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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Foreign settlement

Foreign settlement

From the early 1830s onwards foreign traders and planters attempted to settle in the islands. They were strongly opposed by the European missionaries who consistently warned the chiefs of the dangers of settlers and were able to have laws enacted to prohibit or limit settlement.1 While these laws were adopted by the chiefs of the various islands, the available evidence shows that their enforcement was usually a result of mission pressure.2

On Aitutaki and Mangaia (where European missionaries were based) foreign residents other than employees of the church were specifically forbidden,3 and on all islands the sale of land to foreigners4 and the marriage of foreigners to native women were prohibited.5 There were also

1 The mission role is well illustrated in a letter from Reverend Buzacott in which he forwarded draft regulations which he had drawn up ‘by order of the chiefs of the island respecting foreigners etc. Will you state if there be anything objectionable in them, as they would readily alter any of them at our suggestion’. – Buzacott to LMS 8.12.1838 SSL. Though most naval commanders supported European trading and mission interests, Sir Edward Belcher says he used his ‘best efforts to alarm the chief’ of the dangers of allowing foreigners to settle. – Belcher, Narrative of a Voyage Round the World performed in His Majesty's Ship Sulphur during the years 1836–42 2:18.

2 E.g. re Mangaia see Report of Judge Tepou 23.9.1890 FO. 58 PRO. Re Rarotonga see Teava Orometua to Mrs Buzacott 30.1.1865 SSL. Re Atiu see Buzacott to LMS 8.12.1838 SSL.

3 Re Aitutaki see Royle to LMS 10.1.1848 SSL; re Mangaia see Harris to LMS 20.8.1881 SSR. A prohibition against residence also applied on Rarotonga from time to time. – William Gill to LMS 18.6.1845 SSL.

4 E.g. ‘Laws of Rarotonga…’ 1879 clause 21.

5 While this rule was no longer applied in Rarotonga in 1879 and was thus not included in the code of laws of that date, numerous references to its existence at an earlier stage are available. E.g. Mrs Buzacott, Journal 3.4.1841; William Gill, Selections from the Autobiography of the Rev. William Gill 252. One reason for this law was to stop foreigners acquiring land rights through native wives. – Hutchen to LMS 10.9.1900 SSL.

page 146 regulations forbidding sailors quitting their ships1 and banning the introduction of foreign labour.2

Notwithstanding these limitations, and despite active mission opposition, a few foreigners were resident on each of the larger Southern Group islands almost continuously from 1840 at least, and most of these had overcome the marriage rules and taken native wives. This, it appears, was due to the fact that the high chiefs often found it to their advantage to give patronage to a selected few Europeans who would co-operate with them. Until 1865, however, excluding temporary increases due to shipwrecks, there were never more than a dozen Europeans on any one island. Of these, the beachcombers probably had little effect on land tenure, for they became absorbed into the indigenous social system. The traders did not have much direct influence, for they were interested not in the land itself, but in the purchase of what other people produced from it. Such land as they needed for their own house-sites and subsistence was allocated to them according to the accepted pattern of permissive occupation by the high chief to whom each attached himself, and their children acquired their land rights through their mothers as with other uxorilocal marriages. The power of the high chief under whose patronage the trader lived was enhanced by the fact that between them they could, and often did, obtain a monopoly of trade.3

1 The Market House, Avarua, Regulations and Prices. Also ‘Laws of Rarotonga…’ clause 20.

2 ‘Laws of Rarotonga…’ 1879 clause 42. This clause was effectively enforced – see Kelly, The South Sea Islands – Possibilities of Trade with New Zealand 54; also Moss to Governor 29.7.1892 NZPP A6 1893.

3 Every trader for whom information is available had an ‘entente cordiale’ with one high chief or another, and generally married that chief's daughter or other close relative – e.g. Exham on Atiu lived with Ngamaru Ariki and was married to his daughter (Arundel, Journal 5.11.1870); Pearse on Mangaia lived with one of the Governors (Exham to High Commissioner 1.9.1890 FO 58 PRO) and had an ‘undue influence over the King’ (Chalmers to LMS November 1890 SSR); Salmon on Rarotonga was married to Tinomana Ariki (Governor to Colonial Office 7.7.1900 CO 209 PRO). All of them held land from the respective chiefs.

page 147

The men who had a more direct influence on native concepts of land tenure were the settlers who wanted to acquire land permanently or for long periods in order to grow cash crops. The first of these was Alexander Cunningham, who established a sugar plantation on Rarotonga in 1836.1 Cunningham was closely associated with the mission, so much so that in the early stages he lived with the local missionary2 and had land, which was allotted to him by Judge Tupe, planted by the communicants of the Ngatangiia church.3 Cunningham's venture was cut short by a moral lapse and he left the group within three years.4 No other settler was on such intimate terms with the mission; in fact few were other than actively hostile towards it.

