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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Chapter 10 — The Establishment of the Land Court

page 190

Chapter 10
The Establishment of the Land Court

A shift in the balance of power

In 1897 chiefly power over land was at its height; but so long as the exercise of this power did not interfere unduly with New Zealand ambitions in the group it was tolerated, and even actively supported. Time was on New Zealand's side, for the islanders were thought to be dying out, and even they themselves appear to have been convinced that their extinction was ‘a foregoine conclusion’.1 It is true that the Prime Minister considered that under the Protectorate system New Zealand was not gaining sufficient return in trade2 but his attempts to annex the group were thwarted by the Colonial Office.3 In 1896, when the Colonial Office was prepared to consider annexation by New Zealand under certain conditions, the Governor of New Zealand, who was the channel of communication, did not convey the information to the government as he feared their motives for wishing to assume responsibility for the group.4

The Protectorate functioned satisfactorily enough while the local authorities concurred in the more important proposals of the Resident, and so long as their interaction was mutually advantageous. During 1897, however, the

1 Moss, Fortnightly Review 54:776.

2 Seddon to Governor 24.7.1894 CO 209 PRO.

3 File CO 209 1894–8 passim PRO.

4 Governor to Colonial Office 16.7.1896 CO 209 PRO.

page 191 Resident drafted a bill for the local parliament, creating a court which was to have exclusive jurisdiction over cases in which foreigners were involved, and which was to act as a court of appeal from the ariki courts. The Resident proposed that he himself should be its Chief Judge. The effect of the bill would have been to subordinate the powers of the ariki to those of the Resident, and to free foreigners from the jurisdiction of the local courts.

While only judicial power was ostensibly in question, the ariki had found that the control of the courts was a powerful adjunct to political and economic power as well, and interpreted the proposal as ‘taking all our power and giving it to the British Resident’.1 According to some sources the chiefs had been led to believe that if they passed the bill it would leave the way open for their losing not only all their authority but also their lands.2 The ultimate sanction of chiefly power lay in the degree of chiefly control over the major source of subsistence and income: the land. The power to evict transgressors and to accommodate co-operative squatters was vital to the retention of their position. Members of the local parliament were nominated by the ariki and, ‘holding their land at the will of the said arikis’, were allegedly compelled to acquiesce to their proposals.3

When the parliament refused to pass the bill, Moss panicked and threatened to ‘take matters up with the Queen’. He dissolved the parliament and the ariki petitioned the Governor for his removal.4 The Governor requested the Chief

1 Minutes of Enquiry held before Sir James Prendergast 28.12.1897 NZPP A3 1898.

2 Moss to Hutchen 15.9.1897 NZPP A3 1898.

3 Moss' public statement of 29.9.1897 NZPP A3 1898.

4 Petition of Makea, Pa, Karika, Kainuku, Tinomana and Ngamaru to Governor 7.9.1897 NZPP A3 1898.

page 192 Judicial Commissioner of the Western Pacific High Commission to proceed to the Cook Islands by warship and investigate the matter.1 When the Commissioner stated his preference for travelling by passenger vessel neither the Governor nor the Prime Minister concurred, both considering that a warship was essential for ‘moral effect’, and Sir James Prendergast, the Chief Justice of New Zealand, was sent instead.2

2Governor to Colonial Office 7.12.1897 CO 209 PRO.

Sir James realized that the system of land tenure, whereby commoners could be evicted at will by the high chiefs, was incompatible with an elective democracy, and that the chiefs would be most reluctant to relinquish the mana they had as ‘landowners'.3 Prendergast's enquiry can hardly be described as impartial, for before the enquiry began he publicly reiterated New Zealand's confidence in Moss, and expressed displeasure at the fact that Moss’ advice over the court bill had not been heeded. He there-upon called on the Members of Parliament to explain why they had refused to pass the bill.4 Under interrogation from the Chief Justice, with a warship lying at anchor awaiting his deliberations, knowing that Malietoa, Mataafa and other Samoan chiefs had been banished by the Germans for displeasing their government, knowing also the consequences of the Maori wars in New Zealand for the ‘recalcitrant’ tribes, and the price paid by the Society Islanders for opposing the French, the chiefs claimed that they had not refused the bill, but merely wished for time to consider it.5

