Frederick Edward Maning was born in Dublin, Ireland, probably on 5 July in 1811 or 1812, the eldest son of moderately wealthy, Protestant, Anglo-Irish parents. His father, Frederick, married his mother, Mary Barrett, in May 1811. In late 1823 the family emigrated to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) where they took up farming. Here Maning acquired a taste for outdoor activity, skill with a rifle, and the physical size and strength that was always to distinguish him. In 1829 his father gained a position in the customs office at Hobart where the family settled. But by 1832 Maning had left home to become manager of an isolated station in the north, before pursuing further profit and adventure in New Zealand.
Maning arrived at Hokianga on the schooner Mary and Elizabeth in July 1833. His disembarkation at Pakanae is the basis of the opening chapters of Old New Zealand: a tale of the good old times, which was published in 1863. The account is shaped and coloured for literary effect, but the descriptions of the welcome by Moetara of Ngati Korokoro and of Maning's wrestling match with the man who had inadvertently tipped him into the river seem authentic. Maning moved upriver to Kohukohu, part of the territory of Te Ihutai hapu. After protracted negotiations with Te Wharepapa and other Te Ihutai leaders, he and a partner, probably Thomas Herbert Kelly, were given land and a small house. The deal was completed at the expense of another Tasmanian, Henry Oakes, and an English visitor, Edward Markham, who earlier had attempted to purchase Kohukohu. Markham was to describe Maning as 'a low-minded savage' and 'a double faced sneaking Thief', who 'would have done Honor to the back Woods of America'. Markham was biased but there was some truth in his judgement: Maning was always somewhat devious and ruthless in his dealings with others.
In the 1830s Maning engaged in various small-scale trade ventures at Kohukohu, sometimes working on contract to others. He enjoyed a rough, simple lifestyle, mingling easily with the sawyers and other Europeans working on the river while keeping aloof from the local missionaries and their allies. From the beginning of his stay Maning fitted easily into the role of Pakeha-Maori. According to an entry in an 1837 Hokianga Wesleyan baptism register he was the father of a child born to a woman called Harakoi in 1834, but nothing else is known of the woman or child.
In 1837 Maning sold Kohukohu, a transaction later disputed by Te Wharepapa, and went back to Hobart. On his return to Hokianga in March 1839 he settled at Onoke, at the mouth of the Whirinaki River. He bought the land in September 1839 and soon after built a house that is still standing at Onoke. From about 1840 he lived with a woman of Te Hikutu, Moengaroa. They had four children, Maria Amina, Hauraki Hereward, Mary and Susan. Kaitoke, one of the principal sellers of the land, lived nearby. A close friend was Moengaroa's brother, Hauraki, a young man of Te Hikutu. Many anecdotes in Old New Zealand are based on experiences of the early years at Onoke.
Although Maning enjoyed his position as an important European among Te Hikutu, letters to his Tasmanian family in the mid 1840s reveal discontent. He was frustrated at the lack of compatible European company and at Hokianga's failure to develop as a commercial centre. He sought the friendship of men like John Webster, another Hokianga trader, and John Logan Campbell, the Auckland merchant and trader. Such men saw him as a very entertaining 'wild man of the woods' while recognising him as a gentleman like themselves.
Maning's attitude to European colonisation and government was ambivalent at first. He spoke against the Treaty of Waitangi when Lieutenant Governor William Hobson brought it to Hokianga in February 1840. Subsequently he was attacked by Hobson as a Catholic 'agent of the bishop', which was not true, and as 'an adventurer', which perhaps was. Hobson turned down an 1841 application by Maning for a government position after rumours that Maning had stirred up anti-government, pro-French sympathies among Maori at Kaipara. Later in life Maning implied that he had opposed the treaty because he believed that it would be impractical to enforce laws among the Maori. However, it is probable that his opposition derived at least in part from his fear that annexation would restrict speculation, and from his antipathy towards the English missionaries, whose opinions seemed likely to influence the new governor.
