Traditional Māori society did not have a concept of absolute ownership of land. Whānau (extended families) and hapū (sub-tribes) could have different rights to the same piece of land. One group may have the right to catch birds in a clump of trees, another to fish in the water nearby, and yet another to grow crops on the surrounding land. Exclusive boundaries were rare, and rights were constantly being renegotiated.
Early settlers such as missionaries, whalers and traders were hungry for land. Often a Māori chief would allow Europeans to settle on a piece of land in exchange for goods, but did not imagine that this meant granting them absolute ownership. Instead Māori saw it as a transfer of particular rights, while their own rights remained untouched. Māori were keen to attract Europeans for trade, and land transactions were common.
In the late 1830s some Māori realised that, to the settlers, these transactions meant absolute and sole ownership. During this period the number of ‘sales’ rapidly increased because settlers and investors feared that such purchases might no longer be available once New Zealand became a British colony. By early 1840, on the eve of the Treaty of Waitangi, Europeans claimed to own more than 66 million acres (27 million hectares) – more than the total area of the country.
Under the second article of the Treaty of Waitangi, Māori were guaranteed ‘the full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates’, and only the Crown could purchase land from them. The Crown set up a land commission to investigate previous land transactions. No title of ownership would be valid unless granted or confirmed as genuine or fair by the Crown.
Land Claims Commissioners Edward Godfrey and Matthew Richmond looked into 1,100 claims in the north of the country, covering 2.2 million acres (890,000 hectares). Their report of 1862 deemed that 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) had been genuinely sold, and about half of this was granted to settlers.
Further south, the New Zealand Company claimed that in late 1839 it had purchased about 20 million acres (8 million hectares) in Wellington, Nelson and New Plymouth from Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Toa, Rangitāne and other tribes. Land commissioner William Spain investigated these claims and found that Māori had never thought the sales meant giving up their continued use of the lands. He also discovered conflicting rights among the Māori claimants. The commission ordered that Māori give up their claims in return for more payments.
The naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach observed that Māori and settlers had different ideas about what land ownership meant. Witnessing the 1839 purchases around Cook Strait he wrote, ‘the natives had no further idea of the nature of the transaction than that they gave the purchaser permission to make use of a certain district’. 1
Before 1844 the Crown held pre-emption rights to the land, meaning that if a landowner wished to sell, they would first have to offer it to the Crown. Crown pre-emption was lifted from 1844 to 1846, and Māori could sell land direct to settlers. This included a major purchase of Ōtākou (Otago) by the New Zealand Company and significant sales in Auckland.
When Governor George Grey restored Crown pre-emption, he investigated these purchases. In the resulting case the Supreme Court ruled that the Crown had legal title to all land in New Zealand. Customary use was not enough to establish ownership; instead, Māori would need a Crown title.
The court also viewed all land not cultivated by Māori as ‘waste land’ that belonged to the Crown. Grey did not enforce this ruling, but it influenced attitudes. He encouraged mass purchase of Māori land, and Māori were advised to gain Crown title.
As Māori came to realise the absolute nature of land ownership in European eyes, they began to question past sales. In particular, they challenged sales by individual chiefs of land that was traditionally used by groups.
By 1862 most of the South Island, and about one-quarter of the North Island – including large areas of the Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland – had been purchased by the Crown. Another 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares) were confiscated in the New Zealand wars of the 1860s.
The 1862 and 1865 Native Lands Acts recognised that Māori had rights to uncultivated land, but only if these were specified in a certificate of title. Native land courts were set up to decide which individuals or communities should be recognised as owners and given certificates, bringing Māori landholding into absolute ownership. Once given title, many Māori then sold their land to Pākehā. By 1939 only about 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares) of land remained in Māori title.
For Pākehā, as for Māori, land ownership was the most important political issue in New Zealand during the 19th century. This was only partly because of its economic importance – owning land had immense cultural and ideological importance to settlers and their descendants, as it did to Māori.
