A former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance on immigration policy

A couple of weeks ago we had a family holiday in the Bay of Islands. It was almost 20 years since I’d been that far north, to a part of the country suffused with New Zealand history.  It is also a part of the country where some of tensions and divisions are still pretty visible. The visible divide between prosperous, heavily European, eastern towns, and the poorer browner inland areas is one example, but I was also struck by how often I saw the 1835 United Tribes flag flying.  In a country where flags are flown much less often than in, say, the United States, it was hard to miss.

As we looked over the historical sites and talked to the kids about New Zealand history, it had me wondering again, rather uneasily, about Maori perspectives on immigration in New Zealand history.  Scholars can debate quite what mix of factors led various Maori leaders to agree to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, or what they thought they meant in doing so.  But by some mix of consent and proclamation in and around 1840, the British government acquired control of New Zealand, and international recognition of that new possession.  At the time, the European population was probably no more than 2 per cent of the total population of New Zealand.

Mass European immigration wasn’t a specific article in the Treaty.  Many of the Maori leaders probably welcomed some immigration –  which had brought, for many, trade opportunities, education, Christianity and so on (as well as law and order problems etc).  But I don’t suppose anyone signing the Treaty, or probably anyone associated with establishing colonial government in New Zealand for that matter, really thought much about how the numbers would eventually turn out.

But whether it was foreseen or not, the numbers quickly changed.  Even by the mid 1850s, it is estimated that Europeans and Maori were roughly equal in number, and the immigration associated with the gold rushes further skewed the numbers towards European dominance, especially in the South Island.  Since then, of course, the numbers have swung ever further against Maori –  complicated by intermarriage.  Whatever benefits there might have been from the immigration, it is hard not to avoid a conclusion that it has created a society in which Maori are marginalized –  in important respects – in what had been for hundreds of years their own land.  Things Maori have more prominence now than they did when I was young, but the way things are done in New Zealand today isn’t primarily a reflection of Maori culture.  And, in a sense, that is inevitable –  countries reflect the cultures of the people who inhabit them –  but I can’t help wondering what that means to Maori.  Immigration changes societies, and in largely irreversible ways, whether intended or not.

My real focus today though is the history.  In the North Island in particular, the process wasn’t without tension.  There had been the Northern War of the mid 1840s, and then the North Island land wars of the 1860s and early 1870s.  These conflicts were enormously costly, and involved really large deployments of British military forces (in the 1860s apparently the British forces in New Zealand were the second largest British military deployment –  behind India –  anywhere in the world).  But by the end of the 1860s the British wanted out, and wanted the burden of defence and security to rest with the New Zealand government.  At the time, the colonial government could barely be said to have a secure hold on most of the North Island, at least outside the major towns.

It was around this time that the huge debt-funded immigration and public works programme was launched, driven by Julius Vogel.  It was a key event in New Zealand history, and features in all the histories and economic histories. The scale of the population inflows, and of the debt that was taken on in the process –  bringing in migrants and building railways and other public works –  swamps (proportionately) anything in more modern times.  The net migration inflow in 1874 –  the peak year –  was around 10 per cent of New Zealand’s total population at the time. Last year, our population increased by 2 per cent.

What isn’t much discussed is quite what drove the immigration and public works programme.  Earlier in the year I had seen a passing mention that in the leading biography of Vogel, the author –  Professor Raewyn Dalziel –   had suggested there was evidence that an active desire to change the population balance, “swamping” the Maori population in the troubled North Island in particular, was a key factor.  Having just come back from Northland, I decided to should look up the reference (p 105 for anyone interested).

In his own contemporary statement on the policy, which Dalziel quotes, Vogel had written

“The one chance of gaining adequate control was to introduce such a system of public works and workmen into the North Island as would 1st give protection in case of need 2nd occupy to some extent the natives 3rd open up communications 4th keep the natives in touch with the colonists….It was a matter of life and death to secure its adoption.”

