BECK index

New Zealand to 1950

by Sanderson Beck

Maoris and New Zealand to 1841
New Zealand and Maoris 1841-70
New Zealand Democracy 1870-1914
New Zealand's Reforms 1914-41
New Zealand and World War II 1939-50

This chapter has been published in the book SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950.
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Maoris and New Zealand to 1841

Around a thousand years ago people migrated from eastern Polynesian islands to the southern island group they called Aotearoa, which means “the land of the long white cloud.” Their tribes had a large ruling class, commoners, and some war captives who were treated as slaves. They did not use written language but had a strong oral tradition. Their chiefs sought to preserve and enhance their mana, a kind of magical power that implied prestige. Chiefs and other persons and objects had a sacredness called tapu (taboo) that deterred people from violating them. Those who broke a tapu were punished and shunned until they were ritually purified. They were warriors and often fought to gain satisfaction or revenge (utu). A proverb indicates that men died for women and land. Their fighting was hand-to-hand because they did not even have bows and arrows. In 1642 Abel Tasman sailed from Batavia and explored these islands the Dutch named Nieuw Zeeland. In the first encounter the Maoris killed four Europeans. The word maori means normal, and the tribes adopted this name only after meeting the invaders.

In 1769 Captain James Cook came from Tahiti with a chieftain interpreter and circumnavigated New Zealand. Cook tried to interact with the natives without injuring them, but in the early encounters ten Maoris were killed. He called them “a brave, warlike people with sentiments void of treachery.”1 Cook’s estimate of 100,000 Maoris has been accepted as probable by recent scholars. In 1772 a French expedition to the Bay of Islands led by Marion du Fresne killed some Maoris and burned three villages. In 1792 a gang from the Britannia collected 4,500 sealskins for the Chinese market, and the next year a British ship left a party of sealers on the South Island. One of Vancouver’s ships abducted two Maori men to teach convicts on Norfolk Island how to work flax. As women did this work, the men did not know how; so Captain Philip Gidley King sent them back, supplying the Maoris with seed potatoes, which became a staple in their diet.

British ships began taking timber from New Zealand, and by 1800 an escape convict from Norfolk Island was living with a Maori woman. Traders came, and whalers took Maoris as crew. Sealing was lucrative, and in 1806 an American ship delivered 60,000 sealskins to Port Jackson, Australia. Cargoes in 1810 were valued at £100,000, but after that the local seal population was nearly exterminated. New Zealand lacked mammals, but pigs were brought. The Europeans traded iron tools and red cloth for food and the company of women. Some Maori tribes attacked sealing gangs and boat crews. In 1809 an abducted Maori was returned and persuaded his tribe to massacre the crew of the Boyd and eat them, a fate also suffered by a crew shipwrecked off Cape Brett. Maoris ate their enemies killed in war. Violent reactions by Europeans caused battles with the Maoris that delayed missionary efforts for several years.

The British did not accept sovereignty over New Zealand, but in 1814 New South Wales governor Macquarie began intervening. Reverend Samuel Marsden led the first missionary effort to New Zealand at Christmas. He was accompanied by the carpenter William Hall, the shoemaker John King, and teacher Thomas Kendall, who lived with a Maori girl and in 1815 compiled The New Zealander’s First Book, a Maori dictionary. The local chief Hongi Hika of the Bay of Islands region decided that the Gospel was not appropriate for warriors, and no converts were made for many years. The Maori warriors were eager to trade for muskets, and a missionary brought the first plow in 1820.

Chief Hongi visited England with Kendall in 1820, and on his way back in Sydney he traded all the gifts he received in London for 300 muskets. Wearing a coat of mail given him by George IV, Hongi attacked his enemies, and his Ngapuhi tribe killed several thousand of the Ngati Maru and Ngati Paoa. In 1822 the Ngapuhi attacked the Waikatos and the following year the Arawa. Hongi was accidentally shot by one of his own men and died in 1828. Chief Te Waharoa of the Ngati-Haua used fortifications and allied with the Waikatos; they defeated the Arawa tribe. As Te Waharoa aged, Te Whero Whero of the Waikatos gained dominance and made war on the Taranaki. Their chief Te Rauparaha managed to get European allies to defend their fort, and he gave Captain Stewart a supply of flax to transport him to Akaroa to invade the Ngai Tahu tribe on the South Island; but he was defeated by the Ngai Tahu in 1831. The Maoris called a European a pakeha. The next year two pakehas, whalers Dicky Barrett and John Love, helped the Taranaki defend Ngamoto against Waikato attacks. These Maori civil wars destroyed about 20,000 lives.

A Wesleyan mission arrived in 1822, and the next year the Anglicans were led by naval officer Henry Williams, who taught agriculture as well as religion. Once a chief was converted, many accepted baptism. The first attempted settlement failed in 1826, and its promoters lost £20,000. In the 1820s the flax trade grew and was worth £26,000 in 1831, but machines could not be invented that equaled the laborious handiwork done by Maori women with mussel shells. In the northern Bay of Islands the town of Kororareka became a refreshment port for European and American sailors, providing the usual drinking and prostitutes of such places. Some Europeans lived with Maori women as pakeha Maoris and were called beachcombers. A form of whaling from the shore developed in the 1830s during half the year when the whales bore their young in the harbor. As the flax trade declined, a sawmill fostered the booming timber trade. The British navy began patrolling the coast of New Zealand in 1826, and in 1834 the HMS Alligator brutally attacked the Taranaki because of an incompetent interpreter.

In 1833 Te Atua Wera (Red God) founded a new religion based on paradise, the Sabbath, and the Maoris as a lost tribe of Jews; this cult at Hokianga lasted until the end of the century. In 1838 Catholic bishop Pompallier arrived and criticized the Protestants, giving the Maoris another choice amid this rivalry. Those Maoris who learned to read and liked it often became religious because the only books were the Bible, sermons, prayers, and hymns. The Church Missionary Society provided £50 per child, and some missionaries raised large families and became wealthy landowners by trading axes, blankets, and even muskets. The Jewish merchant Joel Polack and the missionaries argued that the muskets kept the Maori warriors apart and thus deterred fighting. In 1837 Polack wounded grog-seller Ben Turner in a gun battle and fled to London. The Australian Presbyterian, John D. Lang, criticized the missionaries. Temperance associations were organized in the Bay of Islands, and in 1839 the Victoria Paternal Institution was founded to help the children of English fathers and Maori mothers. Europeans found that marrying Maori women often protected them and their ships.