1 Governor to Colonial Office 23.10.1897 CO 209 PRO.

3 Prendergast to Governor 24.1.1898 NZPP A3 1898.

4 Minutes of Enquiry… NZPP A3 1898.

5 With the frequent shipping connections and travel between the Cook Islands and neighbouring groups, visitors between them came and went. For example, a sister of the exiled Malietoa was living in Rarotonga, whence she maintained a correspondence with her brother – Correspondence of Rafala Maoate to Malietoa ATL; in 1864 two New Zealand Maori chiefs had been to Rarotonga seeking land on which to resettle their tribes - Krause to LMS 9.9.1864 SSL; and on several occasions parties from Raiatea and other Society Islands had come to Rarotonga in an attempt to enlist aid in their troubles with the French. It was thus not without reason that Makea was ‘concerned at a rumour that she was to be deported and the islands annexed’ - Prendergast to Governor 24.1.1898 NZPP A3 1898.

page 193

As a result of the enquiry Moss was withdrawn and replaced by Colonel W.E. Gudgeon, a man of martial bearing who had won distinction in the wars against the Maoris of New Zealand, and believed that ‘stern authority’ was essential in dealings with Polynesians. He had been Resident Magistrate in two Maori districts and had served for several years as a judge of the Native Land Court of New Zealand. Gudgeon arrived by man-o'-war and was formally introduced at a full dress parade at which the naval commander read a proclamation declaring that Her Majesty Queen Victoria had ‘learned with much displeasure of their refusal to obey her wishes in regard to the enactment of the Federal Court Bill’.1 The chiefs were warned of the consequences of any similar action in the future.

The High Court Bill was passed without question, Makea Ariki sent an abject apology to the Queen,2 and the political power in the island was effectively transferred to the Resident. What the average islander thought about these proceedings is difficult to say. The struggle for power was between the ariki and the Europeans and both claimed to be supported by and representing the interests of the common villager. But as the sources of information are derived principally from one or other of the interested parties

1 Proclamation of the Governor 26.8.1898 NZPP A3 1899.

2 Makea Ariki to Governor 13.9.1898 CO 209 PRO.

page 194 (principally the European) and but little from the people affected, this must remain to some extent a matter of speculation. What is clear is that the common man did not participate in the struggle, and was probably but little aware at this stage of precisely what was going on.

Effects on land tenure were immediate. One of the first moves was the passing of ‘an act to secure uniformity in leases and security of tenure to foreign lessees’.1 This act applied throughout the Federation (i.e. all the islands of the Southern Group) and was the first enactment relating to land to apply to more than a single island. Despite its wide application, its functions were confined almost exclusively to Rarotonga, and the administration of the act was made the responsibility of a Land Board which consisted of the Resident and the five ariki of Rarotonga.2 In addition, any mataiapo was entitled to a seat on the Board for such time as any matter relating to lands in his tapere was being discussed.

To qualify for registration a lease had to have the approval of the Resident and at least three of the ariki. The Board was entitled to stipulate conditions for leases, and no land could be leased to a foreigner if it was in the beneficial occupation of a native of the island concerned, or if a Maori had been ejected in order that the land might be leased. All leases had to be accompanied by survey plans, and had to specify the rental and term of the lease. The Board met on various occasions to consider leases: a few were modified, but only one or two were ever declined.