Dalziel also draws from a lecture Vogel gave in London in 1893.  That was some time after the policy was introduced, but only six years after Vogel had ceased being Colonial Treasurer (Minister of Finance, in today’s terminology).  It is perhaps no different to listening today to Ruth Richardson explain the thinking behind the Fiscal Responsibility Act, or Bill Birch on the Employment Contracts Act.  Retrospectives are often tinged with the benefit of hindsight, but such reflections also often offer valuable insights on just what was shaping policy thinking.

Fortunately, Vogel’s lecture is available on-line here, as part of Victoria University’s Electronic Texts Collection.  I found it fascinating reading on numerous counts.

In discussing the immigration and public works programme, Vogel begins with the British government’s decision to transfer defence and security responsibility to the New Zealand government.

Mr. Gladstone euphemistically describes the sudden imperative withdrawal of the Imperial troops in 1870, at a time when war with the natives was proceeding on both sides of the North Island. There is a modern phrase which more aptly describes what took place. “Scuttled” is the word that would now be used. That the Colonists proved equal to the task they had to undertake was no excuse for the way in which the obligation was flung upon them in the midst of a double warfare existing at the time. I have always felt grateful to the Maoris for the way they behaved at this crisis. Had they been possessed of less generous instincts, they would have taken advantage of the position. The North Island was sparingly peopled, the Colonists of the Middle Island, by far the most wealthy and populous, were profoundly discontented with the onerous call which had been made on their resources, by expenditure which they comprehensively regarded as cast upon them to fulfil Imperial obligations contracted by the Treaty of Waitangi. The actual means of the Colony at the time were not large, and any attempt to raise a war-loan would have been scouted. The North Island was not only scantily populated, but much of the interior was almost impenetrable to Europeans, whilst the Maoris could go from end to end and from side to side of the Island with great ease. It took General Chute, with a considerable force, a long time to penetrate to New Plymouth from the Wellington Province, and his able performance of the task was regarded as a great feat. Had Te Kooti and Titokowaru, who were respectively at war with the Europeans on the east and west coasts, joined their forces, and other great chiefs combined with them, the issues would have been very grave. This risk the Colonists were left to confront whilst Downing Street exhibited the most stoical disregard of the consequences of its own previous acts, and of the responsibilities it had specially contracted.

The Public Works’ Policy.

The Government had but one resource, a policy of the utmost conciliation, until they could place themselves in a position of strength for the future. It was a most anxious period. The ‘Maoris were a fiery race, and any little dispute in any part of the Island might have occasioned a fierce and general war.

It has often been said and written that the Public Works’ Policy was the outcome of a speculative desire to obtain the expenditure of a large quantity of borrowed money for the gain that expenditure would bestow, leaving to chance subsequent consequences. I will tell you the real facts, and I think I may say there are only two or three men now living who can speak with equal authority. The Public Works’ Policy seemed to the Government the sole alternative to a war of extermination with the natives. It comprised the construction of railways and roads, and the introduction of a large number of European immigrants. The Government argued that if they could greatly increase the population of the North Island and open up the means of communication through the Island, and at the same time give employment to the Maoris, and make their lands really valuable, they would render impossible any future war on a large scale. They recognised that in point of humanitarianism there was no comparison between the peaceful and warlike alternatives. They considered also that, financially, it was infinitely preferable to spend large sums on permanent development, to expending equal, or probably larger amounts on issues of warfare.


The Colonial Government dared not introduce the Public Works’ Policy as a measure to subjugate the natives to future peacefulness. To have done so would have involved the risk of exciting them to immediate hostility. The most that could be stated in that direction was contained in the following paragraph in the speech in which a declaration of the policy was made.

“I cannot close this branch of the subject without adverting to the effect which the promotion of railways and immigration must certainly have on the native question. The employment of numbers of well-paid natives on Public Works, to which in their present temper they will resort with avidity, the opening up of the country and its occupation by settlers, which will result from the construction of roads coupled with the balancing of the numbers of the two races by a large European immigration, will do more to put an end to hostilities, and to confirm peaceful relations than an army of ten thousand men.”

