The Fate of the Land Ko ngā Ākinga a ngā Rangatira: Māori political struggle in the Liberal era 1891–1912 by Danny Keenan (Massey University Press, 2023), 328pp, $65
This is a timely book because it adds much to the distressing story of the concerted Māori effort to slow the alienation of their land and reveals more about this key tussle than has formally been available. Keenan builds on, critiques and extends the work of several Pākehā historians including Keith Sorrenson, Alan Ward, W.H. Oliver, Judith Binney, Graham Butterworth, Paul Moon, Richard Hill, the legal historians David Williams and Richard Boast, and the geographer J.S. Duncan, all of whom criticised Keith Sinclair for claiming that the Liberals paid a ‘fair’ price for Māori land. Ranginui Walker’s major biography of Āpirana Ngata and Joe Pere’s work on farming on the East Coast also added much useful information on the continued battle waged by Ngata on behalf of Ngāti Porou.
Keenan adds a more truly national assessment than any earlier scholar by concentrating on the largely unheralded efforts of Te Kotahitanga (‘unity’ movement), as well as the Tainui-based Kingitanga. He builds significantly on the now ageing work of American academic John Williams (1969) and Lindsay Cox (1993). Keenan’s Māori focused book fills a serious gap in our historiography. His assessment of the complex contributions of the ebullient James Carroll is also fascinating; perhaps he should undertake a full biography with appropriate scholars from Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu? Keenan makes it abundantly clear that Carroll is so important that he desperately needs a full and possibly multi-authored biography. Keenan is also the first historian to add a Taranaki perspective on the Liberals’ land buying that stretches well past the troubling story of Parihaka.
Many New Zealanders know that the great bulk of Māori land alienation occurred across the period of the New Zealand Wars, that is, in the 1860s and into the 1870s. Few are aware that most of the South Island had been purchased by the early 1850s. Even fewer know that the Liberals, between 1890 and 1912, had purchased nearly four million acres of Māori-owned land at the rock-bottom price of four shillings per acre, a transfer of wealth made worse by the fact that the remaining land from earlier sales held in reserves was both scarce and of poor quality. In contrast, the Liberals redistributed just over a million acres of land held in the great estates, the Government paying an average of around £4 per acre, or 20 times as much; a price much closer to the market value of farmland. Estate owners could also hold onto 640 acres of their home blocks and were much better compensated than their Māori peers.
Keenan must be congratulated for explaining the complexities of the Liberal’s ‘rescue’ of Māori holdings in such clear language. He also helps the reader by structuring the book in a very logical fashion and sensibly reveals how Māori ownership was systematically stripped away before 1890. Sketching in this background is important because latter-day government policy was clearly shaped by what had gone before.
The first chapter traces the shocking story of confiscation, while the second reveals how dubious purchase had been carried out in the Hawkes’ Bay. Chapter two shows that Māori land sales slumped during the so-called ‘Long Depression’ of the 1880s that disrupted the careers of many Auckland-based land developers. Keenan supports Alan Ward’s much older interpretation that, like earlier governments, the Liberals engaged in a ‘show of justice’, thereby suggesting to their colonial overlords that the farthest flung British colony was more advanced than just about anywhere else in its treatment of indigenous people.
Keenan’s careful analysis of the Liberal Government’s policy to slow Māori land alienation shows government actions were neither just nor fair. Not much happened in relation to Māori land legislation during what he calls the ‘Ballance Years’ (John Ballance died in office in 1893 and did not have much connection to Māori land matters in the early 1890s despite significant earlier involvement). In 1891, led by the East Coast land developer William Rees, the Liberals reintroduced virtually full Crown pre-emption after a Royal Commission of Inquiry met to end the supposed ‘lock up’ of Māori land sales. Native Minister Alfred Cadman, a goldminer from Thames, disagreed with Rees’s suggestion that Māori Committees should control a greater part of managing Māori land and encourage leasing rather than selling. Carroll’s minority report advocating Māori land committees and setting up an organisation rather like the latter-day Waitangi Tribunal was ignored. So, too, was third Commissioner Thomas Mackay’s suggestion that sales should only be approved by six commissioners representing the hapu of a tribe rather than a single commissioner. (Mackay was a Trustee of the North Island West Coast Settlement Reserves). Consequently, a chance to genuinely protect Māori from dubious land sales was lost.
