Early Land Purchases Before 1840
Earliest European settlement was of a transitory nature, but in time European traders established themselves mainly at the Bay of Islands, and many bought land from the Maoris. Missionaries were also among the earliest purchasers of land as early mission stations became centres of permanent European occupation and farming. Transfers of large blocks of land were few. But when it seemed likely that the British Government, despite its reluctance, would assert the sovereignty of the Crown over New Zealand, the country's first land boom began. In 1837, for instance, Captain William Hobson, sent by Governor Bourke of New South Wales to protect the Bay of Island settlers during a Maori tribal war, reported that the increasing white population had acquired considerable possessions of land from the Maoris. Trade in land reached a peak in 1839, Sydney traders indulging in what they called “bona fide speculation” but in what officials called “land sharking and grabbing”.
The era of uncontrolled land purchase was, however, coming to an end. On 14 January 1840, while New Zealand was under shadowy jurisdiction of New South Wales, Governor Gipps issued a proclamation forbidding future land sales except to the Crown. Subsequently, land commissioners were appointed to investigate all purchases. A similar proclamation was issued by Hobson on 30 January 1840, following his arrival at the Bay of Islands as British Consul. On 6 February the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by some 50 Maori chiefs who yielded to the Crown the sole right to buy their lands – “the exclusive rights of pre-emption over such lands as the proprietors thereof may be disposed to alienate at such prices as may be agreed upon between the respective proprietors and persons appointed by Her Majesty to treat with them in that behalf”. On 9 June 1841 Hobson terminated the New South Wales Land Claims Commission and took power to appoint a similar commission. Possibly to challenge the official actions, a new land syndicate had been formed in Australia by William Charles Wentworth and John Jones, and on 15 February 1840 these two men signed an agreement with five Maori chiefs who transferred the ownership of virtually the whole of the South Island and Stewart Island for a cash payment of £100, and a 50 annuity for the principal chief and lesser amounts for the others.
The total area of all alleged purchases cannot be accurately ascertained because the Land Claims Commissioner in his report of 1862 stated that “some claims were estimated in round numbers, by millions of acres or by degrees of latitude and longitude, or by the expression ‘as far as a cannon shot will reach’”. It seemed obvious that many of these claimants were speculators who gambled on receiving a Crown title to at least some of the land they claimed.