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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Chapter XXXVI — Native Lands Problem

page 310

Chapter XXXVI
Native Lands Problem

Bristled With Difficulties—Courts Step Off On Wrong Foot—Native Trust Gets Into “Queer Street”—How Its Lands Were Redeemed.

When the Native Lands Act, 1865, was passed, practically the whole of the lands in Poverty Bay and on the East Coast were in the hands of the natives. A vast amount of tedious work, therefore, lay ahead of the courts which were set up to determine the ownership of the various blocks. It was provided that each block should be vested in not more than ten persons, and that the names of the other owners, or of the tribe, should also be specified. Most of the Judges added only the name of the tribe.

The Act was amended to emphasise that not only should each block be vested in not more than ten persons, but that the names of all the persons interested, and the particulars of their interests, should also be registered. It was held by some Judges that they could do nothing in a case in which a previous court had, apparently intentionally, made the grantees sole owners. They also declined to amend earlier lists of owners by admitting into them the names of natives whose claims had, in the first instance, been defeated, or those of natives who had made no attempt to get into the lists at the original hearing. This defect in the law was remedied some years later. In the case of practically every block a tangled skein as to ownership and boundaries required to be unravelled.

Conquest was set up as the right to ownership to some blocks. Other grounds advanced in support of claims were: That the right had been held to put up a rahui (a sign forbidding trespass); that ancestors had been buried on the land; that the right to erect eel-weirs or place rat-snares, etc., had been held; that food from the land had had to be taken to a particular chief; that villages or pas had been built on the land; that cultivations had been made upon it; or that the land had been the subject of a gift. The courts aimed at ascertaining which tribe or hapu had the right of occupation when British sovereignty was proclaimed, and whether that occupation was well founded according to native custom and usage.

An interesting legend was related by a witness before the Native Land Court at Waipiro Bay in 1890 (Waiapu minute book, No. 15). A fishing place known as Kapua-a-Rangi was mentioned. Nepia Harikara said that Ihurahirahi discovered “it whilst he was walking on the water like an angel.” Upon diving for his comb, which he had accidentally dropped, “he found it in a hapuka's mouth.” By paying attention to the landmarks he fixed the location of the fishing ground.

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Ownership to Tahora No. 2 block was claimed, in 1889, by Tauha Nikora on the ground that he was a descendant of one Tarawa, who, he said, had swum from Hawaiki to New Zealand. Witness denied that Tarawa was a seagod; in those days, he explained, people were not just ordinary people. He admitted that he did not know how far Hawaiki was from New Zealand, nor how long the journey had taken. Even with his knowledge of tides and currents, he was bound to believe what his elders had told him. It was his opinion that Tarawa had swum under some kind of spiritualistic influence. “There were some very funny things done in those days,” he added.

An apochryphal illustration of the extreme character of some of the claims that were made to ownership appears in Meredith's Adventuring in New Zealand in the 'Seventies, p. 121. During a Waiapu case, it is stated, Judge Rogan invited an elderly witness to indicate what right he had to be included among the owners to the block under consideration. Quite unabashed, the native replied: “I ate the former owner.” A smile rippled over the Judge's face, and he asked: “So you presume that the fee simple vests in you?” “Certainly,” said the witness. His Honour instructed the recording clerk to include the witness's name in the list of owners!

Disputes Over Decisions

A busy period opened on the East Coast in the middle 1870's as a sequel to the activities of several Native Land Courts. For some months a dozen surveyors had been at work in almost unknown country. At Wai-o-matatini hundreds of scantily-clad and poorly-provisioned natives remained, week after week, close to the courthouse. Influential natives moved among them, advising them to bring their lands before the court. Members of Wiremu Keiha's hapu, who were opposed to the system of courts, hurled stones on the roof. One burly native, who was determined to stop the proceedings, had to be ejected by Captain Porter. A buxom native threw her arms around the assessor's neck and told him that she would be his alone if he would help her with her claim. When she tried to embrace the Judge he ordered her out of court. Consequent upon the Crown buying several large blocks, additional hotels, accommodation houses and stores sprang up.

