Monday, September 12, 2016

Wars Without End – the land wars in nineteenth century New Zealand by Danny Keenan

The following is a book review that originally appeared in issue 6 of aargh! (available online here)

A wonderful ease
Wars Without End – the land wars in nineteenth century New Zealand by Danny Keenan - Penguin 2009
Reviewed by Peppertree
BY CHOOSING the title Wars Without End, Danny Keenan puts an important conclusion of his book on the land wars right up front. While the gun fighting mainly took place between 1843 and 1872, the battle over land has continued endlessly in the courts, in parliament and in tribunal hearings. In the age of neoliberalism, the armed force have been replaced by hordes of property developers who continue to dispossess people of a place to live.

Every chapter of the very detailed book clearly shows how utterly incompatible the British concept of individual property titles and the collective ownership model of Māori society are. The British system with its clearly defined, surveyed and permanently owned plots was imposed on a society where land had always been collectively owned, borders were forever shifting and claims to ownership were changing and contested. According to Keenan, Māori had an “integrated, legitimate and culturally specific system of rights, checks and balances encompassing the land” that was diametrically opposed to the rigid European system of individual, permanent land titles.

What Keenan doesn’t mention (and it’s beyond the scope of a book about the land wars) is that it was only 100 years earlier that the British system was not all that different. Up until the beginning of the Inclosures Acts of the 18th century, the Commons existed as communal spaces for the landless peasants. The demand by the British settlers for land could be seen as reaction to their own loss of land. The emerging economic system, capitalism, demanded security in land ownership and that was easier to be had in New Zealand where settlers were being supported by the British government, than in Britain where the fight would have been against the government. The book also shows how the colonial settler state avoided any attempt to understand the Maori concept of land ownership, let alone acknowledge it. In as early as 1841, land claims commissioner William Spain, who investigated the legality of William Wakefield’s early land acquisitions, was “struggling to comprehend the interconnectedness of customary issues before him” and simply gave up. Instead of deciding to return land that was clearly illegally taken – even by 19th century colonial standards – Spain turned to compensating iwi for the permanent loss of land.

This early decision not to bother understanding the Māori land ownership system and to compensate for land loss instead of returning land to the original owners (because that would have been too hard to do without ever understanding who the rightful owners were) became the defining theme of settler state Māori relationships. More than 20 years after Spain, the judges of the Compensation Court came to the conclusion that “our [the English] language supplies no words which fitly express the ideas of a Māori holding” and that “the idea of [a sole proprietary title] is contrary to the truth of Māori ownership.”

It seems remarkable that this insight is simply noted after two decades of relentless war that cost thousands of lives. But the concept worked well for the state. So much so that in 1867 the chief judge at the Compensation Court, Francis Fenton, was surprised that the system of ignoring Māori ownership “would have worked with the wonderful ease which has marked its operation.”

Keenan’s book also shows why Māori never had a chance of winning the wars, despite winning many battles. One reason is that Māori were not accustomed to ongoing warfare. But the main reason is that, despite initially being outnumbered, the British government had plenty more options. While it was clearly visible what resources Māori had (it was known how many people lived where and what type and number of weapons they had), the colonial government had access to resources that were invisible to Māori. They could simply double their numbers by bringing in reinforcements from Australia and Britain if needed. They could import new technology which Māori had never seen.

If one wanted to, one could read the book as a textbook for government tactics. It outlines how the colonial government used any strategy and tactic available: from the traditional divide and conquer of governor Gore Brown to the ‘pacification through legal processes’ by land commissioner William Spain to the full on scorched earth policy of governor George Grey and his general Trevor Chute from1865 onwards.

The central dogma of colonialism has always been the assumed superiority of everything European over everything Māori. This included from early on the economic system. Māori were told that if they did not see the benefits of ‘free trade’, they would be “ground to dust” (the Daily Southern Cross in 1865). And integral to free trade is individual property ownership. So everything comes back to the question of land: Te pūtake o te riri, the root of all trouble. This is how chief Te Rauparaha described the role of land disputes at the so called (by Pākeha settlers) Wairau massacre in 1843.

For more about the New Zealand Wars, visit, a site operated by Danny Keenan.