Before emigrating, many settlers from Great Britain and Ireland had held very small plots of land or been landless labourers. They had seen how people had suffered when deprived of land during clearances, when tenant farmers were evicted, and when public commons were enclosed. They were very aware that ownership brought independence and power. The desire to be a freeholding farmer was a powerful theme of settlement and land policy.
Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s theory of colonisation proposed that an idealised English rural society could be created in New Zealand. He argued that land could be purchased cheaply from Māori and sold to wealthy emigrants, who would bring with them additional funds for investment. The price of land would be set at a level that allowed labourers to aspire to ownership on a modest scale. There would be a concentrated society of small, independent landowners.
However, his theory faltered on economic reality. Although Wakefield believed colonial settlement should be based on agricultural production, wool was the only product that could be profitably grown on the grasslands of the east coast, especially in the South Island. Wool could be easily stored and transported, and there was growing demand from British manufacturers. The production of food for the local and Australian markets, on smaller holdings, took second place.
Because sheep farmers wanted to invest most of their capital in stock, they preferred to lease land cheaply rather than buy it. Settlement became scattered, and runs were large. Even so, there was a widely held view that freehold family farming would and should eventually replace extensive pastoral tenures.
Wakefield’s plan was devised without any direct knowledge of New Zealand. Consequently, his New Zealand Company settlements in Nelson, Wellington, Whanganui and New Plymouth met with severe difficulties. They faced obstacles establishing rights to land acquired from Māori, and the terrain was largely unfit for the concentrated farming settlements that Wakefield had planned.
These problems had consequences for land ownership. Company settlers in Wellington had been promised one town section and 100 acres (40 hectares) of rural land for each £100 lot; those in Nelson one town acre (0.4 hectares), 50 acres (20 hectares) of suburban land, and 150 acres (60 hectares) of rural land for £300. But it was years before settlers got their sections, which were often far from town. The delays slowed investment and employment, so labourers, particularly in Nelson, squatted on vacant sections.
Wakefield developed his ideas on colonisation and wrote his first essay on the subject while in prison for abducting a young woman. He had no personal experience of life in the colonies and no real knowledge of the landscape of New Zealand. It is little wonder that the contradictions between his theories and the realities of colonisation led to problems in the settlements based on his ideas.
William Hobson established his capital in Auckland in 1841, and as a result there was considerable investment in land in the region. The Ngāti Whātua tribe sold the land near Auckland township, but in the 1850s Māori still owned much of the rest of the province. Therefore, European settlement was concentrated close to the town and Auckland remained a small farming region. Māori reluctance to sell accomplished in Auckland what Wakefield’s ideology had failed to achieve further south.
The provincial councils, set up in 1853, had the right to control land policy and, more importantly, to spend revenue from land sales. Regulations varied from province to province, according to regional geography and the political economy that existed in each provincial council. There were three general principles:
However, it was not long before this last provision allowed leaseholders to strategically buy fractions of their runs in order to control the rest of the land.
Spotting involved buying key sections on a run, such as land at the entrances to valleys and gorges, or strips along waterways. In this way, for a low cost, runholders could control large areas. To gridiron, a runholder bought 20-acre (8-hectare) sections along roadsides or waterways, leaving 19-acre (7.5-hectare) strips between them. Sections less than 20 acres had to be sold by auction so, because only someone with limited funds would want such a small block, the runholder could outbid any challengers.
Although provinces sold land in varying ways, most tried to make land available to settlers who had little money but were willing to work hard. Settlers were usually required to live on the land and improve it.
From 1858, Auckland province encouraged immigration by granting newcomers 40 acres (16 hectares) for those aged 18 or over, and 20 acres (8 hectares) for each child. The province made over 4,000 grants to military settlers, usually retired soldiers and their families, who could protect the civilian population. There were similar grants in Taranaki. From 1870, Auckland allowed settlers to select 50–75 acres (20–30 hectares) for each person aged 18 or over and receive the land without payment if they built a house and worked the land for five years. Westland also adopted this homestead system.
