Security Blanket

(Chapter 15 of The Utopia Thieves)

IN FACT, if we look at New Zealand and Australia and the way that the great majority of those countries’ colonists inhabit something akin to a Mediterranean Riviera, one comes to be struck, eventually, by the thought that the closest parallel to the colonisation of these countries is not the westward colonisation of North America but in fact the colonisation of Israel, or of Palestine by the Israelis, depending on how you look at it.

The Octagon even looks like a prefiguration of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square.

And there are other historical parallels, in the sense of an initial period of mostly peaceful coexistence with indigenous people, which in New Zealand’s case followed the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, followed by wars in which most of the indigenous inhabitants were driven from the fertile and coastal regions that they, too, had always preferred.

Take a look at the following maps prepared in the 1920s by the frontier historian James Cowan, showing the sites of conflict between government forces and settlers and their Māori allies, and Māori resisters, in the New Zealand Wars of the nineteenth century; most of which took place in the 1860s. There is a heavy concentration on the outskirts of the settler ports, in the areas that MacLauchlan dubbed “attenuated suburbs,” and indeed in some parts that are now actually suburban.

Map of North Island engagements (there was only one armed incident of the same type in the South Island). Crown Copyright Reserved.
Map of engagements near Auckland. Crown Copyright Reserved.

Some of these engagements were quite large by any standards — notably Rangiriri at the lower edge of the second map, where 1,400 British and colonial troops hurled themselves nine times against a well-engineered Māori pā: a word that originally meant a gated village or stockade but that had, by the 1860s, also come to mean a more serious sort of a fort, capable of standing up to artillery and trapping attackers while they are fired down upon from a bastion.

The repulse of the Royal Navy storming party, Rangiriri Pā. (20th November 1863). Sketch by the British military engineer Charles Heaphy, who was present at the battle and made a study of the Māori defences, reproduced in ‘The New Zealand Wars’, vol. I, by James Cowan. 1922, p. 331. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The wars of the 1860s were mainly caused by settler expansionism. Though the map above makes it appear as though Auckland was besieged, the reality is that the colonists were striving to break out of their beach-heads of first arrival. In the largest engagements, such as Rangiriri, it was the Māori who built the forts that were under attack — not the colonists.

Māori counter-attacks into the area already settled by Europeans, at places with such telltale names as Burtt’s Farm and Williamson’s Clearing, were more in the way of skirmishes and incidents involving a few dozen people, or a couple of hundred when the Pukekohe East Church Stockade was attacked. The last was an unusual instance of a Māori attack on a well-defended British position, which the Māori hoped to take because its defences weren’t quite finished at the time and its defenders few.

There were two broad motives for settler expansionism. The first motive was to obtain more land. The second was to impose a more unambiguous form of British control over the areas that the settlers inhabited and to secure them more completely against skirmishers.

There was, obviously, an element of circularity here in that if the Māori weren’t being attacked they probably wouldn’t have been counter-attacking. But be that as it may, the settlers tended to view the expansion of their pale of settlement as the best long-term guarantee of security.

Under the Treaty of Waitangi, the Māori retained a measure of sovereignty — exactly how much has been debated ever since — and many colonists did not feel secure under this arrangement. The expansion of the areas settled by Europeans, and a quest for greater de facto control of the margins of the pale of settlement against growing Māori resistance, were two motives that went hand in hand as the mother and father of conflict, so to speak.

In the colonial period the wars were represented very much in terms of the goal of ultimate pacification: of the settlers’ ‘quest for security’, to borrow a phrase first used in a later, twentieth-century context by the economist and welfare-state architect W. B. Sutch.

Rather revealingly, the very first war memorial erected in New Zealand, on the 1st of September 1865, frames the loss of those killed on the settler side in the small, 1864 battle of Moutoa just up the Whanganui river from the town itself, in terms of a struggle to preserve “Law and Order” from “Fanaticism and Barbarism.”

Its provocative inscription notwithstanding, this memorial was left alone when its site was occupied by Māori activists in 1994, even as another statue nearby, that of colonial premier John Ballance, was being pulled down and taken away to make sure of its destruction.

