Irish Precedents and the New Zealand Wars

A recent blog post discussed Irish and Māori historical connections. This post continues down this path, with a narrower focus on the New Zealand Wars. There are two aspects to this: Irish precedents for the package of land confiscation and other measures passed in 1863, and the reactions of Irish soldiers sent to New Zealand to fight in these conflicts. What did these Irishmen think of fighting a war of conquest and dispossession for which their own country had served as the original blueprint? How did they feel about doing to Māori what had been done to their own people and land?

The 18th Royal Irish Regiment arrived in New Zealand days before the invasion of Waikato in July 1863 and was the last regiment to leave the colony (in February 1870). But many men remained behind. 18th Regiment veterans and their families gather at Albert Park, 31-WP1752, Auckland Libraries


As the New Zealand Settlements Act authorising land confiscations from Māori made its way through the New Zealand Parliament late in 1863, critics rallied against the measure. Retired Chief Justice Sir William Martin was among their number. Among his most powerful arguments against pursuing confiscation was precedent. As Martin told New Zealand’s Colonial Secretary William Fox:


The example of Ireland may satisfy us how little is to be effected towards the quieting of a country by the confiscation of private land; how the claim of the dispossessed owner is remembered from generation to generation, and how the brooding sense of wrong breaks out from time to time in fresh disturbance and crime.


It is the Irish Act of Settlement from 1652 which has most commonly been cited as the major precedent for the New Zealand Settlements Act, though there is no evidence of a direct connection in the sense that the Act of Settlement was consciously employed as a model for the New Zealand legislation. That stands in contrast with the Suppression of Rebellion Act, passed into law as part of a package of measures alongside the New Zealand Settlements Act and the majority of which was reproduced verbatim from legislation passed following the Irish rebellion of 1798. As Sir Frederick Rogers of the Colonial Office declared (with considerable understatement) upon reading the 1863 Act from New Zealand, ‘It is passed in the model of the Irish Acts of 1798, which I apprehend are hardly to be taken as desirable precedents at the present time.’

Of the ten clauses in the Suppression of Rebellion Act, six were adopted verbatim from a similar measure passed by the Irish Parliament in 1799 and another three were modelled on Imperial legislation (again directed against the Irish) from 1833. Fox countered charges that the Suppression of Rebellion Bill was monstrous and unprecedented by noting that ‘The Act of 1833, which had been copied word for word, was not passed for the suppression of open rebellion, but for putting down illegal disturbances, secret associations, and agrarian riots. This was sufficient answer to the objection that the nature of the Bill was unheard-of and was likely to cause great excitement at Home as abhorrent to the spirit of the British Constitution.’


The Supression of Rebellion Act was closely modelled on similar legislation directed against Ireland.

But as another critic, Henry Sewell, pointed out, the 1833 Act expressly barred military courts from inflicting capital punishment. That restraint had been ignored in the New Zealand Bill in favour of handing full power to three members of the militia to put to death anyone in the colony suspected of having taken part in, or even aided or encouraged, the outbreak. Some critics rather mischievously pointed out that that might be enough to see philo-Māori missionaries subject to extra-judicial execution. The legislation was, in Sewell’s view, ‘a machine for tyranny and oppression borrowed from the worst days of Irish History’.

Thanks to research conducted as part of the Soldiers of Empire project, we know that around two-thirds of the rank and file British Army troops who served in New Zealand were Irish. It was no coincidence perhaps that throughout the war rumours and reports circulated that the conflict was regarded as ‘detestable in the eyes of the army, officers and men’, who resented their involvement in an unsavoury land grab for the exclusive benefit of New Zealand settlers. A letter published in the Times in 1864 passed on the thoughts of one unnamed field officer stationed in the colony that if Imperial troops were to be employed in New Zealand it was the duty of the British ‘to see that they are not, under the pretext of self-defence and of protecting the settlers, enabling robbery and injustice to be done’. A sordid war of conquest, not dissimilar perhaps from Oliver Cromwell’s bloody and brutal conquest of Ireland, was the last thing many of these men evidently wanted to be party to. Some local Fenians were rumoured to be gun-running on behalf of the tribes, and a few troops (such as the infamous Kimble Bent) deserted the British forces to fight on the Māori side.


Sir George Grey (1812-1898), hand-coloured photograph by Daniel Lous Mundy, G-623, ATL


The then New Zealand governor, Sir George Grey, had spent six years serving in the army in Ireland in the early 1830s and was himself-of Anglo-Irish ancestry through his mother. Ireland was said to have left a profound impression on Grey, helping to give shape to the liberal and even radical convictions that would eventually triumph over his aristocratic instincts. In particular, Grey was (in the words of biographer James Rutherford) said to have been ‘indignant when he read in the history books of “princely properties” worthily conferred upon eminent English lords and gentlemen, and concluded that the dispossession of the Irish peasants was an unjustifiable act.’ It was all the more ironic, then, that Grey would later bear personal responsibility for implementing similar policies of dispossession as a colonial governor.


For more on this see:

‘The New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 in Wider Context: Local and International Precedents for Land Confiscation’, in Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The Contest for Colonial New Zealand, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2014

The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016


  1. And yet Grey who arranged the Fencibles to protect Howick, Panmure & Onehunga had allocated land for the Anglican church in each settlement, was annoyed to discover that 30 % or more of these older troops were actually Irish Catholics who wished to have their own church.


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