In 1833 New South Wales governor Bourke sent James Busby, but he had no legal authority. Sydney had refused to register ships built at New Zealand, but Busby created a flag and a New Zealand registry. The next year some Maoris robbed his residence, and his not punishing them lost respect. Learning that the Baron de Thierry had purchased land from Hongi when he was in England, Busby convened the chiefs at Waitangi, where they proclaimed themselves the United Tribes of New Zealand in October 1835. Two years later 200 British settlers petitioned their monarch for order. New South Wales tried some cases, and Edward Doyle was executed for attempted murder. In 1838 the Kororareka Association planned to punish crimes with an armed posse. They tarred and feathered a man from Sydney for trying to collect a debt from an Association leader. About 2,000 Europeans now lived in New Zealand. Australian W. C. Wentworth bought large tracts of land from the natives to exploit the imminent immigration. In 1839 E. G. Wakefield and his brother William formed the New Zealand Land Company, and their first settlers arrived at Port Nicholson on January 22, 1840.

The British appointed Captain William Hobson consul for New Zealand under New South Wales governor Gipps, who supported his policy over the land sharks Wakefield and Wentworth. Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands one week after the settlers. The next day he proclaimed himself lieutenant governor and invited the Maori chiefs to a conference at Waitangi. In February 1840 fifty chiefs signed a treaty, which became controversial because the English and Maori versions do not exactly agree. The first article ceded sovereignty of New Zealand to Queen Victoria. The second promised the chiefs and tribes possession of their lands and fisheries, but it was not clear whether the Maori could only sell their land to the Crown. The third article promised the Maoris the rights and privileges of British subjects. More than five hundred Maoris put their marks on the treaty, but Te Whero Whero and a few others refused to agree. Meanwhile the New Zealand Company settlers had proclaimed their own government, and so Hobson proclaimed sovereignty over all of New Zealand in May 1840.

Port Nicholson had been renamed Wellington, and Governor Hobson founded the capital Auckland in the north. About two hundred Europeans settled at Wanguni in the north, and a subsidiary of the New Zealand Company, the New Plymouth Company, occupied Taranaki. The next group settled on the northern part of South Island at Nelson. New Zealand became a Crown colony on May 3, 1841, and senior officials appointed in England and three justices of the peace helped Hobson govern. After a debate in the legislative council of New South Wales, Governor Gipps quashed Wentworth’s claim to two million acres. The New Zealand Company was claiming even more land, but investigation by London lawyer William Spain and negotiation left them with 283,000 acres, including 60,000 at Taranaki where Waikato tribes had killed and enslaved Atiawa tribes in the 1820s. The Maoris often fought with the Europeans over the disputed land. Governor Hobson established a Protectorate Department on behalf of the Maoris, but it was also responsible for buying land from them for the Government, which then sold it to Europeans at a higher price. Sales and customs duties were not covering the costs of collecting them and trying to stop smuggling.

New Zealand and Maoris 1841-70

After a long illness, Hobson died in September 1842. By then New Zealand had nine newspapers. Governor Robert FitzRoy made the economy worse by issuing paper debenture bonds that drove out better currency. When the Atiawa returned to their land at Taranaki, FitzRoy reduced Col. William Wakefield’s claim to 3,500 acres around the town. In 1843 Captain Arthur Wakefield and 21 others from Nelson were killed while trying to arrest chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata for burning huts; thirteen settlers and about six Maoris were killed in the battle, but nine Pakehas were massacred afterward. FitzRoy believed the settlers were in the wrong and did not prosecute the killers. He had one hundred troops; but he refused to follow his instructions to organize the settlers into militias because he did not trust them with weapons. In 1844 FitzRoy offered free trade by abolishing customs duties. Settlers could now buy land directly from the Maoris but had to pay ten shillings an acre in tax; few did until he reduced this tax to a penny per acre a few months later. Hongi Hika’s nephew Hone Heke and his followers protested British rule by cutting down the flagpole at Kororareka four times. He and Kawiti led a thousand warriors from the Ngapuhi tribe against the British, but Tamati Waka Nene and others supported the British. Merino sheep were brought from Australia to Port Nicholson in 1844, and eight years later this region had 100,000 sheep.

Captain George Grey became governor in 1845 and obtained loans and grants from England. He raised revenue with growing customs duties and paid off the colony’s debts. He ended Heke’s war by attacking his strongest fort. Grey suspected that Te Rauparaha was fomenting disturbances, and he detained him illegally for eighteen months so that his mana declined. Grey learned the Maori language, published his study of their myths, and was supported in his pro-Maori policies by Chief Justice William Martin and Anglican bishop G. A. Selwyn. They funded hospitals, schools, and vocational training. Seven hundred Maoris were attending schools by 1852. The Maoris grew large quantities of wheat and potatoes and kept pigs, selling food to the Europeans. They built ten mills to make flour and learned how to weave wool into cloth.

In 1847 at Wanganui a soldier accidentally shot a Maori chief, and in revenge the Maoris massacred a pakeha family. Law-abiding Maoris turned the murderers over, and four were hanged. Other Maoris attacked the town; but Grey arrived with Waka Nene and Te Whero Whero, and peace was made. In two years of battles 85 soldiers and militia had been killed. Anglo-Maori relations would be peaceful for the next dozen years. In 1848 Wiremu Kingi (King William) led five hundred Maoris back to Taranaki. When Kingi’s brother Matiu (Matthew) tried to sell the land in 1850, Grey declined the offer because it was against the will of the tribe. Settlers in Taranaki resented that they were not able to use the rich land along the coast. The main Company settlements on the South Island were founded by the Scottish Free Church at Otago in 1848 and Anglicans at Canterbury in 1850.

