superiority or inferiority regarding Māori in any speech from the throne (signalling an incoming government’s legislative intent) in New Zealand history.
Cooperative relationships between white and Māori elites were common (also, designated seats for Māori have been established in parliament since 1867). Thus, Māori and Pākehā (New Zealander Europeans) have had a lot of practice in managing their differences through negotiation as well as conflict.
Despite symbolic inclusion and some good intercultural practices, disease and land alienation took its toll. By 1890, Māori were considered a “dying race”. To counter this, key Māori leaders had little choice but to encourage assimilation.
In the mid-20th century, Māori began a semi-forced migration to the cities, where traditional cultural practices had to change. The 1970s were the critical decade in which contemporary bicultural New Zealand identity politics began taking shape, a hundred years after the issue of who would control material resources and sovereignty was decided. Capitalising on anti-establishment feelings triggered by the Vietnam War, Māori across the spectrum mobilised Pākehā allies and engaged in protest movements that revitalised Māori identity and gave rise to 1975 treaty legislation that allowed fiscal settlements for colonial-era injustices through a tribunal.
Treaty-based legislation has evolved continually since then. Today most public institutions are required to honour the principles of the treaty (partnership, participation and protection). New Zealanders accept that colonial injustices were done to Māori, and NZ$2.2 billion of reparations have been made.
After Britain joined the European Economic Community in the 1970s, and excluded New Zealanders from British citizenship, New Zealanders of European origins began to articulate their relationship with Māori as part of their own identity. Not only are Māori symbolically included within the nation, the nation as a whole also draws symbolic resources from Māori and from the treaty.
Foreign dignitaries are welcomed by a Māori ceremony (a powhiri), the nation’s sports team (the All-Blacks) precedes its contests with a haka, and the country’s coat of arms is bicultural. Te Papa, the nation’s museum is structured biculturally, with the Treaty at its symbolic centre.
Recognising Māori as the people of the land
The discourse that “we are all immigrants” rings truer in New Zealand than in other English-speaking post-colonial societies (except maybe Canada). The current status of the treaty reminds citizens of the central position of Māori as tangata whenua (people of the land). This puts anti-immigrant rhetoric from New Zealand Europeans on shaky ground. The major anti-immigration politician in recent decades, Winston Peters, has Māori ancestry, and he is able to work with politicians who do not share his views.
Māori mostly have had bigger political fish to fry than roasting immigration. Having been colonised and dispossessed, improving collective well-being, as the Labour Party’s well-being budget declares, might be more important than guarding watery borders or aerial frontiers.
Democracy rose with enlightened leaders in Europe and the United States around two hundred some years ago, premised on the notion that individuals are capable of rational choice. The problem is, group-based politics is frequently far from rational, and is vulnerable to rabble-rousing. Leaders like Trump and the Brexiters represent sub-groups within their nations that are vociferously opposed by other groups. As the differences between them and their opponents involve identity politics that are group- and values-based, compromise is hard.
Group-based rationality works in New Zealand because it is treaty-based and has evolved stable and mutually acceptable platforms for dialogue. It is acceptable for Māori to filter their political views through the lens of culture. No matter how dominant the largest group (NZ Europeans), no matter if they are liberal or conservative, on Waitangi Day, any immigrant of any ethnicity becomes tangata tiriti (people of the treaty) in relationship with Māori as tangata whenua.
This pattern of cross-cutting allegiances is good medicine for facing the challenges to liberal democracy today.
The Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand’s foundation document. On February 6, 1840, the treaty was signed by representatives of the British Crown and Māori chiefs who acted on behalf of their hapū (sub-tribes).
Māori are indigenous to New Zealand, with historical ties and common narratives extending to Polynesia. The signing of the treaty confirmed formal European settlement in New Zealand. But debate and confusion have continued ever since regarding the exact meaning of the treaty text.
The debate stems from the fact that the parties involved in its signing, namely the rangatira (chiefs) and New Zealand’s first governor William Hobson on behalf of the British Crown, had different understandings and expectations as to what they had signed and what authority they would exercise.