Apart from its gravestone-like aspect, another likely reason for the survival of the 1865 monument is that as one one walks around it, it becomes clear that the inscription is in both the English and the Māori languages, and that, furthermore, all but one of the “brave men” it commemorates were not settlers but, rather, pro-settler Māori. The exception was a Catholic lay brother who may have been trying to come between the combatants.

In other words, whatever one might think of its inscription today, New Zealand’s first war memorial was erected by the settlers in honour of their Māori neighbours, plus the unfortunate Brother Euloge. Perhaps this also counted in its favour.

But in any case, what’s also interesting is that the 1864 fight at Moutoa was framed, at the time, in terms of an opposition of “law and order” to frontier chaos.

In the 1950s, a somewhat revisionist historical school emerged, which emphasised the land-grabbing motives of the leaders of settler society. People such as the War Minister of the autonomous settler government, Thomas Russell, who was intimately involved with Auckland’s so-called “land rings.” This is now the dominant academic view of the wars.

All the same, the downplaying or overlooking of the earlier settler rationalisation of the conflict as a quest for security, now seen as a rather tainted idea, brings with it the risk of failing to appreciate the roots of the failure of later leaders of settler society to extend the welcome-mat of their own former full-employment welfare state to Māori, as the latter returned to a now- highly urbanised pale of settlement in search of employment after World War II: preferring, instead, to abolish the full-employment welfare state and to invest in police and prisons instead.

Most prisoners in New Zealand today are Māori, though Māori only make up 15% of the population; New Zealand also jails a larger proportion of its population than virtually all other OECD countries, though not as large a proportion as the United States.

Downplaying the security concerns of past and present populations of Pākehā (white settlers and their descendants), and the Pākehā population’s frequent susceptibility to the framing of social issues in terms of security, thus brings with it the risk of failing to understand the roots of a mentality that has indeed led to the framing of neoliberal-era social problems as matters of ‘law and order’, just as we see on the inscription of the 1865 memorial.

And even, ultimately, of a ‘penal populism’ in which Pākehā politicians of recent decades have competed, crudely, in a race to jail as many unemployed and restive urban Māori, victims of de-industrialisation and the ending of former affordable-housing policies, as possible.

It’s often said that those who fail to understand the past are condemned to repeat it. And that is precisely what the Pākehā have done, by failing to guard against their own persisting instinct to view the Māori stranger not as a contributor to modern urban civilisation but as a danger to it.

Under this mentality, Māori tended to be split into ‘good’ Māori of proven loyalty or harmlessness to the Pākehā like the warriors memorialised in 1865, or the small minority of Māori who are still rural and tribal today, and ‘bad’ Māori who have got into trouble, or whom the Pākehā simply do not know, or who live in urban slums: a majority of Māori, perhaps.

Such a revival of the old security-state neurosis was Kryptonite to the extension of the full-employment, affordable-housing welfare state from which Pākehā of earlier generations had benefited hugely, to the new indigenous proletariat.

Instead, the latest cohort of urban pioneers — the indigenous settlers, or re-settlers, of the now-urbanised Pākehā pale— fell into the condition of what the Guardian’s environmental and social correspondent George Monbiot deems a ‘sacrificial caste’.

In the narrow sense, the sacrificial caste are the sorts of people who fall victim to institutional-abuse scandals: people to whom things happen and who appear to have no redress until, after years of campaigning, the scandal is brought into the open.

The point is that these sorts of abuses, though widespread, don’t happen to everyone. They happen to a sacrificial caste, often some ethnic minority or a subset of the children of the urban poor, deemed to be in need of wholesale re-education by way of forbidding institutions.

We would not go far wrong in asking whether urban Maori under neoliberalism have not proven to be a sacrificial caste in a wider system of institutionalised abuse in which the city itself becomes a kind of open prison. A system of institutionalised abuse on the widest scale, driven ultimately by the idea that this minority is a threat to civil peace and prosperity.

A sacrificial caste to be corralled into ethnic ghettoes and micro-policed. But not actually helped to thrive, in the way that earlier cohorts of New Zealand’s urban pioneers, beneficiaries of what the historian John Martin calls New Zealand’s ‘settler contract’, were helped to thrive by way of a full-employment welfare state with plenty of affordable housing.

