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The Coming of the Maori



As the primary motive for the long sea voyages of the Polynesians was to find land for new homes, the original ownership of land was based on prior discovery and occupation. The first arrivals in New Zealand found no one to oppose their settlement, and they spread out without trouble. The second set of settlers, under Toi and Whatonga, were allowed to settle peaceably in the Bay of Plenty area, and intermarriage with the women of the first settlers gave their progeny the right to inherit from the female side. Even in this period, however, armed conflicts were frequent and groups which were strong enough did not hesitate to extinguish the rights of prior discovery and occupation by conquest. An invading army may resemble a tidal wave, which, after sweeping over the land, subsides without increasing the ocean's permanent domain. The war party which returns to its own land after slaying and looting, does not increase its tribal territory. Conquest is interesting historically, but it cannot establish ownership over the conquered territory, unless the conquerors remain in occupation. During the second settlement period, though there were some changes in ownership owing to conquest, there was more than enough land to allow the developing tribes to find new areas for peaceful prior occupation.

The third wave of people came definitely to colonize, and if the story of Kupe's discovery is true, they must have expected to find the land uninhabited. The manner in which the historic canoes selected different parts of the coast for landing indicates that they wished to avoid clashing with each other. They had a certain respect for prior discovery of material things as well as land, as evidenced by the story of the stranded whale at Whangaparaoa. The first arrivals tied a rope to the whale to indicate ownership and then went inland to view the country. The second arrivals scorched a rope over a fire to make it appear old and then passed it under page 380the previous tie. On this trickery they based a claim to prior discovery. Ihenga of the Arawa canoe used a similar subterfuge by placing scorched-leaf offerings on a shrine and so depriving Tuarotorua of the rightful ownership to the land on the shores of Lake Rotorua. Neither story may have occurred as related, but the very fact that they are recorded in traditional history indicates that the rights of prior discovery or occupation were recognized and a guilty conscience led to the use of subterfuge to overcome those rights.

The third settlers established themselves on different parts of the coast, built their houses and villages, and cleared the land for their cultivations. They came into conflict with the earlier inhabitants and extended their territory by the right of conquest and occupation. With increasing population, they spread along the coast line until they met the expanding families of other canoes. Argument and conflict ended in the establishment of boundaries in which rivers, streams, and ranges formed convenient landmarks. Some groups spread inland and occupied the large river valleys and the areas around the inland lakes. Coastal land had its appeal in food supplies of sea fish and marine shell fish, and the inland areas had assets of fresh-water fish and shell fish with rich supplies of forest birds. The historical record is crowded with countless wars over land and the main causes of mortality were summed up in the saying,

He wahine, he whenua i mate ai te tangata.
Women and land are the reasons why men die.

In newly discovered or newly acquired territory, chiefs sometimes utilized their privilege of personal tapu by invoking the custom termed taunaha (to bespeak). They publicly named desirable portions of land after some part of their bodies and so prevented others from claiming them. On the landing of the Arawa canoe, Tamatekapua named a promontory after his nose and two other chiefs named portions of land after their abdomens.

The title (take) to the ownership of land was based on two main claims: right of inheritance through ancestors (take tupuna) and right of inheritance through conquest (take raupatu). The right of prior discovery became historically merged in ancestral right. Conquest (raupatu) alone did not confer right of ownership unless it was followed by occupation. If the invading party retired, the survivors of the defeated tribe could return and still own their land. Occupation to establish a title had to be continuous, as idiomatically expressed by the term ahi ka, or lit fire. So long as a people occupied the land, they kept their fires going to cook their food. Conversely, the absence of fires showed that the land had been vacated. Even if a conquering tribe did not leave a holding party, they might claim the land subsequently if it remained unoccupied. However, if some of the page 381conquered people evaded the invaders and remained on the land to keep their fires alight, the right of ownership of the defeated people was not extinguished. When the Waikato confederation invaded Taranaki, they drove the Atiawa out of their territory and the Atiawa migrated south to establish homes in exile. Later, the Waikato tribes claimed ownership of the Taranaki territory by right of conquest. However it was proved conclusively that some families of the Atiawa had remained on the land and, by keeping their fires alight, had prevented the tribal rights of ownership from being extinguished. When conquered territory was occupied for some generations, the title by conquest became a historical event and the functioning title became that of ancestral inheritance (take tupuna).

A third and rarer title, termed tuku (to cede), included lands which were ceded in compliance with some custom, such as that of paying a raiding party (taua wahine) as recompense for the infidelity of a tribal woman to her husband. However, no matter what the title, the length of tenure of the land depended on the military strength of the people to hold it I once heard a Ngapuhi chief criticise the British for not observing the Treaty of Waitangi to the speaker's satisfaction. He held that as the Maori were the original owners of the land, the land should be returned to them. It so happened that the nearby land had been conquered by Rahiri, a noted ancestor of the Ngapuhi, and he had driven out the Ngati Pou who were the original owners. To create a diversion, I asked the orator what sort of treaty the Ngapuhi had given the Ngati Pou. An amusing discussion followed mainly directed towards proving the dissimilarity of the two events.

