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The First Significant Overseas War: Australians leave for the Waikato War in New Zealand (1863).

By Scott Davidson

Over 2400 Australian volunteers were recruited from Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland to fight in Waikato and Taranaki, New Zealand in the Maori Wars from 1863 to 1864. The majority enlisted for the enticing offer of 'land for service' while others for adventure, work and free travel to New Zealand. Whole families were uprooted and women and children left behind lost the support of their men. Local government and the newspapers shifted from wholehearted support to outright condemnation.

While news was hitting Sydney of General Grant leading Federal forces up the Mississippi River against Vicksburg and Port Hudson in the American Civil War, recruitment had begun in the Australian Colonies for their first significant overseas war. It was August 1863 and the recruiting was for the Waikato War in New Zealand. The only other instances of Australian Colonial military involvement abroad had been when Australian born soldiers had fought with the British in the Crimean War and the Australian colony of Victoria had supplied naval support for the Taranaki campaigns of 1860-62 in New Zealand.

The Waikato War was to be the colonies first taste of major recruitment. A variety of men enlisted with concerns for the agreement of land offered while the press and local governments shifted from support to outright condemnation depending on the colony and how the recruitment directly affected them. The public celebrated the recruits' departure while families left behind had to deal with how to feed and clothe themselves. At the end of the Waikato War, the Australian colonial troops fortunate enough to survive were to discover that the cost for trying to achieve a better life and adventure would not always be worth the attempt. At the outset of recruitment however there was no shortage of willing and able recruits.

Men of different character from Victoria, News South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland volunteered for the militia throughout the latter half of 1863 up until March 1864.

I have no doubt but that many have volunteered merely through the spirit of adventure, or wish for change - a sort of 'come day, go day' men; but the majority (and I have had the opportunity of judging) are men who have volunteered with a prospect for the future - men able and willing to perform the conditions of their agreement.

This letter to the editor appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 22 nd of August 1863 and was signed simply 'Rifleman'. Rifleman presented in his letter the nature of the Australian volunteers who constituted the 1 st , 2 nd , 3 rd and 4 th Waikato Regiments sent to fight in the Maori War for Britain. They were adventurous men, some from the over-worked gold fields, hoping for a better life with many working in non-professional employment. The majority of the 'come day, go day' recruits simply listed their occupation as labourer along with a variety of professional and semi-professional occupations. The seventy odd job categories in the 1 st Waikato Regiment alone varied from digger to policeman and brewer to butcher. 1 The authorities wanted stable and reliable men that would be attracted to the land offer. Married men were targeted first and many took their families with them to New Zealand. To ensure that men of good character were being recruited each man had to provide a character reference either by a magistrate or a priest. It was clear that the kind of 'come day, go day' men sited by the Rifleman were not the variety of person sought after for the experience. These were men certainly able to fulfil 'the conditions of their agreement' but not all were as willing.

The conditions of agreement were basically land for service. In return for three years paid service in New Zealand, the recruits would receive an amount of land (the amount depending on their rank on discharge with privates receiving fifty acres and majors receiving four hundred) which was to be confiscated from the Maori people during the war. Initially, the families of the recruits were not considered in the agreement but were included as the need arose. The wives and families of the volunteers were eventually catered for when they were offered free passage to New Zealand if desired but no pension was available for war widows. The wives would receive the land allotted to the husband if he was killed in action. 2 It soon became evident however that some of the recruits were not joining for want of land but for the free passage to New Zealand as the 10 fare was beyond the means of the average worker. For some, the gold fields of New Zealand proved to be an attraction. From the 2400 Australian recruits, over 300 deserted upon reaching the shores of New Zealand while others "fought the system to be released from military life" rather than fight the Maoris by being discharged from the militia for crimes, substitution or just bad character. 3 Nevertheless the majority of the recruits were enticed into volunteering for the real chance of obtaining the offer of land for service even though it was not entirely clear what the original offer was or how secure it was.