Wellington province granted smallholders areas of 40–200 acres (16–80 hectares) on deferred payment, on the condition they improved the land (a system also used in Hawke’s Bay). There were provisions for settlements such as the Hutt Small-Farms Association, the Foxton Special Settlement and the settlement of Scandinavians in northern Wairarapa. However, Wellington also gave sheep and dairy farmers the right to buy land in blocks of at least one square mile at the low price of 7s. 6d. per acre. A small network of merchants and farmers connected to the provincial government quickly came to control very large areas, especially in the Wairarapa.
Canterbury’s provincial government, which leased out land for as little as 12s. 6d. per 100 acres (40 hectares) to sheep farmers, was not so generous in its freeholding policy. The minimum price for rural land was £2 per acre. In Otago the standard price of rural land was initially 10 shillings an acre. This rose to a minimum of £1 in 1860, but buyers also had to make improvements worth £2 to secure the title. Small farming became established close to Christchurch and Dunedin. As in Wellington, large sheep farmers subdivided their runs when it was profitable, and some runs close to towns were broken up in the mid-1860s.
In much of the North Island, especially bush areas, there were many small landholdings, but on the east of the South Island and in the Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay, where pastoral farming dominated, there were some large landowners who held thousands of acres, usually in leasehold, but in exceptional cases freehold. By 1862 one man, the runholder William ‘Ready-Money’ Robinson, owned 84,000 acres (34,000 hectares) of the Cheviot Hills estate in North Canterbury.
In 1870 the central government took major responsibility for public works and immigration. It wanted to build roads and railways through the North Island bush districts, and bought large areas from Māori for small-scale settler farming. In the North Island, private settler landholdings increased by 3.24 million acres (1.31 million hectares) between 1874 and 1886. To get farmers with little money onto land, the state increasingly leased property to settlers. In the South Island, profits, and the possibility of land values increasing because of railway development, prompted many pastoralists to purchase freehold large areas.
Provincial administrations were abolished in 1876. The Land Act 1877 updated provincial land legislation and created 10 districts, each with a Land Board, headed by a district commissioner of Crown lands and other members appointed by the minister of lands. Pastoral leases were for a term of 10 years, and deferred-payment schemes were offered to encourage family farms. For agricultural land, the maximum block was 320 acres (130 hectares), the deposit was one-tenth of the price, and the money could be repaid over 10 years so long as the leaseholder lived on the land and made improvements. Those who already owned 640 acres (260 hectares) or more could not apply, neither could married women. Leases for blocks of up to 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) could be repaid over 15 years. By 1892 over 1 million acres (404,000 hectares) had been taken up under these schemes by 7,687 settlers.
Under the Land Act 1882, pastoral leases were extended from 10 to 21 years and the so-called perpetual lease was introduced. Under this scheme land was offered at a maximum rent of 5% of the value per annum. Once again, residence on the land and improvements were required. Under these terms 4,525 settlers took up 1.3 million acres (530,000 hectares) by 1892.
How long was a perpetual lease? Under the original act of 1882 the term was 30 years, with the right of renewal for a further 20. In an age when life expectancy for males was about 50 years, this must have seemed like perpetuity.
John Ballance, who was later New Zealand’s first Liberal premier, passed another Land Act in 1885. It created a class of small grazing runs of up to 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) for smaller sheep farmers. Rent was only 2.5% of the value and, since the land was often rough bush country worth only about five shillings an acre, farmers were charged extremely low rents so they could put their money into stock and improvements.
The act also allowed settler associations to establish special settlements of smaller farms on deferred payment or perpetual lease. By the mid-1890s, some 76 associations with over 2,500 members had taken up almost 500,000 acres (202,342 hectares). Another type of village settlement was established with similar conditions, which allowed people to take up 1-acre (0.4-hectare) sections, and was designed to appeal to unemployed people in towns.