There are two accepted versions of the Treaty of Waitangi: a Māori text known as Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the English version hereon called the Treaty of Waitangi. Under law both are accepted as the Treaty of Waitangi, but they are significantly different in meaning.
Te Tiriti speaks of the chiefs maintaining their tino rangatiratanga (authority) over their taonga (all that they hold precious, including the Māori language). The chiefs allow the Queen to have kāwanatanga, a nominal and delegated authority so that she can control her people. On the other hand, the treaty in English tells us that the chiefs ceded their sovereignty to the crown while retaining full, exclusive and undisturbed possession over their lands, estates, forests and fisheries.
A matter of interpretation
Given that at the time of the signing, the dominant language was Te Reo Māori and the majority of the discussions would have been conducted orally, the Māori text of Te Tiriti reflects the intentions of the chiefs. It is a critical reference point in informing our understandings, reinforced by the international convention of contra proferentem in relation to treaty making. This rule in contract law states that any clause considered to be ambiguous should be interpreted against the interests of the party that requested the clause to be included.
The treaty was presented in a manner calculated to secure Māori agreement. The transfer of power to the Crown was thus played down.
Bear in mind also that the Declaration of Independence, the forerunner to Te Tiriti/Treaty, signed in 1835, had affirmed the authority chiefs already had. This meant they held mana and rangatiratanga (all power and sovereign authority). This system of political authority had been in place for many centuries.
Legal status of the treaty
Fast forward to 2019 and what has been happening in the landscape of treaty jurisdiction. During and after the cumulative impact of introduced legislation and policies which led to systemic colonisation, consistent and unwavering Māori protests at violations of both treaties eventually led to the introduction of the 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act and its 1985 amendment.
This gave us the Waitangi Tribunal, which allows for a process to hear claims about breaches of the treaty, typically the taking of land and resources from Māori. The tribunal found in 2014 that Maori did not cede their sovereignty in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It also introduced a set of principles which embodied the intention of both treaties in an attempt to mediate the differences in the two versions.
The Waitangi Tribunal developed the core of an interpretation of the meaning of the treaty that could and should be applied in contemporary New Zealand. This was a forward-looking constructive approach to enhancing relationships between the Crown and Māori.
The Waitangi Tribunal has heard and settled 54 treaty claims since 1989, including financial redress of more than NZ$1.5 billion. The first settlement, in respect of the Waitomo Caves, involved the transfer of land and a loan. Settlements since then have included several elements of redress: a formal apology by the crown, financial and cultural redress, the transfer of or the option to purchase significant properties, and restoration of traditional geographical names.
Since the identity of hapū is rooted in their physical and spiritual relationship with the environment over hundreds of years, these forms of cultural redress acknowledge the tribe as the rightful guardians and their deep association with place. The process seeks to restore the sacred relationships compromised by colonisation.
The treaty settlement process has been the catalyst for significant economic growth for iwi (tribe) controlled assets and Māori enterprise. This naturally brings positive development to the New Zealand economy, encouraging iwi and Māori to continue to progress their advancement not only economically but socially, culturally and environmentally.
Two hundred and fifty years ago this year, James Cook’s ship the Endeavourarrived off the eastern coast of New Zealand. The following circumnavigation marked the beginning of ongoing European contact with the indigenous population, and eventually mass British immigration from 1840.
One important question historians are trying to answer is how many Māori lived in Aotearoa at the time of Cook’s arrival. This question goes to the heart of the negative impacts of European contact on the size and health of the 19th-century Māori population, which subsequently bottomed out in the 1890s at just over 40,000 people.
The conventional wisdom is that there were about 100,000 Māori alive in 1769, living on 268,000 square kilometres of temperate Aotearoa. This is a much lower population density (0.37 people per square kilometre) than densities achieved on tropical and much smaller Pacific Islands.
Examples of order-of-magnitude higher density Pacific populations in the contact-era include:
Hawai’i where 200,000 to 800,000 people lived on 28,000 square kilometres (7 to 29 people per square kilometre)
In conjunction with later 19th-century census figures, the conventional wisdom implies that European contact and colonisation following Cook’s arrival was much less devastating for the indigenous population of Aotearoa than for many other Pacific islands.
