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Sir Donald Maclean

Chapter VIII — Land for Settlement: Maclean's Purchase of Wanganui

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Chapter VIII
Land for Settlement: Maclean's Purchase of Wanganui

The next responsibility devolving on the young Native Commissioner was the task of settling the long-standing dispute between pakeha settlers and Maori land-owners at Wanganui.* The colony planted there by the New Zealand Company was in difficulties from the very beginning of the settlement, because of the imperfect character of the purchase of land from the natives. In the middle of 1846 the condition of the place—which at that time was officially known as Petre, a name that fortunately was soon dropped—was described by a correspondent of a Wellington paper as distressing. In fact it was regarded as likely that the settlement would be abandoned, since the attitude of the natives was hostile to any extension of the area occupied by the newcomers, and even the existence of the small town was threatened. It was suggested by the correspondent mentioned (in the Wellington Independent, 7 July 1846) that: “It would be no bad plan to remove the whole of the colonists from the north to the Middle Island, reimbursing the settlers in some way for their outlay.”

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Affairs quickly developed for the worse, until in 1847 a little war was waged. Imperial troops were hurried to Wanganui, blockhouses were built on Pukenamu hill, over-looking the small town (it became known as the Rutland Stockade), and another fortified hill, the York Stockade. Skirmishing went on for several months, the whites cooped up in the river-side township, the Maoris from up-river coming and going as they pleased and thoroughly enjoying themselves shooting at the pakeha and eating their cattle and sheep. The only fight of any importance was the final skirmish, known in local history as the battle of St. John's Wood, in which a few were killed on each side. When the Maoris tired of the inconclusive war game they made a tentative peace with their “fighting friends” and retired to their homes to plant the new season's crops.

The land titles were still unsettled, and it was clear that unless the Government made a purchase of sufficient land for the farmers of the district the place would not be worth the occupying. Donald Maclean, who had visited the place several times during the war, was instructed by the Governor to enter into negotiations with the Maoris. It was the page 36 most important land-acquisition mission to which he had yet been detailed, and as it developed he made a thorough success of it, for it was never disputed.

Mr. Maclean went up the river by canoe, visiting the chiefs, and made a very careful enquiry into titles and boundaries.

“On the twenty-sixth of May, 1848,” he wrote in his report, “the several tribes and claimants to the number of about six hundred, assembled at Wanganui. The natives appeared fully impressed with the importance of this meeting, which was attended with more than usual pomp and ceremony. The elder men were dressed in their best dogskin and kaitaka mats, some of them had their heads decorated with huia and kotuku feathers, not neglecting their méré pounamu (greenstone clubs), and every other ancient emblem of chieftainship, by which they could distinguish themselves. The younger chiefs and members of the tribes were generally dressed in the best European garments they could procure for the occasion. The various tribes, each with its representative, were seated in distinct groups, forming a semi-circle in front of the Wanganui Hotel.

“The preliminaries of recognising the natives being over, I requested them to give unreserved expression to their sentiments respecting the definite sale of their land.

“To this they successfully responded by several animated speeches, to the effect, that they had, in accordance with their own customs, cried, lamented, and wept over their land, which they now wished for ever to be given up to the Government.

“The Deed of Sale, which I drew up in simple and perspicuous, yet the most binding terms that the native language would admit of, was then read over, the natives fully assenting to the external boundaries, the boundaries of their reserves (all of which were pointed out to them on the map annexed to the Deed) and to every other condition embraced in that document.

“On this day (the 26th) eighty-three of the principal claimants signed the Deed, including three young boys, who were brought forward at the request of the chiefs to be future evidence of the acts of their parents. On Saturday page 37 (27th) the Deed was signed by one hundred and fourteen. On Monday (29th) the Deed was again read to the assembled tribes, to explain the external boundaries, and their consent to part with their land, when ten additional signatures were attached. Several of the chiefs stated a desire that a numerous body of Europeans should possess the lands they were giving up. Te Mawae, in a long speech, gave expression to the same sentiments, and forcibly impressed upon his tribe the necessity and propriety of good behaviour to the Europeans. “The Compensation Money, of £1000, in bags containing each £10 in silver, was then handed over.”

After the distribution, Maclean narrated, the various tribes dispersed quietly, expressing perfect satisfaction with the payment they had received.

Maclean's deliberate and careful purchase of the lower Wanganui lands, covering some 89,000 acres, gave the struggling settlement breathing room, stimulated farming work, and set the Wanganui district on the way to comfort and prosperity. The peace established remained unbroken until the Hauhau war which began in 1864.

* Whanganui is the original and correct spelling but in popular usage the “h” has been eliminated so far as the river and the town are concerned. The name of the principal tribe of the district, however, is still commonly spelled Whanganui.

The Wakefields' negotiations with the Wanganui chiefs began on board the Tory towards the end of 1839, when the pioneer ship lay at anchor off Waikanae. Three Wanganui chiefs who were on a visit to Waikanae came off to the ship and Colonel Wakefield persuaded them to sign a deed professing to sell to the New Zealand Company all the land from the Manawatu to Patea. The chiefs were Te Kiri-karamu, Te Rangiwakarurua and Kuru-kaanga. Before they signed the document translated by “Dicky” Barrett the whaler they each received a shot gun in part payment. Colonel Wakefield then went on to Wanganui (November 1839) and gave Kuru-kaanga some goods in payment for the land there, and in May 1840 the transaction was completed by his nephew Edward Jerningham Wakefield. A whaler and trader named John Brooks interpreted the deed which was signed by twenty-seven chiefs. The payment consisted of muskets and gunpowder, tomahawks, clothing, red blankets, tobacco, jew's-harps, fish-hooks, beads and a variety of other trade goods. The distribution of the goods does not appear to have been carried out with any great degree of care or fairness; the enterprising Kuru-kaanga (“Pound Corn”) secured the lion's share. There were many discontented natives, and those who did secure a musket or a blanket did not consider they had parted for ever with their ancestral lands in exchange for it. A rough survey of a portion of the territory, on both sides of the river, was made and then the company despatched to Wanganui a considerable number of settlers who had been unable to secure land at Wellington. There were already a few white pioneers in the district, but these had made their arrangements with the Maoris independently of the Company. The first official selection of lands was made in 1841. Immediately the new-comers prepared to occupy their sections trouble began with those hapus of the Wanganui people who declared that they had not sold the land; the result was that most of the whites were restricted to a small area in and near the little town.