For Pākehā, as for Māori, land ownership was the most important political issue in New Zealand during the 19th century. This was only partly because of its economic importance – owning land had immense cultural and ideological importance to settlers and their descendants, as it did to Māori.
Before emigrating, many settlers from Britain and Ireland had held very small plots of land or been landless labourers. They had seen how people had suffered when deprived of land during clearances, when tenant farmers were evicted, and when public commons were enclosed. They were very aware that ownership brought independence and power. The desire to be a freeholding farmer was a powerful theme of settlement and land policy.
Colonisation – theory and reality
Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s theory of colonisation proposed that an idealised English rural society could be created in New Zealand. He argued that land could be purchased cheaply from Māori and sold to wealthy emigrants, who would bring with them additional funds for investment. The price of land would be set at a level that allowed labourers to aspire to ownership on a modest scale. There would be a concentrated society of small, independent landowners.
However, his theory faltered on economic reality. Although Wakefield believed colonial settlement should be based on agricultural production, wool was the only product that could be profitably grown on the grasslands of the east coast, especially in the South Island. Wool could be easily stored and transported, and there was growing demand from British manufacturers. The production of food for the local and Australian markets, on smaller holdings, took second place.
Because sheep farmers wanted to invest most of their capital in stock, they preferred to lease land cheaply rather than buy it. Settlement became scattered, and runs were large. Even so, there was a widely held view that freehold family farming would and should eventually replace extensive pastoral tenures.
Wakefield’s plan was devised without any direct knowledge of New Zealand. Consequently, his New Zealand Company settlements in Nelson, Wellington, Whanganui and New Plymouth met with severe difficulties. They faced obstacles establishing rights to land acquired from Māori, and the terrain was largely unfit for the concentrated farming settlements that Wakefield had planned.
These problems had consequences for land ownership. Company settlers in Wellington had been promised one town section and 100 acres (40 hectares) of rural land for each £100 lot; those in Nelson one town acre (0.4 hectares), 50 acres (20 hectares) of suburban land, and 150 acres (60 hectares) of rural land for £300. But it was years before settlers got their sections, which were often far from town. The delays slowed investment and employment, so labourers, particularly in Nelson, squatted on vacant sections.
Flights of fancy
Wakefield developed his ideas on colonisation and wrote his first essay on the subject while in prison for abducting a young woman. He had no personal experience of life in the colonies and no real knowledge of the landscape of New Zealand. It is little wonder that the contradictions between his theories and the realities of colonisation led to problems in the settlements based on his ideas.
The foundation of Auckland
William Hobson established the capital in Auckland in 1840 and as a result there was considerable investment in land in the region. The Ngāti Whātua tribe sold the land near Auckland township, but in the 1850s Māori still owned much of the rest of the province. Therefore, European settlement was concentrated close to the town and Auckland remained a small farming region. Māori reluctance to sell accomplished in Auckland what Wakefield’s ideology had failed to achieve further south.