While some sharp inequalities of land ownership remained, access to some land was very widely distributed by the 1880s. In 1882 more than 71,000 individuals were listed as freeholders – about half the adult male settler population. About 47% of freeholders owned land worth less than £250. Despite a large increase of adult males between 1882 and 1902, the rate of land ownership remained constant at about 50%. When Crown leaseholds are added to the total, approximately 60% of adult Pākehā men had access to land over those two decades. Even small areas provided opportunities – smallholdings allowed wage-earning families to grow enough food to feed themselves and profit from the sale of any surplus produce.
Land ownership remained controversial throughout the 1880s. The boom in land prices in the 1870s had collapsed by 1878, the price of wool declined, and New Zealand had slipped into economic depression. Banks and finance companies foreclosed on mortgagees who could not pay their interest. Between 1870 and 1895 the area of land in private or company ownership increased fifteen fold, whereas the number of owners only increased four fold. In 1891 more than 60% of freehold land was held by fewer than 600 individuals or companies.
In colonial New Zealand, some individuals, families and companies controlled huge tracts of land. Robert Campbell held eight stations in Canterbury, Otago and Southland – with a total of almost 1 million acres (404,000 hectares). The Studholme family owned or had shares in eight properties in the South Island covering 361,000 acres (146,000 hectares), and in the North Island they owned 547,000 acres (221,000 hectares) across five stations.
This concentration of land frustrated many would-be landowners. Freehold estates had been combined, especially in Canterbury; and the difficult economic times of the 1880s sharpened issues around land. A generation of New Zealand-born settlers wanted land, partly due to new opportunities for exporting meat and dairy products following the advent of refrigerated shipping in 1882.
From 1889 the newly formed Liberal Party reasserted the ideal that all aspiring to be farmers were entitled to land. The most influential figure in the Liberals’ land policy was John McKenzie, whose outlook had been shaped by his experiences and observations in his native Scotland.
The 1890 election was a victory for the Liberals, who were supported by urban wage-earners, people living in provincial towns and, above all, small farmers (or those who aspired to be). John McKenzie became minister of lands, and promoted farming for export rather than to supplement wage-earners’ incomes. Liberal land policy was to buy freehold estates for subdivision, mostly in the South Island, and purchase extensive tracts of Māori land in the North Island.
The government increased land taxes on large estates to encourage owners to subdivide. In 1894 Parliament passed the Land for Settlements Act, giving the government powers to acquire land when offered it by its owner, or compulsorily. However, compulsory acquisition was rare. Many landowners subdivided and sold land on the private market, especially after a growth in the prices for meat and dairy products after 1895 made farming for export more profitable. Others chose to sell to the government because it saved time and uncertainty. Most vendors kept part of their estate for themselves.
Between 1891 and 1912 the Liberal government purchased 223 estates – a total of nearly 1.3 million acres (520,000 hectares) – at a cost of £5.95 million. Their land policy had its greatest impact in Canterbury (307,984 acres), Auckland (279,405 acres), Otago (204,087 acres) and Hawke’s Bay (193,558 acres). Applicants for land had to prove they had capital and experience.
The number of small farms (less than 320 acres) and large farms (over 1,000 acres) became fewer, while medium-sized farms (320–1,000 acres) increased considerably. One exception was leasehold sheep runs, which increased in average size from 9,219 to 15,889 acres because extensive pastoralism was more practical in areas where the climate could not sustain intensive farming.
A justification for the transfer of millions of acres of Māori land to settlers was that Māori did not use their land for productive purposes and therefore it was wasted. In a speech in Parliament John McKenzie argued that Māori ‘should endeavour to … derive the same benefit from [land] as Europeans. When Europeans got land it was immediately turned to good account. The Europeans cultivated it, improved it, and endeavoured to make something out of it to keep themselves and their families.’ 1
The government, as sole purchaser of Māori land, bought large areas for a small price. McKenzie oversaw the purchase of 2.3 million acres (931,000 hectares) from North Island Māori at an average price of four shillings an acre. Previously, the Liberals had spent 10 times this much for half the area under the Land for Settlements Act (although this land was better developed). These purchases reflect the view of European settlers that Māori were unable to effectively farm their lands collectively, and that leasing from Māori was undesirable.