The matter was debated in public through the Melbourne paper of the day, the Argus. The Argus reported a speech by Mr. Dillian Bell saying that letters to Melbourne papers had been querying the feasibility of the Government of New Zealand in providing the land for the recruits as offered. The case was put forward that the Maoris had forced this war upon the British Empire and that the British forces were led by the 'illustrious' General Cameron who was "among the band of Crimean heroes who distinguished himself in the glorious victory of the Alma" and thus sure to succeed. 4 The British, as claimed by Bell, had right on their side which could only lead to victory over an aggressor to ultimately secure the land for the recruits. This argument was meant to quell the queries concerning the availability of land for recruits. There was however no mention of Cameron actually starting the campaign against the Maoris by moving down the Waikato River with his forces. The concerns over the terms of agreement voiced in the Argus were later to be echoed in Hobart in The Mercury:

Many of the candidates however, have expressed dissatisfaction with the vagueness of the advertised terms, and have decided not to apply formally until certain matters are explained. 5

An Auckland correspondent for the Argus who claimed that confiscating the land was unconstitutional until approved by the General Assembly voiced further concerns. The correspondent also pointed out the concern for the land of the Maori who were not in opposition to the British and for the inconsistencies of giving Australian recruits land while New Zealand settlers had to fight just to hold onto their own. 6 The answer for these concerns came from the man responsible for recruiting in the Australian Colonies, Lieutenant Colonel George Dean Pitt. If the recruits lost their land, Pitt assured, then so did he and that there would be no doubt of the outcome of this war. 7 Pitt was in the colonies not just to recruit but to instill confidence in the land for service offer and by doing so, justify the Waikato War. The men wanted assurances, and received them, that the land would be there in three years time but the press and local governments of the Australian colonies had other concerns.

At the beginning of the recruitment in August 1863 in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald had come out in full support. It was always important to be seen as supporting the homeland, Britain when hostilities began. The editorials claimed that "the war is forced upon the colony" and that the "law of self-preservation will justify the use of all means within its power." 8 The editors were also keen to report the opinion of the New Zealand Nelson Examiner in claiming that the occasional soldiers may tragically die but still "we believe that General Cameron will quickly succeed." 9 The common belief in the Australia colonies at the outset of the recruitment was that the Waikato War would be a short-lived campaign of a matter of a few months instead of extending well into 1864. Overall justification for the war was assured but it was the finer points of finance that was a cause for apprehension. The initial concern of the Sydney Morning Herald was if the payment for the cost for the recruitment was to be borne by the colony or the British Government. The lesson of the colony of Victoria footing the bill for its naval support in the Taranaki Wars of 1860-62 was still a recent memory. The Argus in Melbourne had different concerns that began a war of words between the two tabloids.

The Argus wrote of costs to the colony other than financial. The editors claimed that "no sense of chivalry can disguise the feeling that Victoria is giving to New Zealand what she can very ill spare." 10 What Victoria could ill afford to lose were men. The Argus saw from the outset of recruitment that the men aged under forty who were being sought after were exactly the kind of men to be kept in a colony still developing. These men were being offered land to settle on in New Zealand after the fighting, which in effect, resulted in permanent migration. The Argus went further appealing to New Zealand 'for our blood and muscle' and questioned what Victoria could get out of supplying the Waikato Regiments with men. Only a "sense of satisfaction which the execution of a duty, combined with the perpetration of a charitable deed, ought to afford" 11 was claimed as the benefits to Victoria. The verbal attack was on the land for service agreement and that there was nothing noble about fighting a war when the men were only doing it for the land.

The Sydney Morning Herald was quick to launch a scathing attack. The paper was not to be moved from its support for the Empire under any circumstances. To denounce the war effort was seen as 'absolutely disloyal' and even regarded as 'criminal.' New Zealand was seen as in considerable danger and in desperate need of help from their 'brethren' colonists. The editors left the reader in no doubt of their opinions of both the war effort and of the historical rivalry between the colonies by stating that:

The Melbourne journals disclose the same hostility to the colony of New Zealand which has found expression in New South Wales. The object is clear - to paralyze the efforts made to establish the ascendancy of the British race. 12

The Sydney Morning Herald editorial had no problems with claiming the 'ascendancy of the British race' as a very noble motivation for recruiting and fighting in New Zealand. The Herald echoed the common public belief of support for Britain but the Argus could not place this common belief above the good of their colony. The Argus reiterated it's opinion in a later editorial stating that "it is time Maori Wars should cease to be matter of contemporary history." 13 The Argus, no doubt sensing negative murmurs from the public, could not want a quicker end to hostilities when the effects of the war were experienced locally.