1 Sub-title of ‘The Land Act’ 1899. Summaries of all legislation referred to are contained in appendix A.

2 At present there are six recognized ariki on the island, but at that time Vakatini was not recognized as one.

page 195

One clause, apparently drafted by Colonel Gudgeon, read:

And whereas a large proportion of the best land in the island of Rarotonga is not in the beneficial occupation of any person and such land does not in any way add to the wealth or revenue of the island. And whereas there are a large number of persons of the Maori race in this island who have no land rights and who will never become producers unless fixity of tenure be given to them, it shall therefore be the duty of the Board to consider the means whereby land on perpetual lease may be secured to all of the deserving members of the native-born Rarotongans.1

With the power over tribal lands still vested in chiefly hands (and that power based to a considerable extent on the ultimate sanction of expulsion from the land) one could hardly expect that such a body would so openly invite a major reduction in power. No action appears to have been taken on this clause.

In the same year an act was passed giving increased powers to the Au (informally constituted district councils of elders, headed by the ariki). Among other things they were given power to require the planting of coconut trees by all people in their respective districts, to ‘report to the chief of the Government’ those persons who did not adequately utilize their lands, to impound wandering stock, to levy dog-tax, and to place the lands of the districts under ra'ui in order to minimize theft and permit bulk sale of product.2 Under local ordinances which were enacted by the Federal Parliament for the outer islands, local judges were made responsible for the settling of land disputes, though if either party wished to do so they could have their cases heard by the High Court (of which the Resident was Judge) instead. Provision was also made for

1 ‘The Land Act’ 1899 clause 18.

2 ‘Au Empowering Act’ 1899. This act extended and clarified the powers given to the Au under the ‘[Act] For electing the Au’ of 1891.

page 196 appeal from decisions of the local courts.1 In Aitutaki, however, all land disputes had to be heard by the European Resident Magistrate based at that island.2

A start in the direction of introducing land taxes was made with the passage of a law which provided that land occupied by foreigners was to be subject to a tax of one shilling in the pound of its rental value as a tax towards the execution of public works.3 Maoris were not to be taxed in cash, but instead were to provide labour for public projects.

1 ‘Statute of Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro’ 1899, ‘Statute of Mangaia’ 1899, ‘Statute of Rarotonga’ 1899.

2 ‘Statute of Aitutaki’ 1899.

3 ‘An Act to provide for the Rating of Land in the Occupation of Foreigners’ 1899.

Annexation and the creation of a Land Court

Securing the passage of legislation was relatively easy, for the chiefs had learned the consequences of declining it, but having unpalatable legislation implemented in practice was much more difficult. Gudgeon could not at this stage force action which might antagonize the chiefs, for the Colonial Office would not consider annexation to New Zealand unless it was supported by the chiefs and, as Gudgeon said of himself:

I came here with the fixed intention of getting this group annexed; but on my arrival I found that the friends of Mr. Moss had made a bugbear of annexation…hence it was that for a long time I was very quiet, for it was absolutely necessary that I should gain the confidence of the arikis, and secondly that the Moss party should have no inkling of my real views, lest they should turn round and warn the Maoris that they were about to lose their mana.4

He did not inform the ariki of his further proposals for land reform, ‘For if I did,’ he reported to the Prime

4 Gudgeon to Seddon 29.8.1900 NZNA.

page 197 Minister, ‘they would never consent to annexation’.1 Annexation now became the immediate goal. Given the power to enforce his programme of agrarian reform, he claimed, he would make Rarotonga one of the most prosperous places in the world.2 The programme was often alluded to but never explained in detail, though it was to be achieved by giving security of tenure to the occupiers of the land, having the tribute paid by Maori commoners to the chiefs commuted to a fixed rental, and by nationalizing the land ‘with the rights of the land-holders being recognised’.3 Just what was intended by this last phrase was not made clear.
In 1900 the ariki of Rarotonga were persuaded to submit a petition requesting annexation to New Zealand.4 The Colonial Office was now agreeable in principle, but required that native lands be protected to prevent reckless alienation.5 To meet this requirement, New Zealand proposed that a Land Court similar to that operating in New Zealand would be set up to determine ownership of land, and that alienation would be permitted only through the Crown to prevent the Maori people becoming landless. The Court was to be given wide powers to assert the rights of the common people, for the New Zealand Government did not accept the ‘feudal