Serious trouble arose at Wairoa in 1880 when Judge Heale gave his decision in the Opoho case. His minute states: “A great number of persons were evidently drunk, especially young women. The court had to be adjourned on account of the excessive uproar.” Next day a native named Hirini claimed a sole right to put in a list of owners. Violence became imminent; a page 312 woman attempted to seize the lists which had been handed in; and the court had again to be adjourned. A few days later the malcontents fired off guns and burnt whares belonging to the other side. They were required by the local chiefs, supported by some Napier chiefs, to hand over 50 horses and some goods as compensation.

The decision given in the Waipiro case in July, 1885, led to a grave quarrel. At the original hearing Pineamine and his people were awarded the block; upon a rehearing Tuta and his relatives were granted 10,000 acres; and, now, upon a second rehearing, the original decision was upheld. Tuta sent a letter to Pineamine warning him that, if he and his folk did not clear out, he would slay them. Pineamine refused to budge. When Tuta, with 60 armed followers, invaded the block, Pineamine also got together an armed band. As a battle seemed imminent, 13 constables and 12 artillerymen, under Police-Inspector Emerson, were hurried down from Auckland. Tuta's party greeted them with a spirited rendering of “God Save the Queen,” and handed over their guns.

The difficulties which confronted the courts were appreciably added to when European lessees of blocks began to acquire the individual interests of some native owners, but were held up by non-sellers. If every seller in a block had made an application for the boundaries of his or her portion to be determined, the courts would soon have become congested with work, and the blocks would, in time, have resembled checker boards. Some lessees at last hit upon the shrewd idea of getting the native sellers to transfer their rights to one of their number, who, in turn, called upon a court to partition off within the block his or her cumulative interests. When this was done, the area so allotted was transferred to the pakeha buyer. Most of the lessees, however, delayed in approaching a court in the hope that they might first obtain the interests of all the native owners.

There was much rejoicing on the part both of natives and of Europeans in August, 1875, when a long-standing dispute over portion of Makauri block was settled. Non-sellers had hotly contested Captain Read's claim, on the ground that it was excessive. Riparata Kahutia, on behalf of her section of owners, made an offer of 200 acres from its interests and Wi Pere, on behalf of his group, asked Read to diminish his claim against its interests by a like area. Read said he would leave the matter in the hands of Judge Rogan. The compromise was approved. In the evening Read entertained the Judge, the assessors and representatives of the native owners at a banquet.

Much more solid progress in settling titles dated from the passing of the Native Land (Validation of Titles) Act, 1893, which page 313 was required because many native blocks had been the subject of loose negotiations between pakehas and natives. In most instances both vendors and purchasers had pledged their far from clearly denned interests, and, for some time, Poverty Bay had had a bad name on account of so much land being held under imperfect titles. Provision was made for the establishment of a Validation Court to settle all conflicting interests. The early judicial work was carried out by Judge G. E. Barton, who was regarded as somewhat eccentric, but who had a high reputation for his courage and for his wide knowledge of law. For a number of years before—as well as for a long time after—the establishment of the court, legal work, surveying and interpreting were among Poverty Bay's principal “industries.” As early as 1885 there were 16 solicitors, 18 surveyors, and 17 licensed interpreters in practice in Gisborne.

Native Trust Lands Redeemed

How it came about that a very large area of heavily-indebted and, for the most part, undeveloped native land in and about Poverty Bay was redeemed makes an interesting story. In 1878 the owners placed the blocks concerned in the trusteeship of W. L. Rees and Wi Pere. However, the Supreme Court ruled that none of the land could be conveyed by such a trust. The owners then assigned rights to the New Zealand Native Land Settlement Co. Ltd. (promoted by Mr. Rees) to enable its capital (subscribed chiefly by Europeans) to be utilised in promoting development and settlement. Contested claims as to ownership in the various blocks as between native and native were followed by suits as between natives and alleged purchasers of native rights. Survey and other legal expenses also ran into tall figures.

When its capital was exhausted, the Settlement Company raised moneys from, and, in return, gave mortgages over the lands and rights which it had acquired to, the Bank of New Zealand Estates Co. Ltd. In 1892 the Settlement Company was wound up and its rights were vested, on behalf of the beneficial owners, in the Hon. J. Carroll and Wi Pere, who gave a mortgage to the Estates Company in respect of a debt of £53,851 and of £40,000 required to improve the blocks. The Validation Court, upon confirming the arrangement, declared the Estates Company to be in the position of a mortgagee in possession.

