Story: Te tango whenua – Māori land alienation

Land has been alienated from Māori in a variety of ways. Some was sold to the government or other buyers, often for very low prices; other areas were confiscated after the New Zealand wars and used for Pākehā settlement. The Native Land Court converted customary title to freehold, often leading to further losses of land.

Story by Richard Boast
Main image: Selling Lake Wairarapa to the Crown

Story summary

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Early land deals

When the first Europeans settled in New Zealand, some Māori allowed them to use land for missions, wharves, or cutting timber. Some chiefs gave land to Pākehā who had married Māori women.

The New Zealand Company made deals with Māori over land for its planned settlements.

After British sovereignty was proclaimed in 1840, the government looked into deals to decide whether they were valid.

Sales to the government

From 1840 to 1865, Māori could sell land only to the government. Chiefs were encouraged to sell their land at low prices, and the government bought about two-thirds of New Zealand – almost all of the South Island, and large areas in the North Island. It was then sold to Pākehā settlers.


After the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, the government confiscated large areas of Māori land. At first they planned to take land just from tribes that had fought against the government, but later they also took land from other tribes.

Native Land Court

The Native Land Court was set up in the 1860s to make decisions about titles to Māori land. But it created problems:

  • It was expensive for Māori. They had to pay for surveying their land, and for food and a place to stay in the town where the court was held.
  • After the title was decided, it was easy for land to be sold, and many Māori lost their land.
  • Most Māori land was owned by a number of people. Blocks with many owners were hard to administer, especially as they were passed down to children over time.

The 20th century

The government continued buying large areas from Māori up to the 1920s. Māori land was sometimes taken for public works such as airports or schools. From the 1950s, Māori who owned a share in land worth less than £25 were forced to sell it.

The Waitangi Tribunal

The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to look at breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. Also in 1975, many Māori walked from the far north to Wellington in a hīkoi, or land march, to protest about land losses.

From 1985, the Tribunal was able to look at claims dating back to 1840. Many tribes have made claims about land losses. Some have had land returned – especially important places like burial grounds and sites.

How to cite this page:

Richard Boast, 'Te tango whenua – Māori land alienation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Richard Boast, published 24 November 2008, updated 1 July 2015