1 Gudgeon to Seddon 10.8.1900 NZNA.

2 Gudgeon to Governor 2.4.1900 CO 209 PRO.

3 Ibid.

4 Petition of Makea, Karika, Pa, Kainuku, Tinomana and Ngamaru to Governor 6.9.1900 NZPP A3 1901. Ngamaru was one of the ariki of Atiu, but had resided on Rarotonga for many years and was Judge of the Avarua court. Some indication of the methods of persuasion used to get the petition is given in Gudgeon to Seddon 29.8.1900, 8.9.1900 and 4.9.1900 NZNA.

5 Colonial Office to Governor 15.8.1900 CO 209 PRO. The petitioners had requested ‘that the land rights of the people shall not be vitiated by annexation’ but had not elaborated the point further.

page 198 ownership’ under which the ariki had allegedly asserted ‘rights to the whole of the islands’.1 As an alternative, New Zealand proposed that a fixed sum might be paid to the ariki to concede all their rights, and the Crown would then assume responsibility for all land, setting aside sufficient for the use of the Maoris.2 These were possibilities, not commitments, and the actualities were left to be worked out at a later date.

A Colonial Office minute on the above proposals affirmed the necessity for fixity of tenure, and queried whether the title to land should be individual or vested in the tribe or other group.3 They did not raise these points with the New Zealand Government, however, but merely expressed their hope that ‘liberal provision’ would be made for native interests.4 Annexation was effected harmoniously and without question. The chiefs of Mangaia asked for clarification on the matter of land ownership but, when they were assured that native ownership of the land was acknowledged, they unanimously assented to annexation.5

1 Seddon to Governor 18.8.1900 CO 209 PRO.

2 This proposal was not acted upon.

3 Colonial Office minute on Seddon to Governor 18.8.1900 CO 209 PRO.

4 Colonial Office to Governor 7.11.1900 CO 209 PRO.

5 Governor to Colonial Office 31.10.1900 CO 209 PRO.

The Court established

Administration of the group was provided for by the Cook and Other Islands Government Act,6 under which existing laws and customs were to remain in the interim, but which gave the Governor in Council full powers to introduce whatever measures he deemed expedient - what the Colonial Office

6 ‘Cook and Other Islands Government Act’ 1901.

page 199 described as ‘power to do whatever he likes’.1 Specific provision was made for the establishment of ‘a tribunal…with such powers and functions as he [the Governor] thinks fit, in order to ascertain and determine the title to land within the said islands…’.2

‘If we wish to increase the productiveness of the Islands,’ said Mr Seddon in introducing the act to parliament, ‘[and] to further the settlement of a European population on the land, we shall have to give security of tenure and we shall have to encourage planting by the natives themselves.’3 This was the crux of New Zealand's policy for the next few years - to determine the ownership of land in order to increase production, in the first place by the islanders from such lands as they were using, and secondly by making such lands as they were not actively exploiting available to European settlers. In the initial stages alienation to foreigners was to be by way of lease only.4

By Order in Council of 7.7.1902 the Cook and Other Islands Land Titles Court (which will be referred to simply as the Land Court) came into existence. The Court was to consist of not less than two judges, one of whom was designated Chief Judge. It was given power to investigate titles to land, determine successors, impose limits on alienation, reserve land for public purposes, deal with leases, and to handle other matters relative to the tenure of land. The

1 Colonial Office minute on Governor to Colonial Office 18.12.1901 CO 209 PRO.

2 ‘Cook and Other Islands Government Act’ 1901 section 6.

3 Hansard 119:286.

4 This was not provided for in the legislation, but an assurance to this effect was given by the Prime Minister. - Hansard 119:289.

page 200 Chief Judge, who had to be European, was empowered to hold Court sitting alone. No judge who was not a European could exercise jurisdiction except when sitting with the Chief Judge. Gudgeon was appointed as Chief Judge, and Pa Ariki as a Judge.