As in the past, the state tried to limit the size of landholdings so more people could own land. Under the Land Act 1892 a prospective farmer had three choices:
A leaser or purchaser could hold no more than 640 acres (259 hectares) of first-class land or 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of second-class land.
In these ways McKenzie's land policy aimed to uphold the ideal of the small, independent farmer.
The conservative Reform Party, led by William ‘Farmer Bill’ Massey, defeated the Liberals in 1912. They promised to offer Crown tenants the option to purchase freehold wherever possible. Tenants with a lease in perpetuity could pay a calculated amount to become freeholders. Other tenants were allowed to purchase at value, although there were limits on the area that pastoral tenants could buy. One scholar has described these as ‘extremely generous terms, terms that squandered the state’s future interest.’ 1
The Reform Party kept the Land for Settlements Act 1894. Between 1911 and 1935 the Crown bought more land under this act than they had before 1911, most of which was in Auckland (511,757 acres), Canterbury (451,534), Otago (335,458) and Hawke’s Bay (264,979).
Under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act 1915 and further legislation in 1917, over 10,000 veterans of the First World War were assisted onto land. Some 3,000 of these were settled on Crown land, some of it marginal and remote in the central North Island, but also including holdings in Auckland and Northland. Over 5,000 veterans took up government loans to buy and develop properties, and others took up leases of Crown land under various forms of tenure. In all, over 4 millions acres (1.6 million hectares) was made available to ex-soldiers. Despite its dismal reputation, soldier settlement was not a catastrophic failure, except in the more remote areas, and even then it would have been more successful if the 1920s and 1930s had not been such bad years for agricultural exports.
Mangapūrua, up the Whanganui River, was one of the settlements opened up for soldiers returning from the First World War. The land was infertile, steep and prone to erosion because the bush had been cleared. A slow migration of soldier settlers out of the district began after the 1921 crash in agricultural prices, with the last settlers leaving in 1942. A bridge – known as ‘the bridge to nowhere’ – over the Mangapūrua Gorge is one of the few traces of the former settlement.
By 1935 land ownership had stabilised and would remain largely unchanged for the next half-century. 32.5% of the land area of New Zealand was freehold, 26.7% was under Crown lease or licence, 23.4% was in public reserves, and the rest was either Māori land (6.8%), Crown land available for disposal (2.8%), or unfit for settlement (7.8%). In Northland and Auckland three-quarters of the occupied land was freehold and one-quarter leasehold. In the South Island, one-fifth of the occupied land in Otago, and two-fifths in Canterbury, was freehold. Pastoral farming, still a major agricultural activity, relied on Crown leasehold land.
The most significant development in land settlement in the mid-1940s was the purchase of land for soldiers returned from the Second World War. By 1953 the government had bought just over 1 million acres (405,000 hectares), which was their last major attempt to provide land for farming. About 60% of the land was in South Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago. One-third of all the farms purchased to resettle returned servicemen were in the South Auckland district and the rougher hill country of the Waikato and King Country.
In the 1950s and 1960s prices for New Zealand’s agricultural exports remained high, and scientific and technological improvements increased productivity. Rural land prices doubled between 1953 and 1972.
As farming became more specialised and part-time farmers dropped away, very small farms were combined into larger landholdings. In country districts the family farm, rather than the huge estate or the smallholding, became the norm. Between 1946 and 1957:
From 1967 sustained inflation, especially in urban land prices, affected farmers producing the traditional staples of wool, meat and dairy products. The farming sector responded to the economic challenge by diversifying into deer, goats, forestry and horticulture. Smaller holdings became more numerous. Between 1972 and 1992 the number of holdings below 40 hectares increased from 15,302 to 35,701, while other categories hardly changed.
Partnerships became increasingly common in farm ownership. In 1975, 64% of farms were the property of individuals and 22.9% were owned by partnerships; in 1990, 47% were individual holdings and 42% partnerships. Higher land values forced some purchasers to pool their resources, but this increase was also because women – previously classed as ‘married’ or ‘farmers’ wives’ – became acknowledged as equal partners in the farming business.