Colonial Secretary Earl Grey had sent out a new constitution for New Zealand in 1846, but Governor George Grey did not implement it because he believed it violated the Waitangi Treaty. In 1850 the New Zealand Company was dissolved as the Government cancelled its debt of £263,000. Settlers wanted a government that was responsible to them, and in 1852 Governor Grey proposed what he thought was a better constitution with six provinces electing their own legislatures. The provincial councils of Auckland, Taranaki, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago were to be subordinate to the General Assembly. The property requirement for voting was not large, but this excluded all women, four out of five European men, and most Maoris, whose lands were communal. The Governor retained the right to buy Maori land and kept control over native policy, and the British government controlled foreign policy. Before he left in 1853, Grey passed an ordinance that reduced the price of land to ten or five shillings per acre, depending on its quality.

By 1854 about 32,500 Europeans were living in New Zealand with 12,000 in Auckland. That year the first House of Representatives met, and they demanded to select the Council. In 1856 New Zealand became a self-governing colony, and Henry Sewell was elected the first premier but for only two weeks. The moderate centralist Edward W. Stafford served as premier 1856-61 and 1865-69. The Maoris paid high taxes, but only four percent of government expenditures helped them. They observed the Europeans were greedy, arrogant, discourteous, and tended to treat women as prostitutes, often abandoning their children. As the Maoris saw the Pakehas organizing their government, they decided they needed their own unity. A movement to have a Maori king came to fruition in 1857 when Wiremu Tamihana became the leader. He wanted independence and peace with the Pakehas, but Rewi Manga Maniapoto favored war. Because they could not agree, Te Whero Whero was chosen as king in 1858. What five out of six Maoris did agree on was to stop selling their land. The lands of those in the king movement were put under the mana of the king and became tapu. In 1858 the European population surpassed the Maoris in numbers.

Governor Gore Browne’s land agent Donald McLean used questionable methods to try to satisfy the land-hungry settlers of Taranaki. Between 1853 and 1855 he had purchased 1,500,000 acres of Wairarapa land for about £18,000. In 1858 they tried to break up the Maori’s communal ownership of land by dividing it among individuals, but this was disallowed by the British government. Magistrates were appointed for Maori districts. In 1859 Governor Browne complained that they had bought only 7 of 26 million acres on the North Island, and at New Plymouth he talked to Maoris about land purchasing. There McLean bought prized Waitara land from a dissident follower of Wiremu Kingi without recognizing the latter’s rights. When Maori women removed the surveyors’ pegs, troops enforced martial law, destroying Wiremu Kingi’s fort in March 1860.

As the Europeans fled into fortified New Plymouth, Kingi’s warriors raided and burned farmsteads in the Taranaki countryside. Allies expanded the band of 300 to 1,500. British troops under General Platt arrived from Australia in April, swelling the colony’s forces to 3,000, and the next month Rewi’s Waikato followers joined the Maori uprising. Platt methodically used sappers to attack native forts. After Te Arei fell, Wiremu Tamihana initiated discussions that led to a truce. The conciliatory William Fox defeated pro-war Stafford in the legislature by one vote and became premier in 1861. George Grey left Cape Colony in South Africa to return as governor. He and Fox tried to help the Maoris develop local government, more schools, hospitals, and better farming, but the king had become a symbol of Maori nationalism. In 1862 the Native Land Act legalized the private sale of Maori land to settlers.

The truce lasted two years until May 1863, when Rewi resumed hostilities over disputed land at Tataraimaka. Because white farmers were being harassed, Grey ordered military posts on the Waikato River and the completion of a road to Waikato. He also enacted the Settlements Act that authorized confiscating land from rebellious Maoris. However, Frederick Whitaker used it so much that Grey came to oppose it, as did the colonial office. Wiremu Tamihana joined the war party. Lt. General Duncan Cameron surrounded 300 Maoris at Orakau, but even the women and children refused to surrender. With water gone they charged out, and 150 were killed; but Rewi and the rest escaped. The Ngaiterangi surrendered at Te Granga in June 1864. That year the number of imperial troops reached a peak of about 10,000, but Premier Frederick Weld began reducing the imperial forces. Their gunboats, howitzers, Enfield rifles, and hand-grenades gave them powerful military advantages over the muskets, shot-guns, clubs, and spears of the Maoris. The Colony confiscated three million acres in Waikato, the east coast, Taranaki, and elsewhere on the North Island. This injustice was naturally resented and increased the number of Maori rebels.

A new religious movement led by Te Ua Haumene called Pai Marire, meaning “goodness and grace,” rebelled in the east and revived cannibalism. The Pakehas called them Hauhaus for the sound of their chanting. They ambushed imperial troops using guerrilla tactics. Previously the Maoris had respected churches and missionaries, but the fanatical Hauhaus hanged and cut off the head of the missionary Volkner, eating his eyes. Cameron was reluctant to attack the Maoris to defend questionable claims to land by the settlers. When Governor Grey led a campaign himself, Cameron resigned and left for England in 1865. Premier Weld raised taxes to pay for the war and was replaced by Stafford in 1865. All the imperial regiments but one left New Zealand in 1865 and 1866.

Trevor Chute came from Australia and was supported by Keepa Rangihiwiuni, who was called Major Kemp; they captured seven forts. In 1868 Governor Grey was replaced by George Bowen, who came from Queensland. Titokowaru gained more followers after defeating Col. McDonnell, who resigned, but Col. G. S. Whitmore led forces that chased Titokowaru around southern Taranaki until his mana was depleted. Titokowaru’s victories had delayed the occupation of confiscated lands, but in early 1869 he retired into the forests. Te Kooti had been unjustly imprisoned, escaped, founded a Christian religion called Ringatu, and led a guerrilla campaign, but Whitmore was helped by the leadership of Ropata te Wahawaha. In November 1868 Te Kooti led a raid that massacred 33 Europeans and 37 Maori allies. Fox replaced Stafford again as premier in 1869 and ordered aggressive efforts against Te Kooti to end the violence. A change in British colonial policy caused the removal of all their imperial troops by 1870. Finally in February 1872 Te Kooti took refuge in the king country of the Waikato and southern Taranaki, and the Maori wars were over. Europeans and alcohol were not allowed in the king country, and Maori rebels were not harassed there. About 700 Europeans had been killed, some 300 Maori allies, and about 2,000 Maori rebels.