Three approaches have been used to support the estimate of 100,000 Māori. Unfortunately, none bears any serious weight.
The 100,000-strong estimate of the contact-era Māori population is often attributed to Cook. However, it never received his seal of approval, and it was not made in 1769.
It was published in a 1778 book written by Johann Forster, the naturalist on Cook’s second expedition of 1772-1775. Forster’s estimate is a guess, innocent of method. He suggests 100,000 Māori as a round figure at the lower end of likelihood. His direct observation of Māori was brief, in the lightly populated South Island, far from major northern Māori population centres.
Later visitors had greater direct knowledge of the populous coastal northern parts of New Zealand. They also made population estimates. Some were guesses like Forster’s. Others were based on a rough method. Their estimates range from 130,000 (by early British trader Joel Polack) to over 500,000 Māori (by French explorer Dumont D’Urville), both referring to the 1820s. The wide range further emphasises the lack of information in Forster’s guess.
Working backwards from the 1858 census
A second method takes the figure from the first New Zealand-wide Māori population census of 1858, of about 60,000 people. It works this number backwards over 89 years to 1769, making assumptions about the rate of annual population decline between 1769 and 1858.
There is a good quantitative estimate for the rate of decline back from 1858 to 1844, taken from a Waikato longitudinal census. But there is nothing solid for the period before 1844.
To overcome the absence of numbers, an apparently better documented and very low average annual rate of decline of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands of 0.4% between 1791 and 1835 has been applied to New Zealand. However, the estimated rate is calculated from wrong numbers for both the 1791 and 1835 Moriori populations. In fact, there is no contemporary 1791 estimate of the Moriori population from which to calculate a meaningful rate of quantitative decline to 1835.
The qualitative conclusion of low population decline is based on two propositions. The first is that prior to the 1850s, imported European diseases were localised to a few coastal areas. The second is that the impact of warfare on populations over the first half of the 19th century was minimal. What is the evidence for these propositions? The answer is not much in either case.
Historical evidence suggests that there were indeed widespread epidemics in New Zealand prior to the 1850s. For example, there is evidence of a great epidemic around 1808, possibly some form of enteric fever or influenza, which killed many people across the North Island and the top of the South Island. Other high-mortality diseases known to be present in New Zealand pre-1840 and readily transmittable internally include syphilis and tuberculosis.
The estimates of how many Māori died directly and indirectly on account of warfare over the 1769 to 1840 period lack a coherent method. They are weak on definitions of what they count. They cover varying or indeterminate periods. Where they can be made roughly comparable, the numbers arrived at are wildly different, with estimates of deaths ranging from 300 to 2000 people on average annually. In other words, the impact of warfare on population decline could have been quite small or quite large. We simply don’t know.
Overall, Hawaiian archaeologist Patrick Kirch’s conclusion on the validity of this method for estimating other contact-era Pacific populations is also applicable to New Zealand. It is a largely circular exercise in assuming what needs to be proven.
Predicting population from settlement
The third method used to estimate 100,000 Māori predicts the population forward from first arrival in New Zealand. Prediction requires a minimum of three parameters. These are the arrival date of Māori in New Zealand, the size of the founding population and the prehistoric population growth rate to 1769.
The current consensus is that voyagers from Eastern Polynesia arrived in New Zealand between 1230 and 1280 AD and then became known as Māori. However, even a 50-year difference in arrival dates can make large differences to an end population prediction.
Geneticists have estimated the plausible size of the Māori female founding population as between 50 to 230 women. The high population estimate which would result from using these numbers is therefore nearly five times the size of the low estimate. Such a broad range is meaningless.
The third big unknown of the prediction method is the growth rate. Minimalists have employed low rates, based on prehistoric Eurasian populations, where humans had lived for tens of thousands of years. This perspective of low Māori prehistoric growth rates is problematic. Humans did not live in New Zealand prior to Māori. The population density faced by newly arriving people was zero.