Apart from several persons who settled on Mangaia in 1855 to raise stock and produce for the Tahiti and California markets, there were few planters in the group until 1865. From then onwards the number of European residents grew steadily until in 1881 there were seventy of them in Rarotonga alone,5 though never more than ten on even the largest of the other islands. However, the bulk of these were traders and only a small percentage had plantations. The great majority of resident foreigners were Europeans, though from 1880 onwards a minority of Chinese merchants

1 Wheeler, Memoirs of the Life and Gospel Labours of the late Daniel Wheeler 544.

2 Ibid.

3 Maretu, 141.

4 Heath, Day and others to Palmerston 14.5.1839 SSL.

5 Wyatt Gill to LMS 16.8.1881 SSL.

page 148 entered the group and, in addition, there were a few Negroes.

The pressure against foreign settlers was so strong that many who wanted land were unable to acquire it, in most cases due to active mission opposition,1 and most of the land which was acquired was held by the planter on an informal basis from the high chief of the district.2

Some of those who did acquire rights to land encountered difficulties in relation to the precise nature of those rights: a problem which was due to the differing concepts of natives and Europeans. For example, an American settler who was friendly with the Chief Judge of Avarua asked for and was allocated a plot of land on which to grow vegetables. When he later fenced the land two young men came and started building a house on it. The American's protest was considered by the ariki, who rejected it as the land in question had been the house-site of the deceased father of the young men. The settler thereupon asked his host about a small coffee plantation which he had established inland and which he thought he could sell on his departure from the island. ‘When they bear fruit,’ his host told him, ‘the fruit is yours, but the ground is

1 See, for example, Irvine to Consul 23.2.1866 TBC; Chace and Turner to Wesleyan Mission Society 26.3.1841 SSL; Minutes of the annual LMS committee meeting (at which the missionaries reaffirmed their policy of preserving all land for the use of the natives) 21.12.1869 SSL.

2 In 1883 the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific required that all sales and leases between natives and whites had to be registered with the Commission. – High Commissioner to Secretary of State 15.2.1883. However, this decree was countermanded late in the same year. – Secretary of State to High Commissioner 24.9.1883 CO 225 PRO. On 17.7.1891 a Deeds Register was opened in Rarotonga, providing for registration of leases and other transactions. Some of the leases then registered date from pre-Protectorate days but, though it is known that many Europeans were occupying land in those days, very few of these were recorded in the register.

page 149 mine and the trees are mine.’1 Again, on Mangaia, a European who had acquired rights to a piece of land was opposed by the ‘King and Governors’ when he attempted to sell the land to another European.2

Provision for the registration of land transactions was made in 1891. Almost all leases recorded were between foreigners and particular ariki, a few were between foreigners and mataiapo, few if any were between foreigners and native commoners, and none at all between natives.3 The bulk of registered leases were for lands in the Avarua district of Rarotonga, some concerned lands in the other two districts, but there were relatively few in the outer islands.4

1 Gill, Gems… 74–5. In all probability the American regarded the gifts he had given his host to be payment for the freehold of the land.

2 King and Governors of Mangaia to British Consul 26.3.1866 TBC.

3 Of the 79 leases by natives to Europeans (there were in addition a few sub-leases from Europeans to other Europeans) entered in the Deeds Register from the time of its opening in July 1891 until January 1899 (the date to which data was abstracted), 59 were by ariki (including 2 by the European husband of Tinomana Ariki), 4 by mataiapo, and 4 by rangatira. Of the remaining 12, 2 were made by the Government of Aitutaki, 1 by ‘a governor and two landowners’ of Mangaia, and 9 by persons whose rank status is not known – based on Deeds Register NLC.