Some gold had been found on the Caromandel peninsula in 1852 and in Nelson in 1857, but the rich strike in Otago by the experienced gold-miner Gabriel Read in June 1860 sparked the gold rush that in two years increased the population from 12,600 to 60,000. Deferred payments enabled more people to buy land. The Bank of New Zealand was started in Auckland in 1861. After a few years the alluvial gold mining diminished, and in the 1870s quartz crushing was the main method. The provincial governments ruined their credit during the war, and in 1867 the colonial government prohibited the provinces from borrowing money. Four Maoris were elected to Parliament in 1868. The next year economic recession brought about the fall of the government to the opposition led by William Fox. By 1870 New Zealand had exported 5,540,000 ounces of gold. The South Island had extraordinary increases between 1858 and 1871 in population, houses, sheep, cattle, and crop acreage, which went from 41,000 to 574,000. The North Island suffered the devastation of the land wars but still had large gains, crop acreage going from 100,000 to 468,000.

New Zealand Democracy 1870-1914

A Jew from London named Julius Vogel became treasurer in 1869 and inspired a policy of government borrowing to invest in infrastructure that was called Vogelism. In the early 1870s New Zealand borrowed money to build railways, roads, bridges, and telegraphs. New Zealand had a debt of £8 million but borrowed £16 million more. To pay for this, land was reserved for future sale. The secret ballot was introduced in 1871, and the next year a Public Trust administration was implemented to help take care of the estates of the deceased. In 1873 Vogel tried to get the provinces to set aside forest reserves. The 1874 census showed that New Zealand’s European population had 43,853 single men to only 7,000 single women. In 1875 the legislature voted to abolish the provinces the next year, making New Zealand a unified colony. In September 1876 Vogel went to London as the agent-general of the colony. Harry Atkinson became premier and treasurer until George Grey took over as prime minister in October 1877. Colonial land boards were established, and an education act made schooling free, compulsory, and secular. Population doubled in the 1870s with 100,000 subsidized immigrants while 1,100 miles of railways and 4,000 miles of telegraph lines were constructed. Grain exports increased from £130,000 in value in 1871 to £1,200,000 in 1881. In 1876 New Zealand was connected by telegraph cable to Australia and thus to Europe.

Maori leaders in the king country who accepted the peace were formally pardoned. In 1872 the Maoris were given two seats in the upper house, and after that they were usually represented on the Executive Council. After 1873 Maori land was divided among individuals which went against their communal tradition. In 1877 Chief Justice James Prendergast ruled that courts had no jurisdiction to recognize aboriginal titles to land once the Crown had claimed sovereignty, thus denying the validity of the Waitangi Treaty. Parliament passed statutes that ignored Maori fishing rights. In 1877 Hipa Te Maiharoa led about a hundred followers back to their ancestral land in Otago on the South Island; but wealthy runholders complained, and the Ngai Tahu exiles were expelled by armed police in 1879.

In the 1870s Te Whiti-o-Rongomai at Parihaka tried to prevent the occupation of confiscated land; they plowed their fields and erected fences to block new roads through their cultivated land. He advised people to use no force but accept arrest and imprisonment to protest the injustice. In 1878 Te Whiti and Tohu Kakahi led the opposition to surveying the disputed land in Taranaki. Men who plowed the land were arrested, but they were replaced each day by others. The 1879 Maori Prisoners’ Trials Act authorized the Governor to imprison them until trial, and in 1880 the West Coast Settlement Act allowed the Armed Constabulary to arrest without warrant anyone who was “reasonably suspected” of being about to commit an offense such as interfering with a survey or unlawfully plowing or fencing land. Some members of Parliament complained about this gross infringement of rights, but several hundred Maoris were imprisoned.

On November 5, 1881 the new native minister John Bryce led 1,500 men of the Armed Constabulary against Parihaka. Te Whiti and his people did not resist; he and Tohu were detained without trial for sixteen months, and about 1,600 Maoris were evicted and had their homes destroyed. Europeans began settling in the Waimate plains. Parihaka remained a center of resistance until Te Whiti and Tohu died in 1907. King Tawhiao surrendered rifles in 1881 and went to England in 1884 to appeal to Queen Victoria; but the Maoris were now under colonial government. Te Kooti was pardoned in 1883, and two years later a railway was constructed in the king country. In 1889 Te Kooti tried to return to Poverty Bay and was arrested.

Inspector James Pope visited the native schools regularly from 1880 to 1903, and in 1884 he published the influential Health for the Maori. The schools were not completely segregated; more Maori children began attending public schools, and some isolated Pakeha children went to native schools, which were mostly taught by Europeans. With the shortage of European women, many men married Maoris, and a few European women married Maori men. More of the mixed marriages lived with the Maoris than with the Europeans. By 1891 the Maoris were only seven percent of the population. Maoris eventually set up the first Kotahitanga Parliament at Waitangi in 1892, but the Liberal Government refused to give up control over Maori land.

The 1894 Native Lands Act divided the Orakei Block of land by individual owners, and it was later purchased by the Crown. The number of Maoris decreased to 42,000 by 1896, and only half their remaining 4,300,000 acres were useful. A dog tax was imposed in 1896, and many Maoris went to prison rather than pay. In 1898 about fifty Waima and Omanaia families were besieged by force, and they surrendered their few guns. James Carroll was half Maori and became minister of Native Affairs in 1899. He encouraged Maoris to take responsibility for their own health and public sanitation. Maui Pomare and Peter Buck (Te Rangihiroa) became medical doctors and organized the Young Maori party and so challenged the domination by Maori elders. The secretary Apirana Ngata had a law degree and won support in the Maori Parliament. Pomare eventually became New Zealand’s minister of Health in 1923, and Ngata served as minister of Native Affairs 1928-32. Maoris no longer suffered as much from European diseases, and improved health conditions enabled their population to increase to 56,000 by 1921.