Also, New Zealand’s flora and fauna had evolved without people. Once people arrived, they would have found more niches of exploitable nutrients than in regions where plants and animals had long co-evolved with people as apex predators. Such circumstances allowed for a potentially rapid Māori population expansion.
Indeed, historically recorded population growth rates for Pacific islands with small founding populations could be exceptionally high. For example, on tiny, resource-constrained Pitcairn Island, population growth averaged an astounding 3% annually over 66 years between 1790 and 1856.
Arguments for rapid prehistoric population growth run up against other problems. Skeletal evidence seems to show that prehistoric Māori female fertility rates were too low; and mortality, indicated by a low average adult age at death, was too high to generate rapid population growth.
This low-fertility finding has always been puzzling, given high Māori fertility rates in the latter 19th century. Equally, archaeological findings of a low average adult age at death have been difficult to reconcile with numbers of elderly Māori observed in accounts of early explorers.
However, recent literature on using skeletal remains to estimate either female fertility or adult age at death is sceptical that this evidence can determine either variable in a manner approaching acceptable reliability. So high growth paths cannot be ruled out.
Because of resulting uncertainties in the three key parameters and the 500-year-plus forecast horizon, the plausible population range around 100,000 Māori in 1769 is so broad as to make any prediction estimate meaningless. Virtually any contact-era population can be illustrated by someone with a modicum of numerical nous.
In the 2017 New Zealand Journal of History, New Zealand archaeologist Atholl Anderson argues that medieval population density on the large (about 103,000 square kilometres, slightly smaller than the North Island), isolated and sub-arctic island of Iceland is a much better analogy for likely contact-era Māori density than those of smaller tropical Pacific islands.
He uses Icelandic population density from the year 1800, over 900 years into the settlement sequence. If Icelandic population numbers closest to 500 years into the settlement sequence were used, they would provide a more direct temporal analogy for 500 years of Māori settlement in 1769.
Iceland was settled circa 870 AD. The best estimates of the pre-industrial Icelandic population closest to 500 years post-settlement are from 1311. They are based on farm numbers counted for tax purposes. This method gives 72,000 to 95,000 Icelanders. So, in its medieval period, sub-arctic Iceland achieved population densities of 0.70 to 0.92 people per square km. Applying these densities to contact-era temperate New Zealand gives a Māori population of between 190,000 to 250,000 people when Cook arrived.
In terms of a New Zealand-related density analogy, there is good 1835 population data from the temperate Chatham Islands (about 970 square kilometres in area), giving a Moriori population density exceeding two people per square kilometre. It was measured after decades of likely population decline from contact with European sealers and whalers, as well as after at least one serious epidemic. Applying this density figure to the North Island alone, which the Chatham Islands climatically best resembles, gives 230,000 people when Cook arrived.
Using analogies from Iceland and the Chatham Islands suggests that post-Cook European contact may have been more devastating for Māori than conventional wisdom acknowledges. There may have been 200,000 or more Māori in 1769, falling to about 40,000 in the 1890s. Additionally, a figure of 200,000 or more Māori implies that much post-contact population decline occurred prior to mass British immigration.
As elsewhere in the Americas and the Pacific, perhaps European germs, not mass immigration, were the primary driver of indigenous population decline. But 250 years on from Cook, more work and different methods are needed to answer this question.
In the late 19th century, Aotearoa New Zealand was a volatile and rapidly changing contact zone where British settlers confidently introduced systematic colonisation, often at the expense of the indigenous Māori population. Settlers were keen to create a new world society that adapted the best of Britain and left behind behind the negative aspects of the industrial revolution – Britain’s dark satanic mills.
Many supported universal male suffrage and a less rigid class structure, enlightened race relations and humanitarianism that also extended to improving women’s lives. These liberal aspirations towards societal equality contributed to the 1893 women’s suffrage victory.
At the end of the 19th century, feminists in New Zealand had a long list of demands. It included equal pay, prevention of violence against women, economic independence for women, old age pensions and reform of marriage, divorce, health and education – and peace and justice for all.
The women’s suffrage cause captured widespread support and emerged as the uniting right for women’s equality in society. As suffragist Christina Henderson later summed up, 1893 captured “the mental and spiritual uplift” women experienced upon release “from their age-long inferiority complex”.
