There is an idea that sometimes arises in conversation about Māori land that Māori land was never stolen, but sold willingly.

Where Māori are unhappy about land, this idea puts it down to mere regret for the sale, and a notion that Māori are crying foul over a business transaction that was anything but. The very concept of stolen land is regarded as abstract, something which didn’t happen but can still be entertained for the purpose of discussion. In reality, stolen land was the norm. In the case of the Waikato War, it was the very reason for conflict.

The Kīngitanga was formed in 1858 in response to the speed at which Māori land was being bought up by settlers. Māori in Waikato were worried that the sale of the land was also eroding their sovereignty, and the small amount of political power they held in the colony. The Kīngitanga served as a land league, where its members refused to sell their land. This presented a problem to Auckland Pākehā, because available land was quickly growing scarce there. While the land which was protected by the Kīngitanga was not for sale, the option of leasing it was offered, which would have allowed Māori to retain the land, and their sovereignty, while giving the growing colony arable land to farm and settle. This was seen as unacceptable because it would put Māori in positions of power over Pākehā. From the point of view of a small group of businessmen based in Auckland, it was unacceptable for another reason: it prevented land speculation, and the easy profits which accompanied it.

Russell Stone called that group of businessmen ‘the Limited Circle’. At its centre was Thomas Russell, a lawyer by training, but with a taste for business and opportunity. With the help of the Limited Circle Russell was able to found the Bank of New Zealand, the foundation of the business ventures the group would carry out in the Waikato War. This collection of men included notable figures like John Logan Campbell, Josiah Firth, and Frederick Whitaker. Campbell and his partner William Brown owned a merchant company and the Southern Cross newspaper. Josiah Firth had land investments as well as a manufacturing company, while Whitaker was Russell’s partner in their law firm, and Attorney-General in the colony. When Russell founded the Bank of New Zealand, these men supported him and took ownership of shares in the company. In turn, they had readily available loans from the bank, and investments from the other members of the circle in their companies.

The Waikato War was stoked by fears of Māori rebelling against the Crown, and threatening the settlement of Auckland. This wasn’t a credible fear and the Kīngitanga had no intention of overturning the Treaty of Waitangi. Their only goal was to recognise the partnership that had been promised. Despite having reporters at Kīngitanga hui who knew there was no threat, the newspapers in Auckland fed into the fear of Māori rising up against the Crown. Campbell and Brown’s Southern Cross reported that ‘a crisis in native affairs is coming on’. This wasn’t coincidental – Brown had openly stated his purpose in operating the paper was for politics, not profit, and argued that it was a strong source of influence. The outcome of this fear was the outbreak of war in July 1863, starting with the famous ultimatum that was sent to Māori living in the region between Auckland and Waikato. It told them to join the Crown or leave their lands, and was the precursor to the confiscations that would follow.

Although the war was progressing as planned, the Premier, Alfred Domett, came into conflict with Russell and Whitaker. They were key members of his ministry – Russell was a powerful voice with finances, and Whitaker was the Attorney General. In November of 1863, the tension came to a head and the partners resigned from Domett’s ministry, destabilising the government and forcing Domett himself to resign. In the aftermath, Whitaker became the Premier, and Russell the Minister of Defence. In a short period they had taken over two of the three highest roles in government and by extension, control of the war currently being waged in Waikato. At the same time that this was happening, a man named W. C. Wilson resigned from his position as a partner in the anti-war newspaper the New Zealander in Auckland. He subsequently launched his own newspaper which immediately took a pro-war stance, encouraging the confiscation of Māori land and the extension of government power into Waikato. Wilson was a board member and shareholder of the BNZ, and his new paper was called the New Zealand Herald. While they couldn’t prove it, his competitors suspected the Herald of being financed by Russell, and this was backed up by Russell’s nightly visits to the Herald offices. So by the end of 1863, one of Thomas Russell’s business partners was the Premier, while another was the editor of the largest city’s newest pro-war newspaper. Russell himself was in charge of the war effort as the Minister.