The Order in Council, which was drafted by Gudgeon,1 provided that the Chief Judge could ‘make and prescribe rules of practice and procedure’ for the Court. The rules and regulations made under this provision laid down the procedures to be followed in investigation of title, succession, alienation, and other matters.2 The fixing of the Court's modus operandi took up the first one hundred and twenty-six clauses, while the one hundred and twenty-seventh gave the Court the right to dispense with any of the preceding clauses, with the exception of eight machinery clauses which dealt with Court documents.

As Administrator, Chief Judge of a Court of his design, head of the local legislature, and representative of New Zealand, Gudgeon was now in a much more powerful position than any ariki had ever been. The adoption of his land reform programme was now assured.

1 Gudgeon to Seddon 7.3.1902 NZPP A3 1903.

2 ‘Rules and Regulations of the Cook and Other Islands Land Titles Court’ 1902.

Foreign settlement

The stated objects of the Land Court were to increase productivity from native farms and to open unused lands for European settlers. The question of productivity from native lands will be dealt with later, and attention will now be given to the effectiveness of the policy of European settlement. This policy assumed three premises - firstly that there were large areas of fertile land lying waste, secondly that page 201 the Maori population was dying out, and thirdly that the unused land would be made available for settlers by one means or another.

As to the first premise, Gudgeon considered shortly after his arrival that 10,000 acres on Rarotonga alone should be available for leasing.1 In fact, Rarotonga has a total of only 3,700 acres of land suitable for agriculture and a further 1,530 acres which can be used for tree crops;2 and as at that time the island had a Maori population of over 2,000, this allowed less than three acres per head. In Atiu, he declared, there was four times as much waste land as at Rarotonga, and ‘every inch’ of the island was considered worthy of cultivation.3 Land surveys were to be conducted there to determine ‘the area and character of the waste land available for settlement by Europeans’.4 The total area of land suitable for agriculture on Atiu is 1,158 acres, with a further 3,386 acres usable for tree crops.5 The indigenous population of the island was then just under 1,000. ‘Mauke’, the Resident claimed, ‘may fairly be regarded as equal to forty square miles of the best land in New Zealand’;6 yet the actual area of Mauke is only seven square miles, less than two of which are suitable for agriculture.7 This gave only two and a half acres of agricultural land per head of the then population. Even

1 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1899:23.

2 Fox and Grange, Soils… 41.

3 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1902:49, and Gudgeon to Mills 28.5.1903 NZPP A3 1904.

4 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1902:50.

5 Fox and Grange, Soils… 41.

6 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1902:50.

7 Fox and Grange, Soils… 41.

page 202 allowing for the fact that the islands were as yet unsurveyed, Gudgeon's estimates were quite unrealistic.

The second premise, that of a dying Maori population, was supported by the demographic data then available. At the turn of the century, however, the decline ceased. The policy-makers cannot be blamed for not knowing that, almost from the moment of annexation of the Cook Islands, an upward trend of population growth was occurring throughout the length and breadth of the Pacific.1 Though the population had reached its lowest ebb in the 1870s and had subsequently risen, this data was probably not available to the Administration. The censuses of 1895, 1901 and 1902 did show a slow downward trend, and combined with knowledge of rapid population decline in the first three decades after contact (which Gudgeon was aware of and quoted) he was no doubt justified in assuming that the decline would continue. The rate of decline shown by the three censuses mentioned, however, was quite slow, and hardly justified the assertion that ‘at no very distant date the present native population will either die out or become so much reduced in numbers that it will be necessary to replace them with a foreign population’.2 In fact, the population increased steadily from 1902 onwards.