As a “colonial frontier”, New Zealand had a surplus of men, especially in resource towns. Pragmatically, this placed a premium on women for their part as wives, mothers and moral compasses.
There was a fear of a chaotic frontier full of marauding single men. This colonial context saw conservative men who supported family values supporting suffrage. During the 1880s, depression and its accompanying poverty, sexual licence and drunken disorder further enhanced women’s value as settling maternal figures. Women voters promised a stabilising effect on society.
New Zealand gained much strength from an international feminist movement. Women were riding a first feminist wave that, most often grounded in their biological difference as life givers and carers, cast them as moral citizens.
Local feminists eagerly drew upon and circulated the best knowledge from Britain, America and Europe. When Mary Leavitt, the leader of the US-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) visited New Zealand in 1885, her goal was to set up local branches. This had a direct impact, leading to the country’s first national women’s organisation and providing a platform for women to secure the vote in order to affect their colonial feminist concerns.
Other places early to grant women’s suffrage shared the presence of liberal and egalitarian beliefs, a surplus of men over women, and less entrenched conservatism. The four frontier US western mountain states led the way with Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1895). South Australia (1894) and Western Australia (1899) made the 19th century and, before the first world war, were joined by other western US states, Australia, Finland and Scandinavia.
New Zealand was fortunate to have many effective women leaders. Most prominent among them was Kate Sheppard. In 1887, Sheppard became head of the WCTU’s Christchurch branch and led the campaign for the vote.
The campaign leaders were well organised and hard working. Their tactics were petitions, pamphlets, letters, public talks and lobbying politicians – this was a peaceful era before the suffragette militancy during the early 20th century elsewhere.
The women were persistent and overcame setbacks. It took multiple attempts in parliament before the Electoral Act 1893 was passed. Importantly, the suffragists got public opinion behind the cause. Mass support was demonstrated through petitions between 1891 and 1893, in total garnering 31,872 signatures, amounting to a quarter of Aotearoa’s adult women.
Pragmatically, the women worked in allegiance with men in parliament who could introduce the bills. In particular, veteran conservative Sir John Hall viewed women’s suffrage as a way to a more moral and civil society.
The Suffrage 125 celebratory slogan “whakatū wāhine – women stand up!” captures the intention of continuing progressive and egalitarian traditions. Recognising diverse cultural backgrounds is now important. With hindsight, the feminist movement can be implicated as an agent of colonisation, but it did support votes for Māori women. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia presented a motion to the newly formed Māori parliament to allow women to vote and sit in it.
New Zealand remains a small country that can experience rapid social and economic change. Evoking its colonial past, however, it retains both a reputation as a tough and masculine place of beer-swilling, rugby-playing blokes and a tradition of staunch, tea drinking, domesticated women.
Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow
Soon after it became a British colony, New Zealand began shipping the worst of its offenders across the Tasman Sea. Between 1843 and 1853, an eclectic mix of more than 110 soldiers, sailors, Māori, civilians and convict absconders from the Australian penal colonies were transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land.
This little-known chapter of history happened for several reasons. The colonists wanted to cleanse their land of thieves, vagrants and murderers and deal with Māori opposition to colonisation. Transporting fighting men like Hōhepa Te Umuroa, Te Kūmete, Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiahi and Te Rāhui for life to Van Diemen’s Land was meant to subdue Māori resistance.
Transportation was also used to punish redcoats (the British soldiers sent to guard the colony and fight opposing Māori), who deserted their regiments or otherwise misbehaved. Some soldiers were so terrified of Māori warriors that they took off when faced with the enemy.
Early colonial New Zealand had no room for reprobates. Idealised as a new sort of colony for gentlefolk and free labourers, New Zealanders aspired towards creating a utopia by brutally suppressing challenges to that dream. On 4 November 1841, the colony’s first governor, William Hobson, named Van Diemen’s Land as the site to which its prisoners would be sent. The first boatload arrived in Hobart in 1843 and included William Phelps Pickering, one of the few white-collar criminals transported across the Tasman. Pickering later lived as a gentleman after returning home.