Instead, Cadman introduced a giant Bill in 1892 that attempted to squeeze all Māori legislation into one Act. Control of Māori land sales was taken over by Pākehā dominated Land Boards. The Native Lands (Valuation of Titles) Act empowered Judges of the Native Land Court to grant new certificates of title. This change made purchase simpler and speedier. Māori land sales increased again from 8541 acres in 1891 to 177,812 acres in 1892.
As Keenan notes, John McKenzie, the Liberal ‘land reformer’, took over administration of Māori land in 1893, reintroduced full Crown pre-emption and established land boards dominated by three Pākehā members to two Māori. Sales went ahead with a bare majority but could only be stopped by a two-thirds majority. Carroll had been appointed a ‘member of the executive council representing the Native race’, but could not stop these changes any more effectively than the other Māori Members of the House of Representatives (hereafter MHR whose resistance is recorded in greater detail than ever before). Under McKenzie’s direction, sales rose again in 1893.
Changes accelerated from 1894, when, to the surprise of the press and Opposition, Premier Seddon took over as Minister of Native Affairs. Keenan shows that although Seddon brought immense energy to this role, his good intentions did not contribute much to slowing Māori land sales. Carroll, accompanied by Commissioner of Crown Lands Gerhard Mueller, two private secretaries and several journalists, accompanied Seddon on a tour through the Central North Island that included visits to the Whanganui and Kingitanga in Ngāruawāhia. They moved on to consult with Ngā Puhi in North Auckland before visiting Tuhoe in the Urewera.
Carroll translated at numerous meetings and challenged Seddon’s view that the Māori population was in decline by introducing the West Coaster to many different iwi. Seddon had to concede all had very different needs. He also had to defend the ominously titled ‘Lands Improvement and Native Lands Acquisition Act’ that had been passed in 1893 and worried every iwi he spoke to. Carroll did not, however, succeed in persuading Seddon that Māori would be able to develop their remaining land as productively as the newer settlers. Seddon and others then defeated Ngāpua’s Native Rights Bill aimed at increasing Māori autonomy by simply ignoring it.
The extent of opposition was increased by the popularity of Kotahitanga, which claimed to be supported by 34,000 Māori, although the Kingitanga refused to join forces. Kotahitanga’s leaders, especially Hone Heke Ngāpua in the north, Wi Pere from Ngāti Porou and Hēnare Tomoana of Ngāti Kahungunu, were powerful orators determined to win greater political control for all iwi. Tuhoe were even more determined to slow land sales, and in 1895 they began to resist attempts to survey their rohe to determine its value as a source of timber, gold and, potentially, tourism. Initially, Seddon responded by sending in 40 armed troops, and later 70 police, to stop the disruption of surveying. He soon realised, however, that the Urewera was a special case and sent Carroll to renegotiate. Keenan tells the complex story of the ongoing meetings with Tuhoe delegations in Wellington expertly. In 1896, Parliament passed the Urewera Native Reserves Act despite the opposition of Ngāpua. Even the late Judith Binney, who was always highly critical of government policy towards Tuhoe, conceded that the Act did increase Māori rangatiratanga, a little. Unfortunately, the failure to operate the Commission to oversee the operation of the 600,000-acre reserve limited the Act’s potential. The growing poverty in the remote region was also barely dented.