The Administration's third assumption was that unused land would be made available for settlers. It was supposed that once the islanders had their land rights assured by the award of documentary titles they would be anxious to lease such as they were not actively using in order to obtain additional income. If they were not prepared to do so voluntarily, however, the Resident proposed that the

1 McArthur, Populations… passim.

2 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1902:55.

page 203 government be empowered to assume control over unused lands and lease them on behalf of the owners.1 The Court began its work in the Titikaveka area of Rarotonga, as that was the least utilized part of the island and had the largest tracts available for leasing. Once the Court's work was completed, the Resident prophesied, the whole of the Titikaveka district would be settled by Europeans only.2 However, after ownership of most of the land was determined in 1903, it was found that very few of the owners were prepared to make any portion available for lease.3
When the Resident requested that he be given authority to enable him to enforce the leasing of unused land, the New Zealand Government was not prepared to grant it. A few years earlier New Zealand had hoped to annex Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but none of these ambitions had been realized, and the vision of a Pacific empire had faded. In 1903 a delegation of thirty-three members of the New Zealand Parliament visited the islands, and, judging from the tenor of debates in the House following their visit, members had developed a considerable sympathy for the point of view of the island people.4 The chiefs had informed the delegation of their unanimous opposition to the sale of land,5 and the Opposition was particularly vocal on the question of protecting native land rights. Under these circumstances the government was agreeable to the compulsory acquisition of land only if the local Federal Council was prepared to pass the

1 Ibid.

2 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1903:24.

3 Gudgeon, NZPP A3 1904:70.

4 Hansard volumes 125–30 passim.

5 Minutes of meeting of 28.4.1903 NZPP A3(b) 1903.

page 204 necessary legislation. As may be expected, the Federal Council would not do so.1

In 1905 the Minister still hoped that a settlement programme could be effected by persuasion rather than compulsion, and reported that numerous applications for land had been received from prospective settlers, though as yet the government was unable to give them any assurance as to its availability.2 He nevertheless promised to compile details of surplus lands for the information of settlers, and hoped that the islanders would soon be induced to lease them more readily. In the following year the situation was unchanged. Indigenous opposition to foreign settlement remained firm, and was supported throughout by the London Missionary Society, which, in addition to its constant pastoral contact with the people, published the only periodical in the vernacular. Referring to the situation in Rarotonga in 1906, the editor pointed out that ‘there are only 8,000 usable acres to be divided amongst 2,000 natives…. There does not seem to be much land left to lease’.3 The survey of the island, which was by then well advanced, confirmed the view that there was much less fertile land than had previously been supposed. With opposition from within the territory and little support from Wellington, the settler question faded quietly away.

A few settlers4 had indeed obtained leases on Rarotonga, but their number has never exceeded twenty-five, and on all the outer islands put together there have never since

1 Gudgeon to Mills 12.9.1904 NZPP A3 1905.

2 Mills' covering memorandum of 1.9.1905 to the annual report for the Cook Islands NZPP A3 1905.

3 Te Karere January 1906.

4 By settlers is meant foreigners (invariably Europeans from 1900 onwards) whose livelihood was obtained from the production of export crops.

page 205 annexation been more than a scattered dozen or so. The amount of land leased to foreigners increased by only 237 acres between 1906 and 1920,1 and the number of foreign settlers in the group remained insignificant, being seventeen in 1906 and sixteen in 1922. The remaining few were severely affected by the economic depression of the 1930s, when almost half the land leased by Europeans changed hands to settle outstanding debts.2 The foreign plantations never recovered and today not a single foreigner derives his livelihood exclusively from export production.

1 NZPP A3 1907:6 and NZPP A4 1920:48.

2 Hansard 247:336.

The act of 1915: preservation of custom

An act was passed in 1915 which made some modifications to the existing laws of land tenure, and which elaborated and clarified the jurisdiction of the Land Court.3 Perhaps the major change was one of emphasis, for whereas the earlie enactments had been designed in part at least to delimit the areas of land needed by the Maoris in order to make the balance available for foreign settlement, the 1915 act was based on the recognition of land as the essential basis of Maori life.4 The emphasis was on protection, the observance of custom and the retention of land as the primary source of subsistence. This was no doubt due in part to the failur of the settler policy and the programme of colonial expansion in the Pacific; and in part to the fact that from 1909 onwards the ministers in charge of the islands were themselv

3 ‘The Cook Islands Act’ 1915.