There was thus the necessity of bringing the measure forward on its merits, only as a colonising scheme. Pray do not think the Government had any doubt on the subject, but it was a bold departure for so small a community, and under ordinary circumstances it would probably have been proposed on a less ambitious and rapid scale. But the circumstances forbade anything of the kind. From what I have previously said it may be gathered that the South Island would not be willing to give its credit to benefit colonisation in the North Island without inducements applied to itself of a large character. Hence to really serve the North Island, it was necessary to frame the whole scheme on a scale sufficient to offer great advantage to the South Island.

What surprised me was that when I pulled other books off my shelves  –  political and economic histories of New Zealand –  there was almost no reference at all to this strand of argument.  There is plenty of discussion of the economic and fiscal impact of the immigration and public works programmes –  albeit nothing on what it might have done (good or ill) for per capita incomes in the longer-term –  but nothing at all on what seems to have a key motive for key figures in the government of the time, Vogel  –  former Premier and Colonial Treasurer – foremost among them.

I’m not sure why, but I can guess.  Among other things, it is pretty uncomfortable stuff for a European author –  or reader.  Conquest and displacement are, no doubt, the way of history, but it isn’t a comfortable thought about one’s own country, about events that are only 140 years or so in the past. It is a reminder of the fragility of many of the settler societies, and of how –  plausibly enough –  the New Zealand story could have ended quite differently.   Personally, I read it with a mix of conflicting thoughts and feelings: glad on the one hand that my own ancestors were all in the South Island, and  the comfort and familiarity of being part of a majority culture.  But on the other hand, more than a little uneasy about what it has all meant for the place of Maori in New Zealand –  and for all that the rest of us (rightly and reasonably) claim this place as home, it is the only home for Maori and their culture.

Quite plausibly, mass European immigration to New Zealand in the 19th century did raise per capita incomes here –  for Maori and for Europeans –  but it did so partly by operating on scale that substantially displaced the cultures and institutions that had been here previously.  Indeed, Vogel suggests that for the largest single wave of that migration, to do so was a matter of calculated government policy.

For many readers, there might be a “so what?” reaction to all this.  A family member’s response was “well that’s fine, but it happened and can’t be undone”.  And that is fine too – this isn’t directly about lessons for today, but for me anyway it prompts me to reflect afresh on how immigration –  and immigration policy – has shaped our country in the past, and in different ways continues to do so today.  And to wonder again about what it means for the relative and absolute place of Maori in New Zealand.

(On quite another matter, I was amused to see that the concept of value-added in exporting made the speeches of former Ministers of Finance even 120 years ago.  I’ve written here about how New Zealand performs pretty poorly on that score now.   Here is Vogel talking about value-added in exporting –  and the lowish proportion of imported inputs in New Zealand’s exports – back in 1893:

over the 40 years ending 1892 an exportation of articles produced in New Zealand equal to £14 annually per head of population. The United Kingdom prides itself on being a great exporting country. During the 16 years to the end of 1890, the annual value per head of population, of exports, the growth, or produce of the United Kingdom amounted to £6. 7s. 5d., against £14 per head in the case of New Zealand. But even this comparison does not give a full idea of the difference between the two countries. The New Zealand exports were entirely the growth and produce of the country, whilst one-half of the exports from the United Kingdom were merely preparations or manufactures of imports received from other countries.

For anyone with an interest in New Zealand history, Vogel’s lecture is fascinating stuff – an upbeat visionary politician’s take on what had been created in New Zealand over the previous 50 years, and what might yet be.)

13 thoughts on “A former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance on immigration policy

  1. A few years ago, while researching the history of our small Vogel inspired “special” settlement, Karamea on the West Coast, my travels took me to the Shetland islands from where some of the first group of settlers came. In the Lerwick museum we came across a 1869 newspaper which featured the full transcript of a speech by a representative of the Dominion of New Zealand, a John Birch, in which he presented a very favourable view of the country and its opportunities. At the conclusion of his address he was asked about the state of the “aborigines” in New Zealand. Birch replied that they were “of no account, having been decimated by illnesses and wars”. He predicted they would be exterminated within 20 years.