In the course of time, the principal tribes with their subtribes came to occupy definite areas with fixed boundaries. The love of their own territory developed to an absorbing degree, for tribal history was written over its hills and vales, its rivers, streams, and lakes, and upon its cliffs and shores. The earth and caves held the bones of their illustrious dead, and dirges and laments teemed with references to the love lavished upon the natural features of their home lands. The prestige of the tribe was associated with their marae sites and terraced hill forts, and their religious concepts were bound to their tuahu shrines. Captives in distant lands have begged for a pebble, a bunch of leaves, or a handful of earth from the home land that they might weep over a symbol of home. It is the everlasting hills of one's own deserted territory that welcome the wanderer home and it is the ceaseless crooning of the waves against a lone shore that perpetuates the sound of voices that are still.

With the love of home territory so strong, the desire to occupy other lands by conquest faded. The tribes continued to have their quarrels and feuds but war parties returned home with plunder and captives, after satisfying their desire for military glory. However, this period of land page 382stabilization was rudely shattered by the advent of Europeans and their introduction of firearms. The Ngapuhi in the North, armed with guns swept over the whole of the North Island but they returned without disturbing the existing distribution of tribal lands. The Waikato and King Country tribes drove Te Rauparaha and his valiant Ngati Toa out of their tribal lands at Kawhia and occupied them. One of the most touching laments in Maori poetry is Te Rauparaha's farewell to Kawhia. The Ngati Toa, still strong and unbeaten in spirit, marched south and dispossessed the tribes occupying the Otaki area near Wellington. Sections of the Ngati Raukawa and the Atiawa joined them and conquest with occupation spread north to Horowhenua, south to Wellington, and crossed Cook Strait to the Marlborough and Nelson districts. The Waikato confederation had followed up the conquest of Kawhia by invading Taranaki, but they rolled back without extinguishing the lighted fires (ahi ka) which preserved the right of ownership for those who were to return later. The Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga, who formed part of the Atiawa forces, occupied the shores of Wellington Harbour but, influenced by stories of the rich supplies of fish, shell fish, and sea birds at Chatham Islands, they crossed over and dispossessed the peaceful Moriori owners. Later, the Ngati Tama, Ngati Mutunga, and Atiawa returned to the Taranaki lands of the unextinguished fires, but sections remained in occupation of the conquered lands to the south. These post-European changes in the distribution of tribal lands may be directly attributed to the acquisition of firearms.

In the history of occupation which ultimately led to the fixing of tribal boundaries, the enlarging families, which became subtribes, spread to occupy plains and valleys for cultivation and hill tops for villages. They had adjusted their movements to the topographical nature of the country. In doing so, they established their rights to the localities which they occupied. Their system of community co-operation in cultivation and sharing the natural resources of their territory inhibited any trend towards individualism and the individual ownership of land. The land belonged to the subtribe and the tribe. It was owned by a number of people, for only numbers could hold it against outside conquest and occupation. The individual had his share in the common ownership, but he could not be said to own any particular portion in perpetuity. He had the use of particular portions and his neighbours respected his allotment as he respected theirs. He had the use of the land during his lifetime and his heirs had the use of it during their lifetime. Cultivations were made in a certain locality in one year and changed to another locality in another year. Even the sites of villages were changed at times. Maori lands occupied the same position as entailed estates and could not be alienated by individuals. Thus they formed a fluid asset which could be adjusted to meet the varying needs of succeeding generations.

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The advent of Europeans introduced a totally different system of land tenure, in which individualization of land with fixed boundaries for even small plots was the essential feature. In order to acquire land for themselves, they had to introduce the additional foreign innovation of alienation by sale. The early chiefs, bemused by the rattle of hoop iron and tin pannikins, sold large areas of tribal land for the cheap products of English factories. It has been said that the chiefs and the people thought that they were merely giving the newcomer the right to use the land, not realizing that they were parting with their tribal heritage forever. Probably this was true of the early sales.

The alienation of land became so alarming that the more thoughtful chiefs met, and their deliberations resulted in the Kotahitanga movement (Unity) to oppose the further sale of Maori lands. To add prestige to the movement, a chief from the Waikato tribes was finally selected as the head of the organization and given the borrowed title of king. When Wiremu Kingi of the Atiawa confederation was forced to resort to arms to oppose the alienation of tribal lands at Waitara by a forced sale, the Waikato tribes assisted in the war which ensued. However, in spite of opposition, native lands had to be acquired somehow for the many European settlers.

The Government, to salve its conscience by some form of legal procedure, set up the Native Land Court to administer land laws which attempted to give expression to Maori custom and usage. The claims of various tribes to their lands were investigated, and inheritance supported by genealogical evidence and tribal history was fully recognized. Lands no longer occupied, owing to the decrease in population caused by post-European wars and introduced diseases, were awarded on proof being adduced of previous occupation. Previous occupation was evidenced by the sites of old forts, named cultivations, burial places, and tribal history which recorded the names of the ancestral occupants. The tales of the conquests which led to occupation were told in detail, and the records of the Maori Land Court should contain rich material concerning tribal history. The fact that the land was held in common was recognized and the claimants submitted lists of owners in the block under investigation. The allocation of shares in a block to individuals or heads of families was influenced by social position in the tribe, the chiefs receiving more than those of lower rank. The boundaries of the blocks, defined according to native landmarks, and the total number of shares with their allocation to shareholders were fixed by the Court. The value per share in acreage was usually not known at the time, for the actual survey of the block, owing to an insufficient number of surveyors and the expense involved, lagged far behind the time of the Court's award.

