The largest purchaser
Although the Native Land Court was set up to encourage Māori to sell land directly to private purchasers, the Crown remained the biggest purchaser of Māori land. From 1870 to 1928 the Crown acquired about 4 million hectares in the North Island, mainly in the King Country, the central North Island, the Urewera, and on the East Coast from East Cape to Napier.
Private purchasing is much more difficult to quantify, but may have been 1.5 to 2 million hectares in the same period. Much of the land bought by the government was then sold to European settlers, although some areas have stayed in Crown ownership.
Purchase and partition
Land was acquired by the Crown buying up shares in blocks. Once a block had been targeted for purchase, government land-purchase officers would buy as many individual interests as they could, and the block would then be partitioned by the Native Land Court into portions owned by the Crown and portions with Māori owners. Often the process was repeated several times on a single block until virtually nothing remained in the hands of the original owners.
The government wanted to buy more land in the North Island, to pursue a programme of ‘close settlement’ – smaller farms, so more people could own land. Practically all New Zealand politicians were believers in close settlement, but the Liberal government of 1891–1912 pursued this programme most assiduously. Very large areas were purchased in the 1890s.
Safeguarding the land
Some politicians wanted to safeguard at least some land in Māori ownership. Those who experimented with various reform proposals included John Ballance, William Rees, and the Māori politicians James Carroll and Apirana Ngata. In 1900 the Liberal government passed the Maori Land Administration Act. This was designed to give control of Māori land alienation to district Maori Land Boards, whose members would be elected by local Māori. The project was well-intentioned, but failed for a number of reasons.
In 1907 the Crown purchasing system was reactivated, and large areas continued to be purchased up to about 1920. The Native Lands Act 1909 introduced a very important reform, by which decisions over Māori land alienation had to be made at publicly notified meetings of owners. The government exempted itself from this requirement in 1913. During the First World War large areas of land were bought so they could be granted to returned servicemen.