Alienation of Māori land began before British sovereignty was proclaimed over New Zealand in 1840. Missionary organisations, private settlers and New South Wales land speculators all entered into various kinds of land transactions with Māori. For example, Te Rarawa chief Nōpera Pana-kareao arranged with the Church Missionary Society for 1,000 acres (405 hectares) to be set aside at Kaitāia for the mission. There were numerous similar arrangements wherever missions were located.
Commercial arrangements made land available for cutting timber or building wharves and jetties. Some Pākehā settlers, whalers and businessmen married to Māori women arranged with local chiefs to set land aside for their families. There were also many speculator transactions. New South Wales businessmen made all kinds of deals with Māori, probably in the hope of obtaining equitable (or ‘weak’) interests which could be converted into ‘strong’ legal or Crown-granted interests after British sovereignty was proclaimed.
Māori view of ‘sales’
New Zealand was still governed by Māori customary law, and Māori would have viewed transactions within the framework of their own culture and expectations. They may have seen many deals as a part of entering into reciprocal or shared relationships – not really ‘sales’ as the term is understood today. Some chiefs allowed Europeans to settle on a piece of land in exchange for goods, but did not see this as granting them absolute ownership – they saw it as a transfer of particular rights which remained subject to Māori rights to the land.
The New Zealand Company
The New Zealand Company was organising planned settlements in New Zealand. Shortly before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, representatives of the Company – William Wakefield and others – entered into transactions with Māori at Port Nicholson (Wellington Harbour), Porirua and Queen Charlotte Sound. The Company was acting on its own behalf, with no official backing.
Investigating pre-treaty purchases
After British sovereignty was proclaimed in 1840 following the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi, the government set up processes to investigate pre-treaty purchases. If they met certain requirements, pre-treaty ‘purchasers’ could get a grant from the government giving them legal title to at least some of the land they claimed to have acquired from Māori.
New Zealand Company purchases were all investigated by a special commissioner, William Spain. He accepted some of the company’s claims to have purchased land (for example at Wellington and Nelson) and disallowed others (including at Porirua and in the Wairau Valley). Where a claim was allowed, the governor then issued the New Zealand Company with a Crown grant, allowing it to complete the many transactions it had embarked on with private settlers. Both the Nelson and Wellington grants exempted Māori cultivations, villages and burial places. Māori were also entitled to the ‘tenths’ reserves, reflecting Wakefield’s earlier plans to set aside one-tenth of all the surveyed sections in New Zealand Company settlements for Māori.