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The Government then proceeded to purchase blocks of native land for European settlement, but the right of common ownership having been recognized by law, a majority of the shares had to be signed by their holders before the purchase could be made. The total purchase money was divided among the shareholders according to their shares. Subsequent surveys, in some instances, showed that the actual acreage was more than the estimated number of acres purchased. I do not know whether the Government reaped the benefit of the surplus or whether the shareholders received a post mortem dividend. In old land transactions, much depended on the amount of agitation raised by the erstwhile owners and the consideration received by their petitions to Parliament. Suffice it to say that large areas of native land were sold for a mess of pottage which was speedily gulped down. Looking back over the vista of wasteful years, one cannot help wishing that successive Governments had invested the proceeds of the sales of tribal lands in some trust from which annual payments of interest could have been paid. Had such been done, the descendants of our improvident ancestors would have continued to harvest the annual crops from their converted ancestral lands.

During the agitation for acquiring Maori lands for close farming, no thought seems to have occurred to our early legislators that the Maori owners might be educated to farm their own lands as efficiently as Europeans. Sir James Carroll, while Minister of Maori Affairs, tried to hold back some of the desired Maori land against the day when the owners would be sufficiently advanced to utilise it along European lines. This delaying action, disparagingly referred to as the taihoa policy, was anathematized by European buyers and adversely criticized by short-sighted owners willing to sell. However, delay without action could not survive indefinitely. The first action took place on the east coast in the territory of the Ngati Porou. Under the inspired leadership of Sir Apirana Ngata, M.P. for the Eastern Maori Electorate, remaining blocks of Maori land held in common were incorporated and administered as sheep stations by committees elected by the owners. The scheme proved a success and demonstrated the hitherto unbelieved fact that the Maori sheep farmers could be as good and better than some of their pakeha competitors. However, the Maori lands had been pared down in most districts to holdings not large enough for sheep farming and some of the sheep runs could be cut down profitably for closer settlement. Dairy farming had become the backbone of the Dominion and many Maori with small holdings in the Taranaki district and the South Island were making a living out of dairy farming. The agile mind of Apirana Ngata turned to dairy farming as a solution to the problem of the Maori making the most out of the little they had remaining. While Minister of Maori Affairs, he was able to inaugurate a policy of State aid in financing the breaking-in page 385of smaller areas of native land and stocking them as dairy farms to be managed by the Maori owners themselves. This was the first instance in which the State advanced funds to enable the Maori to make practical progress with their own lands, and it should be recognized that this over-long delayed act of justice was due to the courage and faith of a Maori in his own people.

In enacting laws to give expression to the customs of the past, complications were bound to occur. The Maori, as a member of a tribe, inherited shares in the different blocks that formerly comprised the tribal territory. In former days, his ancestors moved about and cultivated here to-day and there to-morrow without any inconvenience. In the present age, scattered holdings of a few acres here and a few acres there cannot be efficiently farmed by the same owner. If it were possible, however, to combine the scattered shares into one holding, the result would be a decent sized farm which could be worked with profit. To help on the dairy farming project, Ngata worked out a scheme of consolidation whereby owners could exchange their shares in different blocks and even buy some out so that the scattered holdings could be consolidated in one locality. The task was difficult, complicated, and tedious and could be accomplished only through Government aid. However, a number of dairy farms are now operating successfully through the consolidation scheme.

Another complication followed the conversion of the fluid use of land by the community to the fixed ownership by individual families. In former times, large and small families were merged together and individuals in each generation enjoyed equal rights to the usage of tribal territory. Now, the family is confined to a fixed portion with surveyed boundaries beyond which it cannot exude. Though the family may increase in number in each generation, the plot of family land remains the same in size, and, as each generation inherits from the preceding generation, the size and value of individual shares will progressively decrease to the infinitesimal.

Small areas of land with multiple owners were a problem. An individual shareholder with energy and ambition was deterred from putting his labour and money into farming the land because those who toiled not could claim an unearned share of his results. Under such circumstances, the easiest way to avoid conflict, was to lease the land to a European and divide the annual rent, no matter how small the individual shares might become. Another of the innovations introduced by the change in land tenure is the imposition of land tax, but more advanced cultures than that of the Maori have shared a similar reluctance to accept the inevitable.

The Maori can no longer be accused of holding large areas of unutilized land and so retarding settlement. Tribal territory, as such, has ceased to exist with the exception of small reserves enclosing the sites of villages page 386where tribal feeling can still find expression. The lands remaining to the Maori are far from being sufficient to enable them all to become farmers. Those who have lands have gone through a process of evolution and, against almost overwhelming odds, have reached the stage where they are endeavouring to make the best use of what they have. Those who have not must seek other avenues of livelihood.