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Legends of the Maori

The Rifles of Ropata

page 181

The Rifles of Ropata

ABOUT the year 1873 a block of land called the Ngarara Block, but afterwards known as the Waikanae Block, on the east coast of Wellington province, came before the Native Land Court, and was subdivided as a block of 25,000 acres, with twenty-five registered owners as tenants in common. This seems simple enough on the face of it. Twenty-five thousand acres divided by twenty-five names with equal interests would mean 1,000 acres per registered owner, but this was not so easy of adjustment as it looks on the face of it. It took six years to decide that 1,000 acres was the amount to be awarded to each claimant, and it led to Parliamentary Committees and Parliamentary debates, and Parliamentary statutes enacted, and re-hearings before it could be proved that twenty-five tenants in common whose names appeared as owners of twenty-five thousand acres were entitled to 1,000 acres each. Two of the claimants very narrowly escaped with an award of four acres each instead of one thousand acres each, and it was Ropata Wahawaha who saved the situation.

The leader of the principal owners of the Waikanae Block was the Hon. Wi Parata, M.L.C., some time a member of the Cabinet without portfolio. Now Wi was a Ngatitoa, whilst Waikanae is Ngati-Awa property, but Wi had plenty of relations by intermarriage among Ngati-Awa or T’Atiawa. These, many of them, lived at Parihaka, and these and others either transferred their interests to Wi or gave him a power of attorney. In any case, and all that is sought to be shown is, that Wi was the recognised leader of a very large party of claimants—the majority.

Time went on, and the natives had sheep on this block, and everything appeared to be peace, but suddenly the fair firmament became overclouded like a thunderclap. The news came that Wi Parata had mortgaged this land for a debt of £5,000 for legal and other expenses to a certain legal gentleman who was at one time a member of a Government in the colony. Wi told the tenants in common to clear their sheep off their lands. The trouble commenced, but it was not soon ended. A subdivision of the block was asked for, that the 25,000 acres might be apportioned, as had been intended, among the twenty-five whose names appeared in the Court books as tenants in common.

The Court sat. The owners opposed to being exploited by Wi Parata asked for an adjournment to bring witnesses from the Chatham page 182 Islands, Nelson and the Bay of Islands. The adjournment was granted. The witnesses arrived. The adjourned Court was opened and Wi Parata, duly primed with legal knowledge by the legal mortgagee, no doubt, stood up in Court and asked if it were not a fact that the Court would not take evidence of any transactions previous to the year 1840, the date of the Treaty of Waitangi. He was informed that such was the case. Then he stated that he was prepared to prove that Patuhiki, the grandfather of two of the twenty-five owners of the Waikanae or Ngarara Block, had left the district before the year 1840, and that he had given up any rights which he might have possessed to this block of land.

This came as another thunderbolt to the litigants, who at great expense had come from different parts of the colony to give evidence that Patuhiki, the grandfather, was the head chief of the district, and had large interests in the Ngarara Block, and had always remained there, and had given up no rights to the land.

Witnesses were called for the defence, and among others Bishop Hadfield’s name was mentioned as one who knew all the circumstances, and they again asked for an adjournment to bring witnesses to refute the astounding statements of Wi Parata. The Court refused the adjournment, and decided to go on with the case. Result, that the two grandchildren of the old chief Patuhiki, the greatest owner in the block, received four acres each instead of 1,000 acres a-piece. Such was British justice in Native Land Courts in the good old days.

A matter of such importance with so many valuable interests involved could not rest with such a decision. It was lifted out of the hands of the laymen in legal knowledge who were made Judges of our Native Land Courts, and was taken to the highest tribunal of the country, the Native Committee of the Legislative Council, who were gentlemen well versed in the Maori language and in Maori manners and customs. Evidence was given by Bishop Hadfield and others that one of the signatories of the Treaty of Waitangi was Patuhiki, who signed the treaty on the 25th of May, 1840, the grandfather of the claimants cut off with four acres each, and that he sold to the Government in the Ngarara district land for a school site, and had not forfeited nor given up his rights in the Ngarara Block.

But Wi Parata was still at work, and the House was urged to move the Native Committee in the Legislative Assembly to put on matters more expeditiously, the evidence coming forward was damaging to Parata and his party behind him. To push on matters and to give a majority vote two page 183 South Island men, utterly ignorant of the Maoris, were added to the committee, and an adverse vote was recorded. At this time (1877–1888) free trade in native land was being debated, and to save the situation the Hon. H. Williams, M.L.C., moved: “That the following be added as a new clause: ‘The owners of the lands known as Ngarara, Porangahau, Mangamiro and Waipiro shall not deal with them in any way before the end of the next session of the General Assembly, in order that the title of the same may be reinvestigated by the Native Land Court, if an Act should be passed providing that this should be done.’”

Committee divided: That the clause be added to the Bill. Ayes, 7; Noes, 10. Lost by three votes.

This meant that if free trade in Native Land was given these blocks, Ngarara among them, could be sold, and old Patuhiki’s grandchildren would receive the proceeds of the sale of four acres, and thus be despoiled of 996 acres each for ever.

But just at that time old Major Ropata Wahawaha turned to his interpreter to ask what all the trouble was about. Ropata was the great fighting chief of the Ngati-Porou tribe up on the east coast. He was a New Zealand Cross man; he had fought bravely against the Hauhau rebels. He had been appointed a member of the Upper House. The situation was explained to him.

“What!” said the old warrior, “if this Bill passes, did my vote mean that Waipiro will be among the blocks that can be sold and my antagonist up there, Tuta Nihoniho, can sell my lands and I cannot stop him?” He left the Chamber in a hurry. He went home, but could not sleep. He wrote to the Premier, and stated that he could not sleep all night, and wished to see him at 9 o’clock in the morning.

It was an unusual hour to see a Premier after a late night sitting, but the head of the Government met the old man, and asked what the trouble was that caused his sleepless night.

Ropata Wahawaha said: “Have I not fought your battles in the past?”

“Yes! You have fought like a brick!”

“Now I want you to fight my battles. I want six hundred rifles and enough ammunition for them. This Bill gives Tuta Nihoniho the power to sell my land. I am going to fight for my land, and I expect you to help me. I am going to build a strong pa on that land, and the first man who comes on that land I am going to shoot.”

page 184

The old Maori Major was told to go home and go to bed and all would be well. The Premier turned to his colleague, the Native Minister, to know what was best to be done. He was informed that Ropata generally meant what he said, and was as ready to do as to say. And it was arranged under pressure of dropping the Bill altogether, that Ngarara, Porangahau, Mangamiro and Waipiro be blocks of land that could not be dealt with under the Free Trade in Native Lands Act. The result, so far as the Ngarara or Waikanae Block was concerned, was that the grandchildren of Patuhiki got a re-hearing, and an area of 1,000 acres each was awarded to them instead of four acres each, and the situation was saved. The downright old soldier prevented Tuta Nihoniho from selling his land, and thus justice was done all round because Ropata Wahawaha threatened to shoot.

* * * *

This may appear to be an isolated case, but these acts of injustice to the Maori race could be multiplied ad infinitum. Take, for instance, the case of old Tukukino, of Komata, Thames. He joined the King natives in their isolation after the war; he did not believe in the Native Land Courts, and would not attend them; he defied the Government for two years, and prevented them from taking a road through his land—a fine old determined Maori of the old stock, who should have been treated with respect as one of strong convictions. But what was the result? During his voluntary exile from the lands of his ancestors they were put through the Native Land Court and sold. And the old man died on a piece of his ancestral estate given back to him as a reserve for himself and the remnant of his people by the Government.