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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Early experiments in increasing productivity

Early experiments in increasing productivity

Both the Resident and the government of New Zealand were of the opinion that the indigenous system of land tenure in the Cook Islands was an obstacle to productivity.1 Changes were therefore proposed, as a result of which, it was assumed, increases in agricultural exports would automatically follow.

The principal innovation aimed at (apart from provisions designed to facilitate European settlement, as discussed in chapter 10) was the introduction of a system of registered titles to ensure security of tenure for the occupying Maori farmer. In addition to this major reform, improvements in output were also expected to result from the abolition of tribute to chiefs (or its reduction and commutation to a money value) and from the exclusion of ‘parasitic’ relatives from rights in the land. Given these changes, Gudgeon considered that Rarotonga's annual output of copra (which was then two hundred tons) could, and should, rise to fifteen hundred tons and that this applied ‘with almost equal force to coffee, arrowroot and vanilla, all of which might be more largely cultivated and no doubt will be, whenever the rights of those who cultivate the land

1 It was New Zealand's ambition that the Cook Islands should become an outlet for her exports as well as a source for her requirements of tropical fruits and raw materials.

page 248 have been dealt with in a comprehensive and liberal spirit’. Fixity of tenure alone, he declared, would increase the trade of the islands sevenfold.1

Gudgeon was in the unique position of being able to observe the situation at first hand, draft his own plan and legislation, and then put his policy into effect. However, once the Land Court had completed its first year's work it became apparent that the desired increases in productivity were not going to come about as a reaction to changes in tenure alone, and in 1904 Gudgeon requested the New Zealand government that he be granted the power to force the island people to plant their lands.2 Such a step was essential, he felt, since the indigenous people were ‘mere children, and if they are to progress the progression must be forced on them’.3 His request was declined.

Subsequent attempts to increase productivity were in the nature of a series of bluffs and threats. ‘Let this be a notice to all of you,’ he said in a public statement to the people of Avarua district, ‘that in two years from this date there will be a tutaka [inspection] over all the lands…. The result of that tutaka will be published and the Federal Council will then consider what punishment ought to be inflicted on those who have neglected their lands.’4 Temporarily at least the desired effect was achieved, for

1 Gudgeon, New Zealand Illustrated Magazine 2:417. Gudgeon's agrarian policy followed the broad pattern of the thinking of Adam Smith, and was not dissimilar to that of Sir Hubert Murray in Papua, Dr Solf in Western Samoa, Telfer-Campbell in the Gilbert Islands, and other island administrators of that day.

2 Such power had been granted to Dr Solf, the German administrator of Samoa, whose work Gudgeon watched and admired.

3 Gudgeon to Mills, 12.9.1904 NZPP A3 1905. ‘The Polynesian,’ he claimed, ‘will perform no useful act until he is compelled to do so.’ - Gudgeon, New Zealand Illustrated Magazine 2:418.

4 Gudgeon, Te Karere September 1905.

page 249 eighteen months later mission reports describe the valleys as being more intensively cultivated than ever before, and even some of the steep hill-sides were being cropped.1 There was a concomitant rise in the volume of exports.2

Compulsive pressures were found to be only partially successful and the next step he envisaged was the possibility of some form of financial assistance and skilled advisory staff to encourage Maoris to plant unused land. An element of compulsion was, nevertheless, still present. Proceeding from the doubtful premise that it was ‘the duty of the administration to see that all waste lands are beneficially occupied as a return for the protection afforded to the owners by the British law and mana’, he gave the Maoris three alternatives in respect to their ‘waste’ lands. Firstly, they could lease them to Europeans; secondly, they could accept government ‘aid’ to plant the lands with coconuts; or thirdly, if they were not prepared to accept either of these alternatives, the government threatened to ‘take the land for small plantations under the powers conferred by Section 3 of the Cook and Other Islands Government Act of 1904’.3 While a plan for government aid was outlined, it was never finally drafted or implemented and, as Gudgeon was aware, the New Zealand government of 1906 would neither allow him to force leasing nor to confiscate the land.

At the same time a bill was submitted to the Federal Council making provision for the taxing of land which was ‘unimproved and unplanted’.4 The Council, which was aware

1 Te Karere January 1907.

2 See tables 1A and 1B, pages 2523.

3 Gudgeon, Cook Islands Gazette 1.8.1906.

4 ‘The Unimproved Land Tax Ordinance’ 1906.

page 250 of the consequences of not passing required legislation, endorsed the bill and it became law. It provided that the Resident could impose a tax of up to one shilling per acre per annum on such lands, but since Gudgeon had only limited administrative staff and inadequate funds for more, the inspection of the lands and the reporting of those who were liable for taxation under the ordinance was made the responsibility of the Island Councils. As the proposal never had any popular support, and as councillors were mostly chiefs who had more unused land than anyone else, it is not surprising that no such inspections or reports were ever carried out, and that no revenue was ever collected under this ordinance.

Gudgeon was admittedly not able to have all aspects of his reform programme implemented in full, but he did succeed in clothing all the planting lands of Rarotonga and Mauke with registered titles. At the time of his retirement, in a review of his ten years administration of the group, he expressed the opinion that: ‘The first in importance of all the work we have carried to a satisfactory conclusion is the survey and definition of the titles of the lands owned by the natives.’1

1 Gudgeon, Cook Islands Gazette 28.1.1909.