In the remainder of this post, I will delve a little deeper into the controversies surrounding the New Zealand wars of the 1860s. The idea that emerged in the 1950s, namely that the wars were driven by carpetbaggers, were actually quite familiar criticisms at the time even within the settler community and British imperialists themselves, and I will delve into that controversy. I will then go on to discuss the historian Alan Ward’s 1967 analysis of the security-state aspects of the wars; an analysis which unfortunately did not ring the alarm bell on contemporary parallels and the growing transformation of modern Maori (and Islanders, too) into a sacrificial caste in the New Zealand city.

A Controversial Conflict

As you can imagine, the Brits had trouble getting their heads around the idea that tribal ‘natives’ could put up that sort of trench-warfare resistance. Which looks more like something out of a European war of the day such as the 1864 conflict between the Prussians and the Danes, or even the American Civil War, than the swift rout of brave but disorganised warriors that the invading colonists had no doubt hoped for.

In a November 1863 letter to his parents, an English settler named Fred Haslam, manning a military picket at Drury some thirty kilometres or twenty miles south of Auckland at the time, complained that:

The once happy New Zealand, a land of homesteads and farms, cattle, and rosy children playing on the green meadows, is now the scene of ruin, desolation and bloodshed of the most barbarous character, and, worse than all, the destruction by our own defenders, the lawless mob introduced from Australia. . . . What fearful scenes I have witnessed of late, years of toil destroyed by Maoris & defenders while the inhabitants are out defending another part. Such is Auckland now.

The war, actually one of the larger colonial conflicts that Victorian Britain got itself into, was quite controversial at the time.

It’s often forgotten that in the age of empire, which was also an age of slowly-dawning enlightenment and humanitarianism, many people in Britain really didn’t like white colonists very much and didn’t see why they should kill and die for them.

The colonists, often drawn from a population still living, mentally, in the puritanical and witch-burning seventeenth century, would often get into unnecessary fights with indigenous people or face rebellions from their ill-treated slaves. And then if the British army and navy didn’t back them up, even though they were probably in the wrong, they would declare independence.

For example, among his other alleged tyrannies, King George III had forbidden the American colonists to expand westward over land occupied by native Americans: the so-called Royal Proclamation of 1763. A lot of people don’t remember that that was one of the chief causes of the American Revolution, not to mention the subsequent myth of the West as the land of America’s destiny.

Returning to New Zealand, the military historian Nigel Prickett has reproduced an extract from another letter, containing a rather darkly amusing anecdote about a disillusioned British officer and the Minister of Colonial Defence in New Zealand’s autonomous settler government of the mid-1860s: namely, Thomas Russell: an Irish Protestant who was widely accused of prosecuting the war so that he could grab former Māori lands himself in the same way that his ancestors had taken the lands of the Catholics in the cruel 1600s.

Though I am of the same origin myself, it has to be admitted that people from Russell’s small but combative community, which was also that of the former US President Andrew Jackson and which the Americans loosely term ‘Scots-Irish’, do seem to have been at the forefront of many a settler fight in the English-speaking world.

HMS Pioneer doing battle with a Māori pā at Meremere on 31 October 1863. Detail from an image catalogued as A-110–006 at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, via

Squeezed into an armoured gunboat of the type that was being used to bombard Māori pā on the Waikato River south of Auckland, a British infantry captain spoke plainly in a manner passed on by a fellow officer, in a letter that Prickett regards as something of a window into the divisions among those seeking to reassert Britain’s claim over New Zealand in the 1860s:

. . . the other day a Captain of foot was steaming gaily down on pleasure bent, and in the course of conversation at the little cabin table gave it as his opinion that ‘the Colonists were a greedy rapacious set,’ that Russell (the War Minister) was the worst of the gang, and that nothing would be done until he was hung etc. etc.

‘Perhaps Sir, you are not aware that I am Mr Russell,’ said a quiet gentleman at table.

