The colonial Waikato War began 154 years ago today, when Governor George Grey's troops marched into the territory of the Maori King Tawhiao.

Newspapers of the time tell of around 250 soldiers crossing the border, the Mangatawhiri Stream, near Pokeno and taking control. The stream runs beside today's State Highway 1 at the Mercer straights.

They were a precursor to an invasion by thousands of troops.

A report of the invasion in the New Zealander, July 15, 1863. Source: the National Library.
A report of the invasion in the New Zealander, July 15, 1863. Source: the National Library.

That invasion - "the defining conflict of New Zealand history" - and the other battles and events of the wars between the British/colonial forces and Maori have received relatively little attention. However, they are now set to become more familiar to New Zealanders, with the establishment of a national day of commemoration, October 28.

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The first commemoration will be held this year.

Conflict, from fatal skirmishes to wars, occurred in Wairau, Northland, Taranaki, Waikato, Te Urewera, Tauranga, Opotiki and the East Coast, mainly in the 1840s and 1860s.

Maori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell has said: "These battles shaped our country and its people. We lost more than 2750 lives during the wars and it's time we honour them in a similar way that we honour those who died overseas."

The Waikato invasion, Grey's attempt to force submission of the Kingitanga and its allies to the sovereignty of Queen Victoria, followed several years of tension after the Taranaki War earlier in the 1860s.

Grey pursued peace, while planning for war, constructing the Great South Rd to the border and building up troops and warships.

The trigger for the invasion, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Duncan Cameron, was the Maori King Movement's rejection of the Governor's ultimatum demanding allegiance.

In a proclamation to the Waikato Chiefs, published in the Gazette and reprinted in the New Zealander, Grey levelled accusations of murder and said Europeans had been driven from the Waikato.

"You are now assembling in armed bands; you are constantly threatening to come down the river to ravage the settlement of Auckland, and to murder peaceable settlers."

Those who made war, or held arms and threatened the lives of peaceable British subjects would "forfeit the right to the possession of their lands guaranteed to them by the Treaty of Waitangi".

After a series of battles in 1863 and 1864, the Kingitanga tribes retreated into what became known as the King Country. Cameron withdrew.

The Crown confiscated some 486,000ha of land, of which around a quarter had been returned before Royal Commission hearings in the mid-1920s.

In a $170 million settlement, including more than 15,000ha of land, the Crown in 1995 apologised to Waikato-Tainui for the unjust invasion of their lands.

Historian Vincent O'Malley's book, The Great War for New Zealand, Waikato 1800-2000, published last year, says, "The Waikato War was the defining conflict in New Zealand history: a time when the government began to assert extensive control over the country, with devastating impacts not only for the Tainui people but for iwi everywhere."

In the Herald, O'Malley lamented the near-total neglect of New Zealand's battle sites, apart from the return to Tainui of the Rangiriri site near the Waikato River.

But he also noted the response to his book had indicated "a public desire to learn more about this defining conflict fought on Auckland's doorstep".