Opposition to land sales
The first New Zealand Parliament, established in 1854, set about figuring out how to advance European settlement by acquiring tribally owned land at a low price. By 1860 the chief land purchase commissioner had completed the purchase of most of the South Island, but the North Island, with a much larger Māori population, was proving more difficult to acquire. There was a growing resistance among Māori to any further land alienation and an increasingly nationalist attitude. In the late 1850s this manifested itself in the Kīngitanga, the Māori King movement.
A last stronghold
After the New Zealand wars and the confiscation of their fertile lands in the Waikato, the Māori King Tāwhiao and his followers retreated across the Pūniu River to live among their Ngāti Maniapoto relatives. They established an aukati (boundary) along the confiscation line, forbidding Europeans to cross into what became known as ‘the King Country’. For the following 20 years this was a semi-independent region where the government was unable to enforce its laws. In the early 20th century Prime Minister Richard Seddon was eager to end the King movement’s claims to self-government in their own region. In 1903 Seddon convinced the third Māori king, Mahuta, to accept a seat on the Legislative Council. Mahuta remained on the council until 1910, but he had a limited role and was unable to progress Waikato’s compensation claim over the confiscation of its lands.
The colonial administration sought to co-opt ‘friendly’ (pro-government) chiefs by a variety of strategies. In 1860 Governor Thomas Gore Browne hosted a gathering of 200 loyalist chiefs at Kohimarama, Auckland, to denounce and isolate the King movement and endorse the government’s land dealings. When Grey returned to office in 1861, he implemented his own plan of ‘native government’ giving tribal councils, or rūnanga, a form of official recognition and limited autonomy. Together with the local resident magistrate, each rūnanga was empowered to pass by-laws within its community. By this and other means, tribal and pan-tribal expressions of Māori autonomy were countered with initiatives that granted limited rangatiratanga, but within the overall control of the government.
Native Land Court
As the settler population increased, the problem of transferring Māori land to European ownership became increasingly pressing for the government. To speed and simplify purchase, tribally owned lands needed to be converted into individually owned titles. The Native Land Court was established in 1865 with the promise that it would ‘greatly promote the peaceful settlement of the Colony and the advancement and civilisation of the Natives if their rights to land were ascertained, defined and declared and if the ownership of such lands … were assimilated as nearly as possible to the ownership of land according to English law.’1
The Native Land Court dominated the relationship between Māori and the state in the late 19th century. Some historians have suggested that the court was not an independent judicial body but an agent of government, where judges and government officials often worked closely to dismantle the Māori tradition of collective land ownership. The Native Land Court was the subject of numerous petitions to Parliament from aggrieved Māori communities.
In 1867 four Māori seats were created in Parliament under the Maori Representation Act, initially on a temporary basis. The intention was, in part, to incorporate Māori into the colonial government and end the independent political and military ambitions of Māori chiefs. By confining the Māori vote to four seats, the government also limited Māori political representation and reduced the possibility that in certain districts a concentration of Māori voters might dominate general electorates. After 1876, when the Māori seats were made permanent, the government was able to point to them as evidence of the state’s equal treatment of Māori. However, the Māori MPs were generally marginalised within Parliament, and had the unenviable task of trying to sell unpopular government policy to fellow Māori.