After attending Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Seddon handed over more control to Carroll. Seddon supported the new Minister in establishing Maori Land Councils in response to numerous petitions sent by Rangatira calling for ‘an independent legal mechanism for Māori to manage their lands’. The Premier attempted to put down a ‘rebellion’ against the dog tax in the Hokianga in late April 1898 by sending 120 armed constables but left it to Ngāpua to settle the conflict. Then 9775 petitions from rangatira arrived in Wellington in 1899 that tried to stop the passing of the new Land Councils Bill. Seddon also failed to have Māori allowed to serve in the Boer War because of British opposition to the use of coloured troops.
New Health Councils were established in 1900 because of fear over an outbreak of the plague in Sydney with the support of the Te Aute Students’ Association (The Young Māori Party). After consultation with Ngata, Ngāpua, Kotahitanga and the Kingitanga, Carroll gave the health initiative his full support. The young Māori doctors Maui Pōmāre and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) helped Hēnare Parata of Ngāi Tahu and Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku of Ngāti Kahungunu oversee the efforts at making pā healthier places. Even so, the Health Councils were hopelessly underfunded and Keenan confirms Raeburn Lange’s finding that the new system did not allow Māori communities enough input to operate effectively.
Carroll took over as Minister of Native Affairs in 1900 and played a more direct role in running ‘Native Affairs’, despite some interruptions from Seddon. He piloted through the Māori Land Administration Act in 1900, which set up Māori Councils to control the sale of land and encourage leasing to develop and improve Māori land for future use.
The main problem confronting Carroll, Kotahitanga and Kingitanga was North Island settlers demanding the purchase of remaining land. Seddon’s appointment of King Mahuta and Carroll to the Executive Council, while remarkable by the standards of other British colonies, achieved little. Carroll’s policies were essentially dismissed as ‘tai hoa’ (go slow), and Māori land sales began to increase again from 1905. After Seddon’s sudden death in June 1906, things got even worse. The new Prime Minister, Joseph Ward, seemed indifferent to keeping control of Māori land in Māori hands.
The only action of note before the collapse of the Liberal Government in 1912 was the operation of the Stout Ngata Commission between 1907–1909, but this inquiry simply clarified existing Māori land law and made it easier for the Liberal’s land policies to be overturned by the subsequent Reform Government, especially via its policy of ‘hustle’, or acceleration of land sales. Reform also refused to allow Māori soldiers who had served in the War to participate in the Returned Soldier’s settlement scheme.
Overall, Keenan has made a balanced critique of the enthusiastically promoted ‘reforms’ of land policy as a series of lost opportunities because government failed to preserve quality farmland for the use of Māori. Kotahitanga essentially gave up by about 1908, despite their 17-year support of reforms that potentially could have slowed land sales. Kingitanga reached similar conclusions, and a disillusioned King Mahuta left the Executive Council in 1906. Thereafter, Kingitanga supported Pōmāre rather than Hēnare Kaihau once Pōmāre won the Western Māori seat from Kaihau in 1911.
Keenan’s carefully researched and strongly argued book adds much new material about the Māori resistance to further land sales under the Liberal Government, even if he needed to say a little more about the intense pressure applied on any government by North Island farmers and would-be farmers intent on securing the remaining fertile Māori land. A stronger Māori perspective was required to understand why the Liberals said so much and achieved so little over slowing purchase of prime Māori-owned land; Keenan has succeeded in providing that perspective.
Massey University Press must also be congratulated for the fascinating and high-quality reproductions of photographs of the key players in this story, many of whom were important and determined rangatira, little known to a wider public audience.
Anybody wanting to understand ‘co-governance’ should read this important book.
TOM BROOKING is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Otago. His books include: Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (University of Otago Press, 2013) edited with Eric Pawson; Unpacking the Kists: The Scots in New Zealand (McGill-Queens University Press with Otago University Press, 2013) co-authored with Brad Patterson and Jim McAloon; and a substantial biography of Prime Minister Richard John Seddon, entitled Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own (Penguin, 2014).