He remained critical of any perceived government interference in his trade activities. However, he echoed settler calls for more government intervention to protect settler interests. In the campaigns against Hone Heke and his allies in 1845–46 Maning organised supplies to the government's Maori allies and witnessed several of the major fights. In 1845 he began writing A history of the war in the north of New Zealand against the chief Heke, his well-crafted account of the war written from the perspective of an imaginary Maori supporter of Hone Heke. The work was not published until 1862. The war years were difficult for Maning: his friend Hauraki died in 1845 and Moengaroa in 1847. Grief was compounded by frustration at the disruption of local trade. Maning feared that Maori and European interests were becoming opposed, and that a bigger, bloodier war might yet come.
In 1848, with the help of his brothers who were now merchants in Hobart, Maning entered the timber and gum trade on a much larger scale. For much of the 1850s he may have been the leading northern timber trader. Little else is known about his activities during this decade. Retirement from business in the early 1860s was accompanied by financial problems owing to his brother's bankruptcy and the reluctance of former Maori employees to work off debts.
Maori resistance to colonisation in Taranaki and Waikato renewed Maning's earlier anxieties and he supported settlers calling for military solutions. He developed a particular antipathy to George Grey, governor from 1845 to 1853 and from 1861 to 1868, partly because he opposed some of Grey's policies and partly because Grey refused to listen to Maning's advice when Maning visited Grey's Kawau Island home. One consequence was a series of letters in which Maning mocked the governor with outlandish stories about local natural history, including one about a 'Kaweau' lizard that flew from tree to tree, and was thought by Maori to be an ill omen.
Maning's two books, A history of the war in the north and Old New Zealand, were completed and published during the wars of the 1860s. Political messages informed Maning's presentation of the Maori in both works. His description of Maori attitudes in A history of the war in the north was partly intended as a warning to European New Zealand that Maori would never willingly accept European domination. The theme of incompatibility between the Maori world and the European one was also implicit in Old New Zealand, a mixture of autobiographical anecdotes, racy descriptions, and discussions of Maori history and customs. Maning worked on another manuscript, tentatively titled 'Young New Zealand', but this was never published. He wrote little else: an occasional newspaper article, some pieces of Maori legend, official reports, and two lively contributions to an 1879 collection of major land court judgements.
In 1865, after toying with the idea of standing for Parliament, Maning successfully lobbied for a position as a judge of the new Native Land Court. He now had a good salary, but he found the work and constant travelling a physical strain. He made occasional trips south, to help adjudicate the controversial Rangitikei–Manawatu and Te Aroha cases and to sit on the 1873 commission investigating the purchase of Maori land in Hawke's Bay. He retired in 1876 although he helped conduct a major land court hearing at Taupo in 1881.
Maning's alienation from all things Maori increased as he grew older. Old ties became embarrassing. He resented any Maori questioning of land court decisions and was contemptuous of the new Maori protest movements emerging in the north during the 1870s. He had strong class as well as race prejudices. His only real friends were Webster and the resident magistrate Spencer von Sturmer: men who shared some of his new social pretensions and attitudes and to whom he wrote witty, spirited letters. He also corresponded with Donald McLean.
Relationships with his children deteriorated as they refused to conform to the ways he expected of them. His son was disowned when he left the position Maning had arranged for him in the Department of Native Affairs, and turned to less respectable ways of making a living. He fell out with one daughter when she married a local hotel-keeper whom Maning disapproved of, and he opposed his children's continued friendship with Te Hikutu relatives.
In 1880 Maning broke down. Imagining among other things that his children were plotting to kill him, he fled from Onoke to Auckland, leaving his youngest daughter, Susan, who was an invalid, to die shortly afterwards in the care of neighbours. Apart from ill health, his last years were relatively content. The comfort of private lodgings appealed and he enjoyed the novelty of town life. In November 1882 he left for England to have an operation on his jaw. He died in London on 25 July 1883 and was buried in December of that year in Auckland.
For almost 50 years Maning was caught up in the turmoil of nineteenth century New Zealand race relations. However, it is on his brief career as an author that his fame now rests. Old New Zealand and A history of the war in the north have been frequently reprinted and have become classics of New Zealand literature.