4 Of the above 79 leases, 44 were in respect of land in the Avarua district, 11 in the Takitumu district, and 11 in the Arorangi district. Of the remaining 13, 5 were in Aitutaki, 4 in Mauke, 2 in Atiu, and one each in Mangaia and Manuae – based on Deeds Register NLC. This, of course, covers only the registered leases, and according to Moss the bulk of Europeans occupying Maori land did so ‘in the Maori tenure’ and subject to ‘the Maori obligations’. – Moss, JPS 3:20–6. While the ‘Act to Guard against Secret Dealings in Native Lands’ of 1895 required that all existing leases be registered within three months, only a few were registered within the period prescribed and numbers of registrations over the succeeding four years were in respect of leases negotiated prior to the passing of the Act. Whereas in 1888 considerable tracts of land were held by foreign settlers and companies in Aitutaki, none of them were recorded in the Deeds Register. – Bourke to Admiralty 13.11.1888 CO 225 PRO.

page 150

The total area leased to foreigners is not known, though nearly half of the registered leases were for house-sites only. Of the 64 registered leases made before 1899 for which areas can be determined, 29 were for lands under one acre in area, 16 for lands from one to ten acres, 13 for lands from ten to one hundred acres, and 6 for lands over one hundred acres.1 On Rarotonga, where most of the leasing took place, approximately 1,200 acres of land had been alienated to foreigners by way of lease or gift by 1899.2 In view of the fact that much of the land occupied by foreigners was not registered, and that such areas would thus be additional to the above, the amount alienated constituted a considerable proportion of the island's 5,200 acres of arable land.3

When Britain declared a protectorate over the Southern Cook Islands in 1888, New Zealand was anxious to be responsible for its administration. The Colonial Office was agreeable to this proposal, but made it conditional on the prohibition of the sale of native land.4 Following his appointment in 1890 the British Resident (supported by other resident Europeans) attempted to promote organized settlement of the group. He initially recommended the

1 It should be noted that this covers only those leases which were registered, and of these only those whose areas have been able to be determined (by tracing the blocks of land to later survey records).

2 This includes 929 acres of land for which the area is accurately known, an estimated 120 acres of land which was registered but the area of which can only be assessed, and an estimated 150 acres of land alienated by way of gift by Tinomana Ariki. No estimate can be given of the amount of land occupied by Europeans but not formally leased.

3 Not all the land leased to foreigners was arable (as some leases ran from the coast to the mountains and encompassed a variety of soil types) but the bulk of it undoubtedly was.

4 Colonial Office to Governor 8.2.1890 PRO.

page 151 introduction of Christian Japanese,1 but other European interests favoured white settlers. A newspaper was established whose ‘chief aim [was] to encourage the taking up of our waste lands by willing and thrifty settlers’.2 In 1894 the Resident proposed to the Rarotonga Council that blocks of unoccupied land be set aside for settlement by foreigners and recommended a trial settlement of twenty to thirty families in one area.3 The Council recommended the proposal for the consideration of the ariki4 but no further action was taken.

Despite these pressures, relatively little additional land was leased, owing to the fact that the Maori people were not prepared to make the lands available, at least not at the prices offered.5 In their opposition, which was due in part to an increasing assertion of rights by the growing foreign population, and to the latter's disregard of local law, they were still supported by the mission.6 By the turn of the century, we are told, the few settlers who had come were ‘of a very indifferent class’ and only one of them had made significant improvements to the property he had leased.7

1 Moss, NZPP A3 1892:35. As this proposal was opposed he later advocated settlement by Europeans or others who would utilize local labour on their plantations. – Moss, Fortnightly Review 54:786.

2 Ioi Karanga, editorial 29.1.1898. This paper propounded this view until it ceased publication in 1901. Another newspaper, Te Torea (which ran from 1895 to 1899) also supported foreign settlement.

3 Moss, NZPP A3 1895:14.

4 Ibid.

5 In 1897 intending settlers were leaving as they could not obtain land at ‘prices they could afford to pay’. – Te Torea 5.7.1897.

6 [Hutchen], ‘Phases of Native Life and Christian Work in the Hervey Islands’ 14.