4 This law was not drafted in response to any pressure for reform, but merely due to the fact that it was discovered that through a technical error the laws of the islands were void and the past work of the Land Court needed to be validated. - Northcroft to Pomare 27.5.1914 NZPP A3 1914.

page 206 New Zealand Maoris - men who were struggling at home to preserve the remaining Maori lands for the benefit of the Maori people.1

The name of the Court was changed to the Native Land Court, and it was to consist of a Chief Judge and such other judges as were deemed necessary.2 In practice, however, not more than one judge was appointed concurrently until 1946. Pa Ariki, the only islander ever appointed as a judge, died in 1906 and no other indigenous judge was ever appointed. The act recognized four categories of land:


Crown land;3


Customary land: being that which was ‘held by Natives or descendants of Natives under Native customs and usages of the Cook Islands’ (i.e. land the title to which had not been investigated by the Land Court);


Native freehold land (i.e. land which had been customary land, but in respect of which a registered title had been issued by the Court to the persons it found to be the customary owners);


European land: being land other than native freehold land, the fee simple of which had been alienated to any person.4

1 Maoris who held the islands portfolio were Sir James Carrol (1909–13), Sir Maui Pomare (1913–28) and Sir Apirana Ngata (1929–35).

2 The name of the Court had been changed in 1908 from ‘The Cook and Other Islands Land Titles Court’ to ‘The Cook Islands Land Titles Court’. - ‘Cook Islands Government Act’ 1908.

3 While all land in the Cook Islands vests ultimately in the Crown, the term ‘Crown land’ is usually reserved to apply to those lands which have been set aside by the Court for public purposes, and it is with this connotation that the term is used in this study.

4 The area in acres of land in the various categories in 1958 was as follows:

RarotongaOther IslandsTotal
Crown land234716950
Customary land3,18123,90327,084
Native freehold land12,98616,33629,322
European land (the only land in this category is that vested in religious bodies)20169270

(Source: LEGAS 1958 paper number 59 and NZPP A3 1958:24.) Of the above native freehold land the amounts alienated by way of lease in 1960 were as follows:

Leased by Europeans1,3121,592*2,904
Leased by the Crown146210356
Leased by Maoris65522677

(Source: NZPP A3 1960:23)

* 1,544 acres of this being the island of Manuae, which has since March 1961 been leased by an indigenous co-operative society.

page 207

All land lying below high water mark was declared to be Crown land, thus annulling the indigenous pattern of rights to reef and lagoon waters.1

In general the act followed the earlier enactment under which the Land Court had operated, but several innovations were introduced. Permanent alienation of land (other than to the Crown for public purposes) was prohibited, and leases and other forms of partial alienation were limited to a maximum of sixty years.2 While this constituted a change in legislation, it merely confirmed the practice which had been observed for many years, for though in its early years the Court had approved of some leases of ninety-nine years duration, no sales of Maori land were ever recorded. In the initial stages this was due to local opposition and in later years to pressure from Wellington.

Wills were invalidated in so far as they related to rights in customary and freehold land,3 and as these had been one of the means by which rights were periodically redistributed (usually with the effect of adjusting to changed demographic circumstances) an element of rigidity was thereby introduced.4

1 ‘Cook Islands Act’ 1915 section 419. Prior to this date the Court had refrained from awarding interests to land below high water mark.

2 Ibid. sections 467–9.

3 Ibid. section 445.

4 This restriction was probably imposed in order to avoid concealed alienation (such as secret sale) being effected under the guise of a will.

page 208

Provision was also made whereby a chief could hold land by virtue of his office as the holder of a particular title.1 Such lands were to vest in the chief in fee simple, and to pass to successive holders of the title. Though many lands had previously been awarded to persons who held chiefly titles, it was not always clear whether they were intended to hold the rights in their personal capacity or in their role as titleholders. The distinction was necessary in order to know who was entitled to succeed to such lands when a chief died (i.e. whether his children would succeed or his successor in office), who would be entitled to the lands if a chief was deprived of office during his lifetime, and what obligations would affix to the land.

