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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XV — Governor Browne's Bad Bargain

page 196

Chapter XV
Governor Browne's Bad Bargain

In defence of the colonists of New Zealand, of whom I am one, I say most distinctly and solemnly that I have never known a single act of wilful injustice or oppression committed by anyone in authority against a New Zealander.—Bishop Selwyn (1862).

Colonel gore browne took the reins from Colonel Wynyard. The one was just such an honourable and personally estimable soldier as the other. But though he did not involve his Parliament in ridicule, Governor Browne did much more serious mischief. In ordinary matters he took the advice of the Stafford Ministry, but in native affairs the Colonial Office had stipulated that the Governor was to have an over-riding power. He was to take the advice of his Ministers, but not necessarily to follow it. To most politicians, as well as the public, the Native Department remained a secret service, though, except as to a sum of £7,000, the Governor, in administering native affairs, was dependent for supplies on his Ministers, and they on Parliament. On Governor Browne, therefore, rests the chief responsibility for a disastrous series of wars which broke out in 1860, and were not finally at an end for ten years. The impatience of certain colonists to buy lands from the Maori faster than the latter cared to sell them was the simple and not too creditable cause of the outbreak. A broad survey of the position shows that there need have been no hurry over land acquisition. Nor was there any great clamour for haste except in Taranaki, where rather less than 3,000 settlers, restricted to 3,200 acres, fretted at the sight of 1,750 Maori holding and shutting up 2,000,000 acres against them. So high did feeling run there that Bishop Selwyn, as the friend of the Maori, was, in 1855, hooted in the streets of New Plymouth, where the local page 197 newspaper wrote nonsense about his “blighting influence.” Yet, as he tersely put it in his charge to his angry laity of the district guilty of this unmannerly outburst, the Taranaki Maori and others of their race had already sold 30,000 acres near New Plymouth for tenpence an acre, a million of acres at Napier for a penny three-farthings an acre, an extensive territory round Auckland for about fourpence an acre, and the whole South Island below the Kaikoura for a mite an acre. They had also—the bishop might have added—leased large tracts ultimately turned into freeholds. Yet the impatience of the Taranaki settlers, though mischievous, was natural. The Maori scarcely used a hundredth part of their lands. Moreover, members of the Taranaki tribes who were anxious to sell plots to the Whites were threatened, attacked, and even assassinated by their fellow-tribesmen.

Never bullied, and not much interfered with by the Government, the Maori tribes as a whole were prospering. They farmed and drove a brisk trade with the settlements, especially Auckland, where, in 1858, no less than fifty-three coasting vessels were registered as belonging to native owners. Still, the growing numbers of the colonists alarmed them. They saw their race becoming the weaker partner. Originating in Taranaki, a league was formed by a number of the tribes against further selling of land. To weld this league together, certain powerful Waikato chiefs determined to have a king. Of them the most celebrated was the son of Hongi's old antagonist, Te Waharoa. This leader, Wiremu Tamihana, usually known as William Thompson, was an educated Christian and a brown-skinned gentleman, far in advance of his race in breadth of view, logical understanding, and persistence. He honestly wanted to be at peace with us, but, regarding contact with our race as deadly to his own, desired to organize the Maori as a community dwelling apart from the Pakeha on ample and carefully secured territories. Had the Maori race numbered 500,000 instead of 50,000, and been capable of uniting under him for any purpose whatever, he might conceivably have established a counterpart to Basutoland. But the scanty dwindling tribes could not be welded together. New Zealand was, as she is, the land of jealousies, local and personal. It would seem as though every change of wind brought fresh page 198 rivalry and division. The Waikato chiefs themselves were at odds. After years of argument and speech-making they came to the point of choosing their king. But they compromised on the old chief, Te Whero Whero. The once famous warrior was now blind, broken, and enfeebled. When, in 1860, he died, they made the still greater mistake of choosing as successor his son Matutaera (Methuselah), better known as Tawhiao, a dull, heavy, sullen-looking fool, who afterwards became a sot. They disclaimed hostility to the Queen, but would sell no land, and would allow no Whites to settle among them except a few mechanics whose skill they wished to use. They even expelled from their villages White men who had married Maori wives, and who now had to leave their families behind. They would not allow the Queen's writ to run beyond their aukati or frontier, or let boats and steamers come up their rivers. Amongst themselves the more violent talked of driving the Pakeha into the sea. Space will not permit of any sketch of the discussions and negotiations by which attempts were made to deal with the King Movement. Various mistakes were made. Tamihana, while still open to conciliation, visited Auckland to see the Governor and ask for a small loan to aid his tribe in erecting a flour-mill. Governor Grey would have granted both the interview and the money with good grace. Governor Browne refused both, and the Waikato chief departed deeply incensed. A much graver error was the virtual repeal of the ordinance forbidding the sale of arms to the natives. Because a certain amount of smuggling went on in spite of it, the insane course was adopted of greatly relaxing its provisions instead of spending money and vigilance in enforcing them. The result was a rapid increase of the guns and powder sold to the disaffected tribes, who are said to have spent £50,000 in buying them between 1857 and 1860. Between July, 1857, and April, 1858, at any rate, 7,849 lb. of gunpowder, 311 double-barrelled guns, and 441 single-barrelled guns were openly sold to Maori.

Finally, in 1860, came the waitara land purchase—the spark which set all ablaze. The name Waitara has been extended from a river both to a little seaport and to the surrounding district in Taranaki, the province where, as already said, feeling on the land difficulty had always been most page 199 acute. Enough land had been purchased, chiefly by Grey, to enable the settlement to expand into a strip of about twenty miles along the seashore, with an average depth of about seven miles. During a visit to the district, Governor Browne invited the Ngatiawa natives to sell land. A chief, Teira, and his friends at once offered to part with six hundred acres which they were occupying. The head of their tribe, however, Wiremu Kingi, vetoed the sale. The Native Department and the Governor sent down commissioners, who, after inquiry, decided erroneously that Teira's party had a right to sell and the head chief none to interfere. A fair price was paid for the block, and surveyors sent to it. The Ngatiawa good-humouredly encountered these with a band of old women well selected for their ugliness, whose appalling endearments effectually obstructed the survey work. Then, as Kingi threatened war, an armed force was sent to occupy the plot, After two days' firing upon a stockade erected there, the soldiers advanced and found it empty. Kingi, thus attacked, astutely made the disputed piece over to the King tribes, and forthwith became their protégé. Without openly making war, they sent him numbers of volunteer warriors. He became the protagonist of the Maori land league. The Taranaki tribe hard by New Plymouth and the Ngatiruanui farther south joined him openly. Hostilities broke out in February, 1860.

It should be mentioned that while all this was going on, the Premier, Mr. Stafford, was absent in England, and that his colleagues supported the Governor's action. Parliament did not assemble until war had broken out, and then a majority of members conceived themselves bound to stand by what had been done. Nevertheless, so great was the doubt about the wisdom and equity of the purchase that most of the North Island members even then condemned it. Most of the South Island members, who had much to lose and nothing to gain by war, supported it. Very heavily had their island to pay for the Waitara purchase. It was not a crime, unless every purchaser who takes land with a bad title which he believes to be good is a criminal. But, probably wrong technically, certainly needless and disastrous, it will always remain for New Zealand the classic example of a blunder worse than a crime.