7 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1900:23.

page 152

Using native labour, Europeans settled and exploited the various uninhabited islands of the group, and most of them claimed ownership by occupation. Nassau was occupied as from 18771 and from that time onwards until 1952 was regarded as private property held in non-native hands. Palmerston was settled by William Marsters and his family in 1862 and he later claimed absolute ownership by virtue of undisturbed occupation and improvements effected.2 Marsters' claim to the island was recognized by the British government in 1892, though only as a leasehold from the Crown. The firm of Henderson and MacFarlane took possession of Suwarrow in 1877,3 and it passed to other firms thereafter.4 The above three islands were unoccupied at the time of first European contact, and though the people of Pukapuka laid some claim to Nassau5 the other two islands have never been claimed by any native peoples.

At the time of first European contact the island of Manuae was inhabited by Aitutakians who had obtained it by conquest from the people of Atiu, but the population dropped so low that the island was abandoned in the 1830s. It was thereafter occupied by one European and another under varying arrangements with the Aitutaki authorities until one of the Europeans tried to sell the island, after which time the Aitutaki chiefs kept their own representatives

1 Minute dated 17.2.1890, FO 58 PRO.

2 William Marsters to Governor of Fiji 6.1.1888 WPHC.

3 HBM Consulate for Samoa Record 4 Register no. 927 SBC. The island had been leased in 1866 but abandoned shortly thereafter.

4 First to the Pacific Islands Company, then in 1903 to Lever Bros. Ltd, and thence to A.B. Donald Ltd.

5 Though none had lived there or actively used the island for generations.

page 153 there1 until it was legally leased in 1893.2 The only other island which was uninhabited at the time of first contact, or has become so since, was the coral island of Takutea, which was unsuited to permanent habitation due to the lack of fresh water and the tiny area of land.3 This island remained as it had been prior to European contact: the undisputed property of the people of Atiu. There is no evidence of foreign settlers acquiring plantation land in any of the inhabited islands of the Northern Group or on Mitiaro.
On the whole, the direct influence of European settlers was not great, partly because they had no direct representation on any law-making body, and partly because all their activities in relation to land were mediated through the high chiefs. The effectiveness of the opposition to settlement by the mission and the native people was no doubt due to the fact that the Cook Islands were small and isolated and lacked large quantities of unexploited resources. Accordingly the number of intending settlers was relatively small and could be controlled. Moreover, the settlers were not at this stage actively supported in their ambitions by any foreign power.4 Throughout the period, all permanent

1 Evidence presented to Major J.T. Large, Resident Agent at Aitutaki on 31.10.1901 NLC.

2 Minute of 1.12.1905, Manuae file CIA. There had been informal leases of the island prior to this date.

3 It is only 302 acres in area.

4 A study of other Pacific territories shows that nowhere were native governments or the missionaries able to resist the pressures of large numbers of settlers supported by their respective governments. While New Zealand was interested in settlement, she was at this stage unable to undertake any positive action. At the time of handing over the administration of the Protectorate to New Zealand, the Colonial Office noted that New Zealand had mismanaged its own Maori lands, and that Cook Islands land affairs would need watching from London. – Colonial Office minute of 20.9.1888 CO 209 PRO.

page 154 alienation to foreigners was avoided.1 Certain lands were set aside on each island for the churches, but usually only sufficient for church buildings and grounds, for the pastor's residence and the cemetery. In many parts of Polynesia agricultural lands were set aside for commercial exploitation by religious bodies in order to finance their activities, but this did not occur in the Cook group. Such lands as were set aside for church purposes were given by the owners and not sold,2 and they almost invariably carried a right of reversion to the owning lineage in the event of their abandonment by the church.3

One significant by-product of the settlement by Europeans and Chinese, as well as by islanders on islands other than their own, was a marked increase in uxorilocal marriages and a consequent increase in the number of persons claiming their land rights through their mothers. While some outsiders settled on each of the islands, the numbers were greatest in Rarotonga, where the maximum concentration occurred in the Avarua district.

1 Occasional illegal alienations were made, but these were not recognized by the Land Board of 1899 or the Land Court from 1902; e.g. Deed 87 re gifts of land by Tinomana Ariki – Deeds Register NLC; and Tararo Ariki's lease in perpetuity – NZPP A3 1896:31.

2 With the single exception of Takamoa in Rarotonga, which was sold to the mission for 150 dollars.

3 Hutchen to LMS 10.9.1900 SSL.