The trust lands became more and more heavily involved in debt, and, in 1902, the Bank of New Zealand (which had become the holders of the mortgages) began proceedings to sell certain of the lands. Unsuccessfully the trustees applied for an injunction. Parliament then hurriedly passed the East Coast Native Trust Lands Act, 1902, which prohibited the bank from selling any of the lands before 31 August, 1904, without the consent of a board which wast to be established.

Although the title of the bank and its powers of sale were placed beyond question, the board was given power to redeem the lands, to sell or lease them, to improve or subdivide them in order to facilitate sale or letting, and to borrow money for all these purposes. At 30 January, 1904, £159,029 was owing to the bank, and, as security for repayment, it held lands aggregating 107,832 acres of an estimated value of £164,268, together with livestock valued at £20,000. As a result of realisations and page 314 certain loans obtained on new mortgages, together with a concession off principal of £25,000, the debt to the bank was liquidated by June, 1905.

The East Coast native trust lands came under commissioner control in 1905. They are scattered from just above Tolaga Bay in the north to Wairoa in the south, and from Mahia in the east to the borders of the Urewera Country in the west. As compared with the area originally held by the Carroll-Wi Pere Trust, the Commissioner (J. S. Jessep) in 1946 controlled more than as much land again, or about 225,000 acres, comprising 49 farms and stations, in which over 5,000 natives are beneficial owners in varying degree. The State valuation of the Trust lands in 1939 was £1,115,000 and the mortgages then totalled £220,000. As at 31 March, 1946, twenty of the farms and stations were being directly farmed by the Commissioner and the remaining properties were under leases, all of which will expire by 1954. On the properties farmed by the Commissioner several of the managers and practically all of the 139 workers were natives.


Much hardship and, at times, great annoyance had to be endured in the early days by surveyors and their assistants in the hinterland of Poverty Bay and on the East Coast. A determined attempt to stop a survey was made at Taurawharoua, near East Cape, in 1893. First of all, some obstructionists, led by Koroneho Kopuha, felled trees to prevent W. J. Wheeler and his staff from making observations. Then they carried off the theodolite, but returned it. Fines were inflicted on six of the culprits. Shortly afterwards a party led by Te Kakaha pulled over the trig station on Pukekiore Hill Again, fines were imposed. It was overturned by another party under Enoka Rukuata soon after it had been re-erected. Some of the obstructionists threatened even to shoot any native who assisted to point out the boundaries. Seventeen of the offenders were fined £40 each, or in default three months' gaol. They reerected the trig station, and agreed to desist from molesting the survey party if the fines were reduced to £10 apiece. The trouble was smoothed over.


Robert Noble Jones (born in Belfast in 1864) was an infant when his parents migrated to Thames. In his youth they moved to Gisborne, where he was admitted as a solicitor in 1890 and as a barrister in 1899. He was appointed a Judge of the Native Land Court in July, 1903; also president of the Tairawhiti Land Board in January, 1913; Chief Judge of the Native Land Court in August, 1919; assumed the additional office of Under-Secretary of the Native Department from January, 1922, till November, 1933; and was also, for a time, Native Trustee and East Coast Commissioner, vacating those offices in March, 1934, but retaining the office of Chief Judge until his retirement in 1939. When he was transferred from Gisborne to Wellington in 1917, Sir A. T. Ngata said at a farewell function: “Part 18 of the Native Land Act, 1909, is Judge Jones's work, and, when the history of the East Coast Maoris—or of the Maoris of the whole of New Zealand—comes to be written, that legislation will be pointed to as saving the remnant of a small people from oblivion.” In 1928 Mr. Jones was awarded the O.B.E. He died on 29 June, 1942.

In uniform, and adorned with a variety of trappings, Tuta Nihoniho made a picturesque figure. He was a son of a Ngati-Porou loyalist who was killed in the East Coast War (1865). Tuta fought at Waerenga-a-Hika and took part in expeditions to the Urewera Country in search of Te Kooti. He received from Queen Victoria a Sword of Honour, together with an enlarged photograph of Her Majesty, and was a member of the Maori contingent which attended the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in 1897. During the Boer War he sent a piece of greenstone to Earl Roberts to mark his personal appreciation of the field-marshal's great services to the Empire. His offer to raise a force of 1,000 Maoris to serve in South Africa was declined.