In the English version of the 1840 Tiriti o Waitangi, the Crown promised Māori ‘the full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries, and other properties … so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession’. As with indigenous people elsewhere, however, Māori suffered enormous land loss, great pressure upon their culture and language, and population decline.
The three main ways in which Māori tribes lost land and associated resources were:
- government purchases of Māori land at low prices, with promised land reserves either not provided or inadequate to sustain Māori communities
- confiscation (raupatu) of lands following the wars of the 1860s
- the operations of the Native Land Court, which individualised titles to collectively owned tribal lands, making it easier for them to be sold.
These and many other historical grievances, and the Crown’s acknowledgement of and compensation for them, underlie the Treaty of Waitangi claims settlement process.
The term ‘raupatu’ came from the phrase ‘te rau o te patu’ (the blade of the fighting club). It referred to the devastating losses to Māori from the confiscation of their land. For example, from late 1864, following Crown invasion of Waikato, the government confiscated 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares) of tribal land. This area covered most of the lower Waikato district, including some of the lands of neutral tribes. Ngāti Maniapoto people had fought against the government, yet largely escaped the confiscation. Their land was hard to access and not considered valuable. This confirmed tribal suspicions that the invasion had been about acquiring fertile lands close to Auckland for settlement.
By the late 19th century Māori had suffered a devastating drop in numbers and the loss of much of their land and other resources. However, they continued to assert the rangatiratanga (autonomy) promised to them in the Māori version of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and refused to be fully assimilated into a European-dominated culture and political economy. From about 1900 the Māori population began to recover from its decline and Māori political influence increased accordingly. Māori began applying legal and political pressure on the Crown to compensate them for past losses.
This pressure focused on the return of tribal land and other resources (where possible), or financial compensation. However, for almost a hundred years the Crown gave only grudging attention to Māori grievances and transferred very few resources back to tribes.