Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Evolution of Humanitarian Discourse - Four episodes of colonial violence debate in New Zealand, circa. 1860-1907

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posted on 2024-01-27, 21:11 authored by Emma Bassett

This thesis uses discourse analysis to explore humanitarian discourse in the interplay of arguments for and against official policies harmful to Indigenous peoples in four select episodes of colonial violence. It seeks to extend our understanding of the logics of colonial violence between circa. 1860 and 1907. The four episodes examined are: the “pamphlet war” debating Governor Thomas Gore Browne’s actions in connection with the Taranaki war during the period 1860-1862; debate on the confiscation of Māori land during the period 1863-1864; debate on the government’s actions in connection with the invasion of Parihaka during the period 1879-1881; and debate on New Zealand’s annexation and administration of the Cook Islands during the period 1898-1907.

The humanitarian discourse used in colonial violence debate changed significantly during the period under review. During the Taranaki “pamphlet war” Browne’s critics and supporters debated his actions in rights-based discourses with strong roots in British humanitarianism. Browne’s critics judged his conduct against the British civilising mission. Humanitarian discourse underpinned by opposing notions of amalgamation was important in both justifying and opposing confiscation. Humanitarian discourse continued to evolve in new, harder ground in debates over Parihaka. Changes in racial thinking, settler demographics, and views of Te Tiriti pared humanitarian discourse back to first principles. By 1900, the British civilising mission had evolved into the more secular “white man’s burden”. Humanitarian discourse was used, rather unsuccessfully, to oppose colonial violence. But it was also consistently used as a tool that allowed Europeans to reconcile demands for land, effective sovereignty, and prestige with professed concern for the welfare and rights of the Indigenous peoples who were displaced, rendered landless, and disenfranchised by processes of colonialism.

The legacy of the humanitarian discourse observed in this thesis reverberates in the present in the way non-Indigenous peoples think about history; and represent, advocate for, and engage with Indigenous peoples on issues that affect them. Engaging with the history of humanitarian discourse in colonial violence debate, and the wider history of the logics of colonial violence, is key to understanding the roots of these issues, and a crucial step on the path contemporary non-Indigenous people must take to decolonise discourse.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

CC BY-SA 4.0

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

280113 Expanding knowledge in history, heritage and archaeology

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

1 Pure basic research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte; Muckle, Adrian