New Zealand borrowed £20 million in the 1870s, but the boom led to a bust and the long depression of the 1880s and early 1890s. Grey’s Trade Act of 1878 gave unions legal recognition. The City of Glasgow Bank failed that year, and in 1879 New Zealand banks cut their credit by £1.5 million. Atkinson remained influential as treasurer, and in 1882 he proposed insurance and old-age pensions; but these were opposed. The next year an unemployment commission was appointed. Vogel returned in 1884, but he raised taxes and was defeated in 1887. The next year Rev. Rutherford Waddell exposed the Dunedin sweatshops in the clothing industry that exploited women and children. Labor unions were growing, and a nationwide trades and labor congress had been held in 1885. Conservative free traders won elections in 1887, but they could not get rid of Atkinson. Kate Sheppard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union worked for woman suffrage. Manhood suffrage had been enacted in 1879, and one man one vote was won in 1889 when plural voting by landowners was abolished. In 1890 the Public Service Association was formed to protect government employees.

Many emigrated from New Zealand to Australia in the 1880s. In 1890 the Australian maritime strike spread to New Zealand. Liberals supported the 8,000 unionists during the two-month strike, and Atkinson’s government remained neutral; but the unemployed took the jobs and defeated the Maritime Council. Unionists in Dunedin formed New Zealand’s first labor party, and radicals’ agitation achieved a Sweating Commission. In December the Liberals backed by the unions won the election. In reaction the Governor appointed six more Conservatives to the Legislative Council. In the previous twenty years many more women had entered the labor market. In 1890 New Zealand had 1,200 state primary schools, 298 private primary schools, and 68 Maori village schools for a total of 130,000 pupils, but only about 2,000 students were in secondary schools. These prepared for the University of New Zealand, which opened at Otago in 1871, at Canterbury in 1874, and at Auckland in 1883.

With the Liberals’ electoral victory John Ballance became prime minister in 1891. They passed legislation that reduced appointments to the Legislative Council from life to seven years. Ballance’s policy was self-reliance, and he used customs duties and land and income taxes to create a budget surplus. His Land and Income Assessment Act of 1891 imposed progressive taxes on land valued over £500. Ballance established a Labour department under William Pember Reeves to inspect working conditions and administer new laws.

Ballance was ill and wanted Robert Stout to succeed him; but when he died suddenly on April 27, 1893, Richard John Seddon, who was in the cabinet, became premier. He instilled party discipline, became known as “King Dick,” and maintained power for thirteen years. Seddon announced his policy of humanity for mothers and infants, for the young, for workers, and for the old and infirm. Sheppard initiated the gathering of signatures on petitions to the Parliament, and the Women’s Franchise League presented 30,000 signatures. The conservative John Hall helped the Liberals enact woman suffrage (including Maoris) on September 19, 1893, making New Zealand the first nation in the world to give women the vote. Seddon mollified the temperance movement by allowing local electorates to reduce liquor licenses and prohibit the sale of alcohol by a two-thirds majority. Treasurer Joseph G. Ward introduced the Advances to Settlers Act of 1894 that authorized the Government to borrow money overseas and loan it to settlers for only five percent interest. By 1908 this had saved the settlers an estimated £8 million in interest. The transportation of frozen meat and refrigerated dairy products had begun in 1882 and helped the New Zealand economy recover. Ward speculated in frozen meat and went so far in debt that he had to declare bankruptcy and resign in 1896. From 1896 to 1914 butter production increased nearly five-fold, and cheese went up more than ten-fold; the farms of New Zealand supplied the tables in England.

The radical William Reeves was the first in New Zealand to write about socialism and communism, and he became the first minister of Labour. In five years he got enacted fourteen measures to regulate working hours, wages, and labor conditions, preventing “sweat” and child labor. Reeves also applied the ideas of Bellamy and relieved unemployment by contracting out minor public works using government materials. In 1894 the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act set up Conciliation Boards and an Arbitration Court with a Supreme Court judge and two assessors selected by employers’ associations and unions. They awarded many wage increases and thus avoided strikes. New Zealand did not have one strike between 1894 and 1906, and Henry Demarest Lloyd praised the progressive colony in his 1900 book, A Country Without Strikes. Reeves had hoped that most disputes would be settled by the Conciliation Boards, but in fourteen years 155 of the 230 disputes were decided by the Arbitration Court. In 1896 New Zealand had 65 unions with 9,370 members, and in 1908 there were 325 unions with 49,347 members. The arbitration system stimulated one employers’ union in 1896 to proliferate into 122 by 1908 with 3,918 members. In 1896 Reeves went to London as the colony’s agent-general.

Chinese immigration had been severely restricted in 1881, and in 1896 this was made ten times as difficult. An 1899 act required immigrants to know a European language, and after 1907 the Chinese coming in had to read English. Seddon got the Liberals to pass a pension system in 1898 by keeping the Parliament in session for ninety hours during 1,400 speeches, and it provided £18 per year for those in need. New Zealand granted only 33 divorces in 1897, but the next year the Divorce Act allowed women to divorce violent, alcoholic, and unfaithful husbands. The age of consent was raised from 12 to 16. George Hogben became secretary of Education in 1899, and in the next fifteen years he improved the schools by removing the appointment of teachers from local bosses and by beginning technical education and expanding the secondary schools.

Between 1891 and 1911 the Liberals dominated; the freehold land went from 12.5 million acres to 16.5 million, and the Crown leasehold land expanded from 14 million acres to 19 million. The Liberals increased the number of landholdings from 43,000 to 74,000 while European occupation extended an additional eight million acres to forty million. During the twenty years they purchased three million acres of Maori land. The Liberals increased the colony’s debt considerably to £90 million or £84 for every European. The number of women working continued to increase from 1,018 nurses in 1891 to 3,403 in 1911 and from 2,617 teachers in 1891 to 5,053 in 1911. Between 1881 and 1921 New Zealand had the highest recorded annual population growth rate in the world at 23 per 1,000. However, the average number of live births dropped from 6.5 in 1880 to 2.4 in 1923. Edith Grossman wrote four feminist novels between 1890 and 1910, and William Satchell wrote five novels between 1902 and 1914, including The Greenstone Door about Maori life.

