For most of the period from 1840 to 1865 land acquisition from Māori operated under the doctrine of Crown pre-emption – only the Crown could extinguish Māori customary title to their lands. Private individuals could not buy land directly from Māori. This was standard practice in all British colonies, and in New Zealand was set out in Article Two of te Tiriti o Waitangi and in section two of the Land Claims Ordinance 1841.
Some historians have noted that the pre-emption rule allowed the government to buy land cheaply from Māori and then on-sell it to settlers at a higher price, with the profits supporting the costs of immigration by British settlers. But probably pre-emption was introduced simply because it was standard practice. It was also intended, at least in part, to protect Māori from private European purchasers.
Purchase under pre-emption
In this period about two-thirds of the entire land area of New Zealand was ‘bought’ from Māori, using deeds of sale. Māori would sign a deed (essentially a formal sale contract), usually written in both English and Māori. This would record that a certain area had been purchased by the Crown in exchange for a cash payment and the right to retain certain reserves or access to resources such as fish. Some of these deeds related to huge areas, sometimes thousands of square kilometres, while others were for small blocks of just a few hectares.
Using this method the government acquired virtually the whole South Island and substantial areas in the North Island, especially close to Auckland and Wellington. The land was then transferred to the various provincial governments, for sale and grant to private settlers. Ngāi Tahu of the South Island lost their very large landed estate to the Crown by a sequence of deeds between 1844 and 1864. Other important deed purchases were in the northern South Island, Porirua, parts of Hawke’s Bay, the Rangitīkei region, Auckland and Northland.
Implications of selling land
Crown policy on these purchases was set by the colonial governors, especially George Grey and Thomas Gore Browne. The head of the Native Land Purchase Office, Donald McLean, persuaded many chiefs to sell land to the government at low prices by arguing that Māori would gain economic advantage from British settlement.
Whether Māori fully understood the implications of selling land to the Crown is unclear. In areas such as Hawke’s Bay where Māori were unfamiliar with buying and selling land there was very little understanding. The situation may have been different in areas such as Auckland, where Māori were more accustomed to interaction with Pākehā.
Māori who sold land to the government usually did so on the basis that they would retain certain areas where the people could continue to live. The deeds were not always clear as to the size and location of these reserves, and many turned out to be very small, inaccessible, and insufficient to support local Māori. This was particularly the case with the Ngāi Tahu deeds, where the government’s failure to set aside adequate reserves created a long-standing grievance which was not resolved until the Ngāi Tahu claim settlement in 1998.