In granting freehold orders involving multiple owners, the Court was required to specify the relative interests of each owner in the land concerned.2 A similar provision had been made in the original enactment, but it had seldom been followed in practice. While it was occasionally followed after the passing of the 1915 act, it was not until the 1940s that it became a routine practice of the Court. Such shares are not defined on the ground and do not relate to any particular portion of the land concerned, but simply represent the Court's evaluation of the proportionate interest of the various owners. This provision is, of course, out of harmony with the flexibility of custom, but was presumably originally introduced as a carry-over to the Cook Islands from the legislation relating to Maori lands in New Zealand, where it was a technique to facilitate negotiation with settlers and the distribution of proceeds from the lease or sale of land.

1 ‘Cook Islands Act’ 1915 section 426.

2 Ibid. section 423.

page 209

Appeals and rehearings

Until 1946 there was in practice no functional system of appeal. Both the Order in Council of 1902 and the act of 1915 made provision for rehearing1 but the granting of a rehearing was subject to the approval of the Land Court, and if approved it was usually heard by the same judge as took the case originally.2 The act of 1915 did make provision for appeal to the Supreme Court of New Zealand, but this, too, was conditional on the approval of the Land Court. It was unlikely that many islanders were aware of this provision, or in a position to finance such an undertaking if they had been.3

In 1946, following recommendations made in the report of Judge Harvey of the New Zealand Native Land Court,4 an Appellate Court was established which was to comprise any two or more judges of the New Zealand Native Land Court or of the Cook Islands Native Land Court (other than the judge who determined the issue in dispute).5 At the same time provision was made for appeals from decisions of the Cook Islands Native Land Court to lie as of right in future.6 Moreover, to meet the requests of numerous persons who claimed to be adversely affected by earlier decisions of the Court, special provision was made to enable such persons to appeal (within one year) against any decision of the Court back to the time of its inception. This was intended particularly to open the way for re-investigation of title to those page 210 lands which Judge Gudgeon had awarded for life interests only to ariki and which Judge McCormick had turned into fee simple by succession order.

The Appellate Court first sat in 1948 and held annual sittings until 1952 in order to clear up a backlog of appeals. As intended, a significant proportion of the appeals against earlier decisions of the Court were in relation to lands which had been awarded originally to ariki for life interests only. The most important of these dealt with lands in the Avatiu and Nikao tapere and resulted in the loss of those lands by the ariki and their award to the issue of the persons found to have been the original owners. Many of my informants claimed that they would have appealed against other decisions as well but were unable to do so owing to the fact that the elders of the family who knew the relevant details had died (while the bases of the claims had not been recorded by the younger generation as they considered that nothing could be done). Some who did successfully contest rights to one section of land stated that they would have claimed for others also but were not sure how the Court would function in practice and accordingly did not wish to commit themselves too deeply. By the time the first cases were heard, of cours the time for the lodgement of appeals had expired.

Having dealt with the outstanding appeals the Appellate Court became a routine adjunct to the work of the Land Court and has since sat at three-yearly intervals. While sittings are normally held in Rarotonga, every attempt is made to ensure that it is accessible to the island people and sittings have been held in Aitutaki, Mauke and Atiu.

1 Order in Council 1902 clause 10 (15-a) and ‘Cook Islands Act’ 1915 section 390.

2 Actual rehearings were few indeed.

3 So far as I am aware no land case has ever been taken to the Supreme Court.

4 Harvey, ‘Report to the Right Honourable the Minister of Island Territories’ 35–6.

5 ‘Cook Islands Amendment Act’ 1946 sections 19–40.

6 Ibid. section 25.