In 1899 dairy farmers in Taranaki formed the New Zealand Farmers’ Union which spread across the North Island. An epidemic of bubonic plague in 1900 stimulated New Zealand to set up a system of health officers who inspected slaughter houses and dairies. New Zealand sent 6,495 men to fight for the British in the Boer War in South Africa. In 1901 New Zealand annexed the Cook Islands as a colony. Stimulated by the Arbitration Act, the New Zealand Employers’ Federation was organized in 1902. Amendments to that Act favored employers, and wages stopped keeping up with the increasing cost of living. In 1904 the Trades and Labour Councils formed the Political Labour League. The Australian socialist Robert Semple challenged the arbitration system, and that year he organized the miners of Runanga into a union. In 1908 the union went on strike at the Blackball mine to increase their mid-day meal from fifteen minutes to a half hour. The next year other unions joined the national Federation of Labour that was called the “Red Federation.”

In 1905 the state began building and renting houses, and the next year they started advancing money to workers so that they could build their own houses. Seddon died suddenly in 1906, and Joseph Ward became prime minister. He lost allies among landowners when he implemented a graduated land tax in 1907. That year Dr. Truby King established the Royal New Zealand Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children, which was renamed the Plunket Society after the wife of the Governor. King’s pamphlets were given to everyone who applied for a marriage license, and he especially recommended breast feeding. Ward attended an Imperial Conference in London in 1909 and offered to contribute two million pounds for a dreadnought battleship that was named the HMS New Zealand. That year New Zealand implemented compulsory military training. William Massey led the opposition, and in 1909 he founded the Reform party. In 1911 Peter Fraser led the Auckland General Labourers’ Union in a successful strike. In 1912 the Labour party was reorganized as the United Labour party and included former Liberals. The Reform party made gains in the 1911 election. Ward resigned in February 1912 so that Liberals could choose a new leader; but Thomas MacKenzie divided the Liberals and fell after a few months. Massey became prime minister on July 10.

In May 1912 Waihi gold-miners went on strike; arbitrationists sent in mounted police from the country, and one striker was beat to death by the policeman he shot in the stomach. Union leaders were imprisoned, and “scabs” drove the strikers out of town while the police watched. In 1913 Massey passed the Police Offences Amendment Act to restrict picketing and the Labour Disputes Investigation Act to penalize unions registered with the Arbitration Court that went on strike. In October a strike on the Wellington waterfront was expanded by the United Federation of Labour (UFL) to miners, carpenters, restaurant workers, and other laborers in Auckland, Lyttelton, and Dunedin. They called a general strike, but it only succeeded for a short time in Auckland. “Massey’s Cossacks” were sent in, and the strike collapsed on November 24. Edward Tregear, who had succeeded Reeves as secretary of the Labour Department, became the president of the Social Democratic party that replaced the United Labour party.

New Zealand's Reforms 1914-41

After the European war broke out in August 1914, New Zealand took over Western Samoa from Germany. In December the election retained Massey as prime minister by two votes over Ward’s Liberals and the Labour party. He organized the war effort, but in August 1915 a National Government included Ward as Finance minister. Of the 8,556 New Zealanders who fought at Gallipoli 2,721 were killed. During the war all of New Zealand’s exports were commandeered by the British at fixed prices. The farmers prospered while others sacrificed. The left wanted the profits of the wealthy conscripted instead of humans, but others argued that conscription imposed the most equal sacrifice. The Parliament passed conscription in January 1916, and exemptions were made for those employed in essential industry and for conscientious objectors. In July the second New Zealand Labour party formed.

In 1917 the graduated income tax was increased again to finance the war. New sedition laws led to the imprisonment of the Labour leaders Peter Fraser and Robert Semple for speaking out against the war. New Zealand trained 112,223 men for the Great War, and they fought in the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). New Zealand lost 16,317 killed and had 41,262 wounded, 356 prisoners of war, and 84 missing. Veterans were given funds to purchase land. In November 1918 the influenza took the lives of 6,413 Pakehas (Europeans) and 2,160 Maoris. In December the Expeditionary Forces Amendment Act stripped conscientious objectors of their civil rights for ten years. Soldiers complained that their pensions were only £27 for each year of service, and in September 1919 they marched on Parliament, demanding £75. When they broke a few windows, public opinion turned against them. About 9,000 soldiers were given land that was not very good, and 2,000 had abandoned their land by 1925.

New Zealand bars began closing at six o’clock in 1917, and this law lasted fifty years. Christian fundamentalists formed the Protestant Political Association (PPA), and during the war the prohibitionist Baptist minister Howard Elliott moved the PPA to the far right. He charged that the Catholic Church had instigated the war to gain world domination, and he considered dangerous those who favored the rebellion in Ireland. In July 1917 at a rally in Auckland he accused Deputy Prime Minister and Postmaster-General Joseph Ward of censoring PPA’s mail. Catholics became so enraged by his tactics that a mob attacked Protestants and Elliott, who was then guarded by police. The PPA failed to defeat Fraser and Semple in the 1918 election, and so in 1919 Elliott backed Reform candidates. Ward lost his seat and did not return to Parliament until 1925. James Roberts organized the Alliance of Labour in 1919, and that year there was a long coal strike. The League of Nations granted New Zealand a mandate over Western Samoa in 1920.

When the Liberals had been in power, they had a second ballot so that a majority was needed; but the Reform party repealed that and often won seats with a plurality. In 1919 Reform won 44 seats with only 36% of the vote; the Liberals held 20 seats, but Labour with 24% of the vote had only 8 seats. Massey remained prime minister until his death on May 10, 1925. To win back farmers who had formed the Country party he introduced the Meat Export Control Act in 1922, and the next year he regulated dairy exports too. The Government encouraged home ownership by providing loans at favorable interest rates, and home ownership increased from 36% in 1916 to 50% in 1926. Married woman usually were not employed outside the home, and from 1900 until the 1930s less than one-sixth of women were employed. By 1919 real wages had fallen to their lowest level in twenty years.