In the 1990s there was a sharp decline in the number of farms – from 83,000 in 1989 to 70,000 in 2002. Partly this was because a number of farms amalgamated as economic pressures made larger farms more cost-effective. The number of very small farms declined the least, as high-value crops (such as grapes, which give a high return for relatively little land) became more important and lifestyle blocks grew in popularity. However, the distinction is unclear between small farms, which were full-time operations and provided a living, and lifestyle blocks, owned by people earning a living in urban occupations.
Traditionally, lifestyle blocks were about 10 acres (4 hectares), and were often owned by people looking for a perhaps idealised quality of rural life. In 2003/4 there were 139,868 lifestyle blocks averaging 5.5 hectares, although many were well under a hectare. The number of lifestyle blocks increased significantly, especially in the vicinity of Whangārei, Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton and Christchurch. An estimated 6,800 new lifestyle blocks covering over 37,000 hectares were created each year.
Following Treaty of Waitangi settlements, some tribes became major landowners again, either by the direct return of Crown land or, more commonly, because Māori had first right of refusal of surplus Crown land. Ngāi Tahu became the largest landowner in the South Island after the Crown.
In the 1990s, foreign ownership of New Zealand land became an issue of public discussion. Overseas ownership was controlled by the Overseas Investment Act 1973, under which overseas companies and non-residents who were not New Zealand citizens had to be approved by the Overseas Investment Commission to buy land over a specified area or value (originally $10 million, increased in 1999 to $50 million), or which was sensitive or had heritage value. The commission assessed applications on their economic merit – such as the potential for new investment, technology or export markets – and on the background of the buyer. Land had to have been offered on the open market first. A new act in 2005 raised the threshold to $100 million, expanded the definition of sensitive land to include all non-urban land, and placed the Overseas Investment Office, as it was now named, within Land Information New Zealand.
The two names of Te Kurī-a-Pāoa or Young Nick's Head tell the story of two voyaging peoples. Pāoa, the captain of the Horouta canoe, named the headland after his dog, while James Cook named it after Nicholas Young, the Endeavour’s surgeon's boy, who first sighted New Zealand in 1769. When the land was to be sold to a New York financier in 2002, there was a howl of protest and parts were gifted into public ownership.
Controversy about foreign ownership was focused on the South Island high country and coastal areas. There were debates over the merit of foreign ownership itself, and the prospect of restricted public access. Growing overseas interest in New Zealand’s hunting and fishing made it very profitable to enclose land for luxury tourist developments.
Outdoor recreation lobby groups became concerned that New Zealanders would be denied access to land in favour of high-paying tourists. The government considered proposals for a public right to cross farmland in certain circumstances, but these were intensely opposed by farming organisations. Farmers maintained that permission for reasonable access was usually willingly given, but landowners must continue to have discretion.
A process to review land tenure in the South Island high country was set up under the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998. It allowed pastoral runholders to surrender more fragile leasehold land to the Crown for conservation and recreation, in return for financial compensation and the freehold of other areas in their leasehold. It aimed to protect land of ‘significant inherent value’, while land more suited to farming went to the leaseholder as freehold land. By June 2017, 126 pastoral leases had been through the tenure review process, while 131 leaseholders had opted not to take part.
While runholders maintained that it was fair for them to receive compensation because they were surrendering large areas of grazing land, critics argued that the payouts were too high and were concerned that the freeholded land might be utilised in ways that compromised the treasured landscape.
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Brooking, Tom. Lands for the people? The Highland clearances and the colonisation of New Zealand: a biography of John McKenzie. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1996.
Fairburn, Miles. The ideal society and its enemies: the foundations of modern New Zealand society, 1850–1900. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989.
Gardner, W. J. A pastoral kingdom divided: Cheviot 1889–94. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1992.
Grey, Alan H. Aotearoa and New Zealand: a historical geography. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1994.
Jourdain, W. R. Land legislation and settlement in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printer, 1925.
McAloon, Jim. No idle rich: The wealthy in Canterbury and Otago, 1840–1914. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2002.