In 1840s Van Diemen’s Land, convict labourers were sent to probation stations before being hired out. Many men transported from New Zealand were sent down the Tasman Peninsula, where labourers were needed at the time.
Ironically, those eventually allocated to masters or mistresses in larger centres like Hobart or Launceston would have enjoyed more developed living conditions than New Zealand’s fledgling townships. In those days, Auckland’s main street was rather muddy. Early colonial buildings were often constructed by Māori from local materials.
At least 51 redcoats were shipped to the penal island. Some committed crimes after being discharged from the military. But many faced charges related to desertion. Four of the six soldier convicts who arrived Van Diemen’s Land in June 1847 were court-martialled in Auckland the previous winter for “deserting in the vicinity of hostile natives”.
As Irish soldier convict Michael Tobin explained, the deserters had been returned to the colonists by “friendly natives”; that is, Māori who were loyal to the Crown during the New Zealand Wars. Perhaps as a form of insurance, Tobin had also struck Captain Armstrong, his superior. Several other soldiers also used violence against a superior – it was bound to ensure a sentence of transportation, removing them from the theatre of war.
Irish Catholic soldier Richard Shea, for instance, was a private in the 99th Regiment who used his firelock to strike his lieutenant while on parade. This earned him a passage on the Castor to Van Diemen’s Land. His three military companions on the vessel, William Lane, George Morris and John Bailey, all claimed to have been taken by Maori north of Auckland and kept prisoner for four months. But surviving records reveal that their military overlords thought that the three had instead deserted to join the ranks of a rebel chief.
In 1846, NZ governor George Grey proclaimed martial law across the Wellington region. When several Māori fighters were eventually captured and handed over to colonists by the Crown’s Indigenous allies, they were tried by court martial at Porirua, north of Wellington.
After being found guilty of charges that included being in open rebellion against Queen and country, five were sentenced to transportation for life in Van Diemen’s Land. The traditionally-clothed Māori attracted a lot of attention in Hobart, where colonists loudly disapproved of their New Zealand neighbours’ treatment of Indigenous people. This is ironic given the Tasmanians’ own near-genocidal war against Aboriginal people.
Grey had wanted the Māori warriors sent to Norfolk Island or Port Arthur and hoped they would write letters to their allies at home describing how harshly they were being treated. Instead, they were initially held in Hobart, where they were visited by media and other well-wishers. Colonial artist John Skinner Prout painted translucent watercolour portraits of them. Each of the fighters used pencil to sign his name to his likeness. William Duke created a portrait of Te Umuroa in oils.
Hobartians were worried that the Māori could become contaminated through contact with other convicts. Arrangements were made to send them to Maria Island off the island’s east coast, where they could live separately from the other convicts.
John Jennings Imrie, a man who previously lived in New Zealand and knew some Māori language, became their overseer. Their lives in captivity were as gentle as possible and involved Bible study, vegetable gardening, nature walks and hunting.
Following lobbying from Tasmanian colonists and a pardon from Britain, four of the men, Te Kūmete, Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiahi, Te Rāhui, were sent home in 1848. Te Umuroa died in custody at the Maria Island probation station in July 1847. It was not until 1988 that his remains were repatriated to New Zealand.
Reducing crime through imposing exemplary sentences saw dozens of working-class men transported to Van Diemen’s Land. One such fellow was James Beckett, a sausage-seller transported for theft for seven years. The only woman sent from New Zealand, Margaret Reardon, was sentenced to seven years’ transportation for perjuring herself trying to protect her partner (and possibly herself) from murder charges. After being found guilty of murdering Lieutenant Robert Snow on Auckland’s North Shore in 1847, the following year Reardon’s former lover Joseph Burns became the first white man judicially executed in New Zealand.
At one stage, Reardon was sent to the Female Factory at Cascades on Hobart’s outskirts to be punished for a transgression. Eventually, she remarried and moved to Victoria where she died in old age.
In 1853, transportation to Van Diemen’s Land formally ended. New Zealand then had to upgrade its flimsy gaols so criminals could be punished within its own borders.