Harvard professor speaks to conflict between Māori people and British government

Lauren Ellis

In its early days, New Zealand was plagued by conflict between its indigenous people and the ruling British government, according to Bain Attwood, a visiting professor of history at Harvard University.

Attwood said his findings on the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and their relationship with the British government represent the “perennial question in the British imperial historiography.” He said the issues between these two groups stem from their disparate levels of access to the legal system.

“The British sovereignty withheld legal discourse as a resource drawn upon to get leverage over the indigenous peoples,” Attwood said. 

Up until the 20th century, Māori people were rarely recognized as legal owners of much of the New Zealand landscape — an injustice Attwood puts at the center of his research. 

Attwood said many historians question whether British leaders’ vernacular helped trick the Māori tribes into signing an unfair treaty. Though some question the Māori’s understanding of the treaty, and of the concept of sovereignty as a whole, Attwood said answers are indefinite because there is little historical proof to support a given interpretation of what happened. Attwood also said the British downplayed the Māori’s strong military power. 

The Māori people have flourished as time has passed, according to Attwood. In 1769, only about 100,000 Māori people filled New Zealand territory. With the weakening of British power, the Māori people have grown to account for 15 percent of today’s New Zealand population.