Story: Ngāi Tahu

Page 8. The Ngāi Tahu claim

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The land purchases

Within a year of the peace settlement with Ngāti Toa, Ngāi Tahu also committed themselves to the Treaty of Waitangi, with its leading chiefs signing at Akaroa, Ruapuke and Ōtākou during 1840. Ngāi Tahu believed that with the treaty would come material benefits. However, one purpose of the treaty was to facilitate the Crown’s purchase of land from Māori, to sell to settlers or commercial interests. From 1844 to 1863 Ngāi Tahu sold their lands to the Crown in a series of nine purchases. The largest of these was the Canterbury purchase of 1848, negotiated by Henry Tacy Kemp, which saw 20 million acres (about 8 million hectares) sold for £2,000. The other principal transaction was the Otago purchase of 1844: 400,000 acres (about 162,000 hectares)sold for £2,400.

Ngāi Tahu dissatisfaction

It soon became apparent to Ngāi Tahu that the Crown would not honour the transactions, as they understood them. The tribe believed larger reserves should have been surveyed, their food-gathering places set aside, and schools and hospitals located within the villages.

The first formal statement of Ngāi Tahu grievances about the land purchases was made as early as 1849 by Matiaha Tiramōrehu. In the 1870s, Hōri Kerei Taiaroa began the pursuit of the Ngāi Tahu claim in Parliament. Subsequently almost every Ngāi Tahu leader until the 1990s was active in the cause.

Canterbury Ngāi Tahu understood that the hinterland had not been sold. It was this belief which inspired the prophet Te Maihāroa in 1877 to lead a party to Te Ao Mārama (Ōmārama) in the upper Waitaki basin, asserting a claim on the summer fowling grounds. Local sheep-run holders put pressure on the government, and in 1879 Te Maihāroa was forced from the interior of the South Island down to the coast.

Pursuing the claim

Besides the ongoing petitions to Parliament and Queen Victoria, Ngāi Tahu sought redress in the Native Land Court in 1868, and before a series of royal commissions, in particular the 1879 Royal Commission headed by Francis Nairn and Thomas Smith. The interim report of this commission found that larger reserves should have been set aside. However, no action was taken and the commission’s funds were cut.

Broken promises

In 1879 a Ngāi Tahu leader, who had been at the signing of the deed of sale drawn up by Henry Tacy Kemp in 1848, had this to say to the royal commission into their land claims:

‘Kemp promised us reserves, we were to have our fisheries, our burial places, mahinga kai [food-gathering places], eel weirs, anywhere, everywhere. The promises were made 30 years ago! Where is the fulfilment of them? Our mahinga kai were places where we used to get food, the natural products of the soil … We used to get food from all over our island.’ 1

The first settlements

Other inquiries and commissions followed. All commented on the misery and poverty that Ngāi Tahu endured after the land sales of the mid-19th century. A 1920–21 commission of inquiry suggested they should be paid compensation of £354,000, but no immediate action was taken. In 1928 the first Ngāi Tahu Trust Board was set up, with a meeting the following year to help identify the beneficiaries of the proposed compensation.

It was not until 1944 that the first Labour government passed the Ngāi Tahu Claim Settlement Act. This awarded Ngāi Tahu £300,000, payable at a rate of £10,000 a year for 30 years. This was less than the recommended £354,000 of the royal commission, whose findings had always been contested by Ngāi Tahu. Nevertheless, the act was passed with the intention of making £300,000 a full and final settlement of the Ngāi Tahu claim. In 1946, legislation reconstituted the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board, which enabled the funds to be administered.

  1. Quoted in Harry C. Evison, Te Wai Pounamu, the greenstone island: a history of the southern Maori during the European colonization of New Zealand. Christchurch: Aoraki, 1993, p. 444. › Back
How to cite this page:

Te Maire Tau, 'Ngāi Tahu - The Ngāi Tahu claim', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Te Maire Tau, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2017