In the course of the conflict, New Zealand was subjected to a form of partition: the usual British solution to problems of this sort, to judge by the experience of India, Palestine, Ireland and a number of other places.

It was a harsh partition. Many Māori, perhaps the majority, were actually expelled from the colonial pale of settlement into hillier and less fertile terrain. In much the same way, indeed, that many seventeenth-century Irish Catholics had been forced to choose between ‘Hell or Connaught’.

(Connaught, or Connacht, is the hilliest, poorest and most western part of Ireland. The rulers of seventeenth-century Ireland deemed Connaught a suitable place for dissident Catholics to be exiled to, on pain of being executed otherwise.)

In a less ruthless but otherwise similar fashion, the new and more overtly settler-dominated regime that emerged from New Zealand’s wars allowed only those Māori who had sworn loyalty to it or who had actually fought alongside the settlers, as some did, to remain in several key parts of New Zealand’s nineteenth-century pale; where the land of the expellees was also duly confiscated.

This, too, was highly controversial. The first Chief Justice of New Zealand, William Martin, submitted a memorandum which was reprinted in the Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives for 1863. It contains the following paragraph:

13. The example of Ireland may satisfy us how little is to be effected towards the quieting of a country by the confiscation of private land; how the claim of the dispossessed owner is remembered from generation to generation, and how the brooding sense of wrong breaks out from time to time in fresh disturbance and crime.

Along with the Irish parallel, this expulsion also prefigured the way in which so many Palestinians would later be exiled to the West Bank of the river Jordan, a mountainous district overlooking the coastal plains about to be renamed Israel.

However, in contrast to the situation in Israel, no permanent barrier was erected to try and keep the majority of the Māori forever beyond the pale in New Zealand.

Some confiscated land was also returned soon after it had been taken, and some more in the 1920s. Though most of the very best land, and nearly all of the land under the cities and suburbs, remained in settler hands.

Much the same exclusionary result had been achieved in the South Island, albeit more by the pen than the sword in the sense that nearly the whole of that island had been acquired by the colonial regime for a pittance in the 1840s, with much of it subsequently on-sold or leased to colonists, or made into nature reserves.

In 1881, the Smith-Nairn Commission ruled that Māori should not be forever excluded from the choicest, most urbanisable spots in the South Island, as it was clear that they had never envisioned their own exile into the wilderness as a part of the ill-understood bargain.

We consider that the promises made to the Native owners of the territory which is held to have been ceded . . . must be held to amount to a distinct pledge that the lands included therein would be so dealt with by the pakeha that the Maori would share them with him, and that the consequences of the surrender would, under such administration, be so advantageous to the latter that, in comparison with future advantages, the money payment offered ought to be regarded as, and really was, but a trifling part of the consideration.

Unfortunately, not too much came of these noble sentiments either until the decade of the 1990s; when South Island tribes, who were in many ways the most hard done by of all even if there had been little fighting in their island, began to receive some significant payouts at last.

The Quest for Security

It goes without saying that wars driven by settler expansionism soon inflamed the insecurities that helped to start them. A closer look at some of the ‘forest ranger’ Gustavus von Tempsky’s watercolours such as the Attack at Burtt’s Farm or his almost surrealistic image of two soldiers in blue guarding a fallen comrade under a tree fern with the full moon shining through its crown, is psychologically unsettling. Just about everyone who is depicted in detail in von Tempsky’s paintings looks fairly wild-eyed. The 1983 drama Utu, set during the post-1865 guerilla period, also seems to capture something of the insecurity of those times.

The net result of all this conflict and the conditions that led up to it, wrote the historian Alan Ward from the distance of the Australian National University in 1967, was that many Pākehā came to be afraid of unfamiliar Māori on some atavistic level, young Māori males in particular.

This accounted, at least in part, for the expulsions and confiscations of the 1860s, driven by greed at the top but endorsed more widely through fear.