Meanwhile the opinion of The Mercury in Hobart wavered once the costs became obvious. The Mercury's position changed from supporting a quick war while encouraging recruits to defend the crown to eventually sharing the views of the Argus. Initially The Mercury had concerns that the newly arrived immigrants to Tasmania were leaving for New Zealand before their duties were paid to the colony. This, however, was "not said with the view of throwing cold water on the movement, but simply in self-defence." 14 Tasmania was also worried about losing British soldiers in August of 1863 from defending the colony but upon the recruitment of colonial men, still saw it as their duty to Britain to enlist wholeheartedly. It was not until the second round of recruiting in October that The Mercury said 'hold - enough'. 15 Opposition had grown in Tasmania to the loss of men for Waikato aided by the reporting of the opinions of the Argus in Hobart. Losing men permanently to New Zealand farms could not be seen as beneficial to the colony.

The New South Wales Legislative council debated similar themes of the loss of men and added their own concerns regarding who controlled the fate of the soldiers. Mr. Moriarty had continually pushed for providing more soldiers to help New Zealand and that " was the duty of the Government to afford, with the least possible delay, every available assistance to the Government of New Zealand." Mr. Cowper gave a quick answer of condemnation of this motion as the troops were under British Government control and not local government. 16 Debates continued but the New South Wales Government took the option of sending some troops and complementing this by supplying gunboats and military supplies. Sydney provided two iron gunboats constructed by P.N. Russell's Ironworks, brass five and a half inch mortars and hundreds of draught animals, beef cattle, arms and ammunition. 17 New South Wales, under the leadership of Cowper, continued to support the war effort and Britain through both recruits and supplies.

The Victorian Government was not so content in providing supplies or men for the New Zealand effort. The colonial government repeated the arguments of the Argus. Governor Grey of New Zealand had asked Mr. Barkly of Victoria three times for troops but Barkly thought British troops should be sent to take care of the situation. 18 Victoria sympathised with Britain but the memories of Taranaki and the loss of the able population from the colony only hardened the opinions of Victorians. Unlike the ship and supplies provided for the Taranaki Wars, for Waikato, only men were to be supplied even though they too were badly missed.

In Tasmania, the government took a similar opinion as The Mercury. At the beginning of the recruitment in August 1863 Governor Browne gave his wholehearted support as he '...not only fully appreciates the nature of the emergency, but feels also that the war as it has developed is the fullest justification of his policy..' 19 By December 1863 Hobart and Tasmania had turned against further recruitment. The community, along with the help of The Mercury, had stopped Tasmanian men going to New Zealand by Christmas 1863. As men had been drained from the community and news of a protracted war in New Zealand reached the Australian colonies Tasmania's "emotions played against further enlistment, the population of Tasmania finding little sympathy for the wars." 20 Although all the Australian Colonies considered it their duty to support the British effort in New Zealand there was a limit to the amount of support that was to be given. The loss of men was a major concern but this certainly was not a worry upon the embarkment of the recruits from the Australian colonies.

When four hundred and five privates and non-commissioned officers and four officers left Melbourne on the 1 st of September, 1863 a large crowd gathered to see the men that would go to help the fellow colony. The Argus described the sight at Spencer-Street Station as:

...crowded during the morning with people, desirous of seeing the volunteers start. The departure was rendered tolerably lively. Although the volunteers included may specimens of the genus 'loafer', they were altogether a fine body of men. It is a creditable fact that, ...not a single case of drunkenness was to be noticed. 21

Where the Rifleman (Sydney Morning Herald) described the single more adventurous men as 'come day, go day' men which could have signified their instability in occupation or home, the Argus called these men 'of the genus loafer'. A fact that no one was drunk was also considered reputable even though the same soberness was not noted in Tasmania. In October 1863 in Hobart, when eighty three recruits left, more than half a dozen men were reported as 'under the influence of liquor' but this did not stop the thousands of people cheering and farewelling the colonial force off to war. 22 Earlier in August in Sydney the concern was more with what band would play to the Volunteers departure which was expressed through letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. One writer called 'Volunteer' assured the public that the Sydney Battalion would be ready and willing. 23 Another authour called 'An Old Military Man' requested that the Sydney Battalion play first followed by the brass band, then the South Sydney and Sydney fifes and drums together. 24 The newspapers of the day described the festivity of departure and its novelty of which the Australian Colonies had never experienced before to such an extent. While people celebrated and farewelled the soldiers, little concern was kept for the families being left behind.