After the end of war profiteering, prices fell, and New Zealand’s economy went into a slump in 1921. In 1920 the “White New Zealand” policy restricted immigration to those of British birth with permits required for any exceptions. In 1921 Herbert Guthrie Smith pioneered environmental history by publishing his study of a Hawke’s bay sheep station in Tutira. The Divorce Act of 1920 facilitated more divorces which rose to 614 in 1926. New Zealand began the Radio Broadcasting Company (RBC) in August 1925 and collected dealers’ fees and license fees from listeners to pay for broadcasting stations at Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, and Dunedin. In the 1920s the number of milking machines increased from 2,000 to 10,000, and more shearing machines were used as well. The number of motorcars rose from 60,000 to 213,000 and were mostly American models. The poet R. A. K. Mason became so frustrated because his poetry was ignored that he threw 200 unsold copies of The Beggar into Waitemata Harbour. Later he turned to writing plays for left-wing theater groups in Auckland.

Joseph Coates became the leader of the Reform party, and in the 1925 election they won their largest victory with 47% of the votes. In 1926 Coates agreed to family allowances for poor families with more than two children, but unmarried mothers, those of “bad character,” aliens, and Asians were not eligible. In 1927 the Parliament voted to contribute £1,000,000 over ten years to the British military base at Singapore. In 1928 the elderly Joseph Ward of the Liberals led the newly named United party to victory by promising to borrow and spend £70 million. He had meant to say that this would be over ten years; but this was so popular that he did little to correct the misunderstanding. Their 34 seats were supported by Reforms’ 29 seats while Labour was up to 19 seats.

George W. Forbes became prime minister two months before Ward died in July 1930. Compulsory military training was suspended. The Unemployment Board tried to find jobs with little expenditure involved, but this usually meant make-work jobs for men and did not help youths or women. In 1931 their Schema Five allowed a single man to work two days a week, married men with a child three days, and men with two or more children for four days; but as the program grew, wages were reduced. New Zealand had the highest per capita external trade in the world, and the Great Depression made the struggling economy much worse. The national income dropped from £150 million to £90 million as exports fell forty percent in three years.

In the 1931 election the United and Reform parties formed a coalition that won and put Forbes and Coates in office with 50 seats to Labour’s 24. That year the Arbitration Court reduced all wages by ten percent. In 1932 the Government made the Arbitration Court voluntary so that employers could lower wages on their own. By then about 13,000 had joined the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and in Auckland, Dunedin, and Wellington people rioted in the streets and clashed with the special police sent in by the Government. A tramway strike in Christchurch also resulted in violence. The banks weakened New Zealand’s exchange rate to £110 NZ to £100 sterling, and in January 1933 Coates replaced Finance Minister Downie Stewart and changed it again to £125 NZ to £100 sterling. The next year Coates established a Reserve Bank to facilitate private borrowing at lower interest rates. By 1933 New Zealand had 81,000 unemployed, which was about 12% of the work force. The interest on the national debt was up to 40% of the Government’s expenditures. Ignoring the theories of Keynes, the Government balanced its budget by cutting pensions, health care, education, civil service salaries, and public works.

 The Labour party had been gradually winning more seats in each election since 1919, but their socialist leader Harry Holland had been unable to attract many rural votes. He died in 1933, and Michael Savage, Walter Nash, and Peter Fraser moderated Labour’s policies. Savage emphasized social justice and the humanity of Seddon, and in 1935 they won the election with 53 seats, plus two of the four Maori seats and four independent allies. Labour had swept the urban districts and won in most rural areas too. They immediately granted a Christmas bonus of one week’s pay to the unemployed and then restored wage scales. Compulsory arbitration was revived, and the five-day forty-hour week was implemented in most jobs. The basic wage for a man was based on the needs of a family of five. Workers subject to arbitration agreements were required to join the union, and union membership increased from 81,000 in 1935 to 249,000 in 1938. A new Federation of Labour drew together 70% of union members.

With the 1936 Primary Products Marketing Act the Government took control of dairy prices for the public interest. The Government bought out the private stockholders in the Reserve Bank by paying market prices totaling £500,000 so that it could provide “the people’s credit” and regulate the currency of New Zealand. The State Advances Corporation bought out the Mortgage Corporation, which Coates had established, and loaned money for housing and new industries. The number of tractors increased from 5,349 in 1935 to 11,278 in 1940. The Agricultural Workers Act set minimum pay and mandated decent living conditions. Fraser reopened the colleges that had been closed, changed the starting school age back to five from six, widened entry into secondary schools, restored teachers’ salaries, hired more teachers to reduce class size, and increased funds for school maintenance, materials, libraries, Maori education, dental care, bus transportation, and for building new schools.

New Zealand’s portion of the Royal Navy began patrolling its waters in 1936. That year New Zealand was elected to the Council of the League of Nations and was the only Commonwealth country that refused to recognize Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia. On July 16 Prime Minister Savage sent a memorandum to the Secretary-General urging the League to fulfill its commitment to collective security.

Labour MP John A. Lee wrote the political pamphlet Labour Has a Plan (1935), but he was left out of the original cabinet. His novels were Children of the Poor (1934), The Hunted (1936), and Civilian into Soldier (1937), and he wrote Socialism in New Zealand in 1938. The articulate Lee was made an undersecretary of Finance for Housing. After building one block of high-rise flats for the poor he opted for individual houses; by 1939 he had supervised the construction of 5,000 new houses.

The British Medical Association (BMA) resisted the Government’s efforts to provide health insurance for more people, but before the 1938 election the Labour party introduced its social security system with a five-percent tax on income. Based on need, this program increased pensions, raised family allowances, and implemented health services that provided medicine, treatment, and maternity benefits. The Prime Minister called this “applied Christianity;” but the Nationalist Sidney Holland scoffed at social security as “applied lunacy.” In May 1936 the National Political Federation had formed from the coalition that lost the 1935 election which reduced their 46 seats to 19. Adam Hamilton was elected leader of the National party, and in the 1938 election they increased their seats to 26 with 39% of the votes; but Labour won a major victory with 53 seats and 52% of the votes. New Zealand’s sterling balances had dropped from £29 million to £8 million in six months, and so the new cabinet introduced exchange controls in December.

Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington on October 14, 1888. She moved to London in 1908 and wrote influential short stories. She was traumatized by the Great War and wrote many stories set in the land of her youth, New Zealand. She contracted tuberculosis in 1917 and died at the age of 34. Jane Mander wrote six novels in the 1920s, but she was best known for her first, The Story of a New Zealand River. Jean Devanny advocated sexual liberation and wrote seven socialist novels between 1926 and 1932; her first novel The Butcher Shop was published in England and banned in New Zealand. She worked for the Communist Party but was expelled in 1941. The woman Robin Hyde published five realistic novels in three years before she committed suicide in 1939. She was a friend of John A. Lee, had a difficult life, and covered the war in China in 1938. John Mulgan’s 1939 novel Man Alone has been compared to Hemingway’s style and described the Depression.

New Zealand and World War II 1939-50

New Zealand did not delay in declaring war on Germany in September 1939, and the British immediately cabled that they would purchase all of New Zealand’s exported meat, dairy products, and wool. During the war New Zealand supplied about three-fifths of Britain’s butter and nearly half its cheese. More than 12,000 volunteers signed up in the first week, including 300 Maoris for an infantry battalion. Conscription began in July 1940, and by then 59,664 men had been recruited. After criticizing the dying Prime Minister in a pamphlet Lee was expelled from the Labour party in March 1940 two days before Savage’s death. Peter Fraser became premier and implemented conscription even though he had been imprisoned for speaking against it in 1917. The Government also suppressed two newspapers, the Communist People’s Voice and the radical Tomorrow. Labour leaders supported the war against fascism. In July they included Hamilton and Coates as members of a War Cabinet while Labour still handled domestic issues and stabilized prices. In May 1941 the Germans invaded Crete, killing 634 New Zealanders and taking 2,217 prisoners along with even more Australians. During the war the Government controlled prices, wages, and rents; broadcasting, internal airlines, and the linen flax industry became state monopolies. New Zealand began subsidizing agriculture and some goods and services in 1942.

After the Japanese aggression on December 8, 1941 an effort was made to raise troops to fight as allies of the Americans in the Pacific while New Zealand’s two divisions remained in the Mideast. Walter Nash arrived as New Zealand’s minister to Washington in February 1942. New Zealand was part of the South Pacific Area under the command of Vice-Admiral R. L. Ghormley, who established his headquarters at Auckland on May 21; in October he was succeeded by Admiral William Halsey. For two years about 20,000 American troops were stationed in New Zealand while 50,000 New Zealanders fought overseas. The Government established a War Administration with seven Labour and six National ministers. During a mining strike, Sidney George Holland objected to the Government suspending miners’ sentences to get them to return to work. Even though the tribunal settled the dispute against the miners, the National caucus withdrew from the War Administration. Coates and Hamilton had to go against their party to rejoin the War Cabinet. The 2 Division fought in the Italian campaign from October 1943 until Trieste was occupied in May 1945 while the 3 Division supported the Americans in the Solomon Islands until February 1944.

In 1943 the Servicemen’s Settlement and Land Sales Act allowed the Government to purchase land for subdivision and control prices on land sales. In September the Labour party won a majority by twelve seats in the election. New Zealand established a Department of External Affairs (later renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and they opened Legations in Washington and Moscow as well as High Commissions in Ottawa and Canberra. On January 21, 1944 the Australia-New Zealand Agreement was signed at Canberra. During World War II New Zealand had 11,625 soldiers killed and 17,000 wounded. At the peak in September 1942 New Zealand had more than 150,000 in the armed forces. The war cost New Zealand about £600,000,000, not counting postwar rehabilitation expenses.

In 1945 the state took over the Bank of New Zealand, and trade helped the Government reduce its overseas debt. In December the Minimum Wage Act set the basic wage at £5 5s. for men and £3 3s. for women. Aid to children was expanded in 1946 by abolishing the means test. The Labour party ended the long-standing policy of allowing 28% beyond the rural population to increase its representation. After the 1946 election the Labour party retained a majority by four seats; they held all four of the Maori seats, and the others were evenly divided. The work of Albert Henry and the Cook Islands Progressive Association led to the forming of the representative Legislative Council there in 1946, and Cook Islanders became legal citizens of New Zealand in 1948.

New Zealand became legally sovereign in 1947 by accepting the 1931 Statue of Westminster. The Government eliminated £12 million in annual agricultural subsidies. New Zealand created a favorable trade balance by not importing much, and by 1947 they had repaid £6.7 million in loans to London. In 1948 the New Zealand pound was revalued to parity with the sterling. The Labour party suspected the motives of American capitalists and refused to join the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Royal New Zealand Air Force supported the Berlin airlift.

Premier Fraser attended a Commonwealth Conference in London in early 1949 and was persuaded that the Cold War required peacetime conscription, and a national referendum on this passed. By 1949 social services were 32% of the Government budget and 16% of New Zealand’s economy. The Dairy Industry Stabilization Account had accumulated £12,000,000 as a reserve fund used when prices fell. In the previous four years hourly wage rates had increased 21% compared to a 14% increase in prices. Yet in December 1949 Sidney George Holland led the conservatives to victory by a majority of four seats in the House. His National party accepted most of Labour’s social welfare reforms and ran on the slogan “Make the £ Go Farther” and a platform of free enterprise, less bureaucratic restrictions, and lower taxes. Some had become concerned about militant strikes, especially by waterside workers and coal miners who had accounted for three-quarters of all working days lost during the war.


1. Quoted in A History of New Zealand by Keith Sinclair, p. 32.

Copyright © 2007 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950.
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British India 1800-1848
British India's Wars 1848-1881
India's Renaissance 1881-1905
India's Freedom Struggle 1905-1918
Gandhi and India 1919-1933
Liberating India and Pakistan 1934-1950
Tibet, Nepal, and Ceylon 1800-1950
Burma, Malaya and the British 1800-1950
Siam, Cambodia, and Laos 1800-1950
Vietnam and the French 1800-1950
Indonesia and the Dutch 1800-1950
Australia to 1950
New Zealand to 1950
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