Ward began his article, ‘The Origins of the Anglo-Maori Wars: A Reconsideration’ by acknowledging the revisionist vision of the European conquest of New Zealand had emerged since the 1950s. Older treatments of the wars, whereby the Pākehā had brought law and order to a wild frontier had, by 1967, given way to accounts of an avoidable conflict, one that was driven forward by the venality of a small clique of lawyer-speculator-politicians headquartered, for the most part, in Auckland:

IN the past decade New Zealand historians discussing the origins of the wars of the eighteen-sixties have invariably concluded that the Europeans, not the Maoris, were substantially the aggressors in the conflict. This article will not dissent from that general conclusion.

Ward then dilates on some of the diplomatic mis-steps that, in addition to the agitation of the Auckland “land rings,” ultimately led to the avoidable conflict:

[Governor] Grey’s egotism had wedded him to the idea of being the fond and wise father of the Maoris, a rôle he imagined he had played with success in his first governorship. He still regarded the chiefs as essentially childlike people responsive to a mixture of chiding and candy. He seemed quite unable to grasp the fact that he was writing to men who, backed by some 10,000 armed supporters, were experiencing the rich and heady satisfactions of creating an independent Maori nationality in defiance of the invaders.

The Māori were people who had modernised themselves to the point that the word pā, which in the days of Captain Cook, some fourscore and ten years before, had denoted a village surrounded by sticks, now meant a fort that could fend off waves of uniformed Victorian attackers.

Like the diverse and feuding inhabitants of Scotland in the days of Edward Longshanks and William Wallace, so the Māori, less diverse to begin with than the proto-Scots, had also grown more unified in the face of settler encroachment. That was the case overall, even if some had, often for local reason, allied themselves to the colonists in some places as well.

The hitherto obscure poetical term Aotearoa, meaning ‘long white cloud’ or ‘long bright land’ was, by the mid-1860s, stitched onto a famous Māori battle-flag and accepted by both sides as the Māori word for the whole of New Zealand (previously, there hadn’t been one).

Ward was no means the only historian to remark upon the irony of the creation of national identities out of tribalism, which seems to have happened many times in the course of the expansion of England, all the way from Wales, Ireland and Scotland right out to Aotearoa.

Furthermore, the destiny of what was known in those days as the white man was by no means as manifest as many a white man supposed. In theory, the British Empire was all but invincible in a colonial conflict. In reality, it was stretched thin.

And as we have also seen, not all Britishers, even in the army, were keen to die in a ditch for the land-claims of a bunch of troublesome colonists on the far side of the world. It was quite likely that if the Māori chiefs held out, they would get a better deal from London. As such,

Grey’s patronising suggestions were greeted with utter disdain.

Grey would be recalled by his masters in 1867, though the fighting dragged on until 1872.

Ward then goes on to point out that in mid-nineteenth-century New Zealand there was also a high degree of violent lawlessness in outlying areas, regions which neither the British nor the emerging Maori nationalism, known as the King movement (after the election of a pan-Maori king in 1858), could effectively police as yet.

Such areas suffered from the same sorts of problems as the Wild West, in the sense of no shortage of desperados and plenty of places for them to hide from justice.

We also tend to forget just how violent life often was before the coming of modern times: how routine the feud and the vendetta. The tribal wars of the 1820s and 1830s — the so-called Musket Wars — which preceded the major mid-century wars between the Māori and the settlers by a generation, had actually been even more violent than the latter, and certainly less chivalrous.

In the 1860s, even prior to the renewal of large-scale conflict, there was still a hangover of that kind of lawless violence in the remoter parts of the New Zealand countryside, including the kinds that were most likely to push insecure out-settlers’ buttons:

In December 1862 an incident occurred which gave Grey a new whip with which to beat the King movement. In the Rangitikei district a Maori of Kingite allegiance was caught attempting to rape a young English girl named Lind. In the process of being handed over to the magistrate, the Maori, Wirihana, was freed by men who called themselves the King’s soldiers and carried off into the interior. White races have always shown violent — almost pathological — reactions to sexual offences by coloured men against their women, and this case was no exception.

Unfortunately, the settlers began to identify the Māori themselves with forms of lawlessness that sprang from tribal feuds and a geographically hard-to-police frontier. This even became their principal objection to coexistence with the Māori. Not that they were incapable of behaving lawlessly in the pursuit of law and order themselves:

Settlers certainly displayed a highly emotional reaction . . . it stemmed from any indication that Europeans were likely to remain in what they believed to be a state of fearful dependence upon the caprices of a turbulent race of barbarians.