Initially as British troops were transferred from the Australian Colonies to New Zealand there had been little or no consideration for the wives and children that were left behind. When it became obvious that these families were in some financial hardship fetes, bazaars and fund raising events were organised by the Hobart citizens. 25 Even though the Imperial troops leaving had highlighted this problem it was to be repeated when Colonial troops left for service. The Argus voiced its concerns through publishing a letter to the editor calling for care for the wives and family left behind. The authour of the letter signed, 'An Old Colonist', reminded the people that it was law for wives and family to be cared for in the colonies so why not the same when men leave overseas for service. The Old Colonist stated that:

...therefore, should not a law be passed that any man about to leave the colony having a wife or children, should be compelled to give sufficient guarantee for their support during absence... 26

Arrangements had been made through the Oriental Bank to deduct a portion of the soldiers' wages to send home for the families. The same concern for wives and children were echoed in Tasmania, through The Mercury, when pay set aside for families did not arrive. This only strengthened the anti-war feelings growing throughout the colonies. 27 The Mercury, before it turned against the war effort, tried to quell some of these concerns by stating that 'arrangements have been made by which men wishing to remit money to their wives and families can do so through the militia paymaster at Auckland' 28 and 'if married they will have to leave an order for a portion of their pay for their wives and children during their absence.' 29 The cost of sending recruits to fight for the British homeland extended beyond just recruits and supplies. Arrangements had to be made but only after much public out cry and organisation by groups formed to care for families of the recruits left behind. For the families that went to New Zealand with their husbands the result was to be far from satisfactory as well.

Upon the settlement of Waikato War the majority of the Australian Colonial force found themselves without a wage and without a means to a living. The land that was taken by force from the Maori people was eventually offered to colonial soldiers. It was however of poor quality and the infrastructure originally offered by the New Zealand Government never fulfilled the military settlers' needs or just never came. By March 1865, over 1500 men were "literally out of work" and "stranded on a patch of land with no money with only military rations to live on". 30 Many of the soldiers had little farming experience and as the government offered little support once their military objective was achieved, failure on the land was common place. The original misgivings that were voiced at the outset of the recruitment eventually came to be true. Could land for service actually be a plausible method for recruiting and settling men? The land that was promised was available but the means to create permanent settlement certainly was not. The British had bought the men with promises of land and success but had only given them displacement and failure at the cost of the Maori people.

Married and single men from the Australian Colonies had started out for New Zealand for adventure and for a better life. The men, some with families following, had seen the land for service offer as too good to refuse and once assurances had been made jumped at the chance for recruitment and a quick war. Not all colonies agreed on the justifications of losing a much needed population overseas but the majority still gave their support for the benefit of the homeland, Britain. The war affected more than just the men fighting, as women and children suffered from lack of funds and support back in the colonies. The land for service deal, however, never did fulfil the needs and wants of the families contracted to do the Empire's work.


1. Barton, L.L., Australians in the Waikato War 1865-1864, (Sydney, 1979). see p. 53-67 for full list of occupations.

2. Glen, F., For Glory and A Farm, Whakatane Historical Society. (Whakatane, NZ. 1984). p. 10.

3. Ibid. p. 98-9.

4. Argus, 1/9/1863.

5. The Mercury, 16/9/1863.

6. Glen., op. cit., p. 16.

7. Argus, 1/9/1863.

8. The Sydney Morning Herald, 15/8/1863.

9. Ibid. 24/8/1863.

10. Argus, 20/8/1863.

11. Ibid.

12. The Sydney Morning Herald, 1/9/1863.

13. Argus, 24/8/1863.

14. The Mercury, 1/9/1863.

15. Glen., op. cit., p. 32.

16. The Sydney Mail, 19/9/1863.

17. Barton., op. cit., p. 7.

18. Ibid., p. 14.

19. The Sydney Mail, 29/8/1863.

20. Glen., op. cit., p. 34.

21. Argus, 1/9/1863.

22. Glen., op. cit., p. 30.

23. Sydney Morning Herald, 26/8/1863.

24. Ibid., 1/9/1863.

25. Ibid., p. 31

26. Argus, 29/8/1863.

27. Glen., op. cit., p. 34.

28. The Mercury, 16/9/1863.

29. Ibid., 28/9/1863.

30. Glen., op. cit., p. 91.



Published: 11-04-2000 .htm
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