    • I guess that wasn’t an uncommon view – Vogel quotes Gladstone (regretting the prospect) to similar effect.

      Here is Vogel’s own 1893 view:

      “the natives arc a fervid, imaginative and singularly intelligent race, endowed with many great qualities. It will be a profound misfortune if a civilised remnant of them do not survive to once more grow into a numerous race.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Breeding them out of existence

    It is not unknown today

    In North America today the Original Peoples number 5 million
    In Australia the Aboriginal peoples number 500,000

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I seem to remember an account of the borrowing that they got the decimal (!) point in the wrong place in the published loan, but couldn’t correct it because it the public thought it was a great idea.


    • You might be thinking of the 1928 election campaign when Ward meant to promise 7m pounds of new borrowing and actually promised 70m. And was elected…..such was pre-WW2 NZ’s readiness to take on additional debt


  4. Michael, You might like to read chapter 8 of the book I sent you – we argue that 19th politicians (in NZ and UK) were well attuned to economic concepts. regards and keep up the good work, Ralph Lattimore

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael,

    Your posts are always interesting. That on Vogel is especially so.

    I’d challenge your assertion “nothing on what it might have done (good or ill) for per capita incomes in the longer-term” – Making of NZ pp. 82-3 suggests that income gains in the 1870s were not offset by later losses.

    I would now see a case for more attention to the Maori element of the Vogel programme, but I don’t accept your suggested explanation of why there is so little attention in the lierature: “it isn’t a comfortable thought about one’s own country, about events that are only 140 years or so in the past. It is a reminder of the fragility of many of the settler societies, and of how – plausibly enough – the New Zealand story could have ended quite differently.” I doubt that – New Zealand was no Afghanistan. The longterm triumph of Pakeha’s was inevitable.

    I think you see the story too much in terms of Pakeha v. Maori instead of Pakeha + Arawa + Ngati Porou v Taranaki + Tainui + Tuhoe. You note the possibility of hindsight in the 1893 lecture, and you should also note that Vogel was a Dunedin politician who did not have a detailed knowledge of Maori in the North Island – Vogel should have written more about Tainui and less about a Te Kooti-Titokawaru axis.

    But you have forced me to think about the 1870s again. ( I think I reviewed Raewyn’s biography of Vogel without payiong much attention to Maori issues. I was more interested in whether Vogel realised that his subsidization of immigration was really to counter the greater cost of migrating to NZ than to the USA. On value added in exports, Vogel was probably aware of Knight’s early moves towards a value added notion of GDP.}

    And I agree with your comment on the Auckland unitary plan.

    Best wishes

    Gary Emeritus Professor Gary Hawke 7 Voltaire St., Karori, Wellington 6012, New Zealand. Phone + 64 (0)4 476 9109 + 64 (0)27 563 5794 http://eastasiaforum.org/author/garyhawke/


    • Thanks Gary. Could one have envisaged a situation in which the settlers lost control of the North Island – after all, the Brits didn’t want provide more support, and the colonial borrowing capacity for ongoing conflict would have been limited? Or even just a NZ that was more like Fiji – more like a 50/50 population split? Presumably the UK would have intervened if the North Island had looked like drifting into another European country’s sphere of influence, but what if it had just been wild country with a few urban outposts?

      But you may well be right, and i’m just uneasy about how the Brits achieved the dominance that might always have been inevitable – even if not envisaged in 1840.

      Just on the per capita income, does that line you quote show that per capita incomes increased as a result of the increased immigration? That still seems hard to be sure of. But I shouldn’t have said it wasn’t addressed.


  6. The Treaty of Waitangi 1840 is a peace treaty. The Brits have excellent lawyers. So a peace treaty and together with a Maori Land Court set up to undertake a more subtle and forced legal transfer of property rights. The largest land transfer took place to British migrants under the peace treaty with the Maori Land Court regime from 1862. It was inevitable because it was due to peaceful contact with new disease and starvation almost decimated the Maori population.


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