When the [Auckland] war began in 1863 the European population reacted with violent brutality not just towards the ‘rebels’, but to Maoris as such. Sewell noted that in Auckland ‘no native however friendly, dared to show his face in the streets. The temper of the people towards the whole Native race is indiscriminately cruel.’ [Elsewhere,] J. White, Resident Magistrate in Upper Wanganui, protested at the kicking and striking, by soldiers, of pro-government Maoris, including the chief Hori Kingi upon whom the security of Wanganui largely depended.

In effect, Māori became re-framed as a race of would-be criminals who needed to be policed constantly and hard. Ward quoted from an 1864 petition of settlers in the Wairarapa, one of the more peaceful districts of the North Island at the time, which was nevertheless to this effect:

“That . . . the Government . . . ought not relax its efforts to establish the Queen’s supremacy until the whole Maori race yield entire obedience to the law . . . relations between the two races cannot be considered satisfactory nor can property, or even life, be regarded as secure so long as it remains purely optional with the Maoris [sic] whether or not they will obey the law. It would be easy to adduce instances of debts repudiated, or long unpaid, or crimes committed, of cattle destroyed, and other injuries sustained by the settlers, who are compelled to put up with them under the conviction that it would be fruitless to appeal to a Court of Law for redress . . . residing as they do in the midst of an aboriginal race well armed . . . and not as yet brought within the pale of the law, . . . therefore … it seems to your memorialists absolutely necessary that the strong natural positions and keys of the country should be occupied by a sufficient armed force of Imperial or Colonial troops. Such strongholds in the interior of the country would, moreover, not only strengthen the position of the settlers, but would render the towns on the sea coasts secure from all chance of attack.”

Ward thus concluded that:

The argument of this article has not been that European aggression in New Zealand can be justified, but that it must be explained as a complex social movement involving much more than land hunger.

Writing in the middle of a generally progressive decade, Ward ends his essay on a sanguine note. Concerning the New Zealand colonial wars of a century before, he concludes that:

In the long run they were much less disastrous to the Maoris than most imperial conquests of indigenous peoples, and the final settlement and reconstruction was shaped in a way that admitted some protection of Maori interests and — when later and more enlightened governments provided assistance and encouragement rather than compulsion — the possibility of full Maori participation in the new order.

Today, though, we have learned to be more wary of atavistic impulses and the way that they can come back to life after an interval of progress, as in Ireland or the Balkans, or America for that matter, where people used to think that the long shadow of racism and the Civil War was fading away.

Back in the 1860s, Chief Justice Martin warned of confiscations that would lead to smouldering resentments after “the example of Ireland.” And he was right about that.

But a sociologist might also have wondered whether a deep-dyed and perhaps unconscious tendency for Pākehā to identify those Māori who weren’t their immediate and proven allies with chaos, disorder and criminality, and in general as the sorts of strangers who were to be feared — surely, the most hardwired atavism of all — was not something that might frustrate the welcome of new Māori migrants into the cities of New Zealand, and make it less likely that the settler contract would be extended to the newcomers.

The tragedy of Ward’s article is that he didn’t make that contemporary leap. And in a wider sense, the tragedy of the 1960s and 1970s in New Zealand was that nearly everyone else suffered from a similar complacency. Virtually no Pākehā saw it as necessary to positively guard against an atavistic impulse to pull up the drawbridge once again. An impulse that would soon return.

Quote Sources

The quote from Fred Haslam is to be found in Ben Schrader’s The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840–1920, Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 2016. The quote about the “Captain of foot” is to be found in ‘The settlers’ story’ by Nigel Prickett, in Kiwis in Conflict: 200 Years of New Zealanders at War, edited by Chris Pugsley et al, Auckland, David Bateman in association with Auckland Museum, 2008, as well as in an earlier edition of the same book called Scars on the Heart.

Internal footnote references in the quotes from Ward have been deleted.

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Chris Harris

Chris Harris


I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.