The next part of Russell and Whitaker’s scheme was to pass a set of laws I’ve termed the War Acts. The War Acts were three bills which legalised the war and dictated how land confiscations in Waikato and beyond would work. The Suppression of Rebellion Act gave the military immunity for actions taken during martial law, and transferred the responsibility for prosecution of rebels from civil courts to military tribunals. It also gave the military the power to designate Māori as rebels. The New Zealand Settlements Act authorised confiscations of land belonging to rebels, and gave the government the power to dispose of the land as it saw fit. The profits were to cover the expenditure of the war effort. The last of the three was the New Zealand Loan Act, and it was perhaps Russell and Whitaker’s best move. The Loan Act authorised the government to take out a large loan for the purposes of financing the war against the Kīngitanga. It seems a simple matter for a government waging a war to take out a loan, but it requires a large lender which can be difficult to find. Luckily for the colonial government, the Premier and the Minister of Defence were well connected, and happened to be the primary shareholders of the major bank in the colony, which was also the bank where the government accounts were held.

So by the end of 1863, a small group of Auckland businessmen had had two of their number successfully attain high political posts. Those two, Russell and Whitaker, then used those positions of power to propagate a war in Waikato. In this they were aided by the Herald – bankrolled by Russell and owned by Wilson, who was also a board member and shareholder of the BNZ. The BNZ in turn, managed the government accounts, and provided a substantial loan to the government to fund the war, which in turn paid the BNZ interest on the loan. The dividends of these payments went to a small number of shareholders, the membership of which was carefully curated by artificial buy-ins on the shares.

However, the story doesn’t stop there. As the war progressed, more land was confiscated from Māori down country. The Settlements Act allowed the government to dispose of it in whatever way it wanted to, and so advertisements were sent to the goldfields of Victoria, and around New Zealand, promising plots of land to men who came to fight against the Kīngitanga. Māori land was being used as currency to hire more mercenaries. The soldiers answered the call, and they came to serve their time and collect their parcels of land. These men represented the first Anzac conflict – Australians and New Zealanders fighting alongside each other.

There was a catch to these land incentives though, and it was quite a big one. The land these soldiers were being given was deep in Waikato, and a lot of it was wild land, filled with swamps and misshapen by rolling hills, all overgrown with scrub and native bush. It was hard land that needed to be cleared before farming or work could occur. Waikato wasn’t connected to Auckland by road or rail, not properly, so machinery was difficult to bring in, and prohibitively expensive for men who had been on soldiers’ wages and taken land as part payment. There was also the loneliness – the towns were small, or non-existent, and there were few women, making it hard for the men to see the possibility of raising a family on the land. A few years after the war ended, soldiers began to leave. Some simply walked off the land, ceding their claims, while others waited until they could sell their plots back to the government.

When the land was then sold by the government to cover costs, it was the Auckland speculators that snapped it up. Russell bought one block of land, the Piako swamp, for 50 percent of the legally mandated sale price of confiscated land. Another speculator and friend of his amassed some 15,000 acres in Waikato – the equivalent of 60,000 of the popular quarter acre paradise. Josiah Firth owned a large portion of the land surrounding Matamata. It was there that he founded the company which survives today as Firth Concrete, now owned by Fletcher Construction.

Russell and Whitaker didn’t stay in government long, having only needed a short period to make their mark. One historian commented that it was rare to see a politician “place themselves in a position so morally difficult to hold”, and it was a fairly made point. They had used their wealth and connections to encourage a war against Māori, using the press for propaganda, their bank for financing, and their political office to put a veneer of legitimacy across the entire proceeding. At its core, it was a well managed heist that targeted Māori land with the reasoning that European needs were more important than Māori rights.

Matthew Nickless is a graduate of the University of Auckland. He wrote his Master's thesis on the Invasion of Waikato, and the social constructions of race which fuelled the war.

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