Buying the Land, Selling the Land by Richard Boast
Victoria University Press, $60. Reviewed by RICHARD THOMSON
Between 1890 and 1920 the New Zealand government bought 4.2 million acres of Maori land, for which it paid around £3.5 million. In Buying the Land, Selling the Land, Richard Boast’s “study of Crown Maori land policy and practice”, he estimates that if the money had been divided equally, it would have provided each Maori with just £3 per year for each of those 30 years. In fact, he says, North Island Maori might as well have given their land to the Crown, for all the difference it would have made to their economic situation.
Islands don’t come cheap any more when, like everything else, buying your own private island is something you can pursue online. If, for example, you’d had a spare $4.6 million in 2004, 120 hectares of Motiti Island could now be yours.
Motiti is just off the Bay of Plenty coast, near Te Puke. A pa site there is said to have been established by Ngatoroirangi, who was the navigator aboard Te Arawa waka and later, from the summit of Tongariro volcano, called to his sisters on Whakaari (White Island) to send the two burrowing taniwha that created the Taupo volcanic zone.
In 1769, on his first voyage to New Zealand, Captain Cook described Motiti as having the most extensive complex of fortified villages he had yet seen.
Right now, the Department of Internal Affairs is embroiled in bringing the island (population now 30, according to the latest census) under the sway of the Resource Management Act. The Environment Court commissioners who recently held hearings on a proposed district plan felt they had to point out in their report, that: “We are satisfied that Motiti is within the territorial jurisdiction of New Zealand [and we] reject those submissions which assert we have no jurisdiction.”
History, you might say, is what happened in between. But glance at the appendices to the Motiti report, and you notice long swathes of “Rejected” next to Maori submitters’ names. Submissions from such bodies as the Tauranga District Council, the Ministry for the Environment and Motiti Avocados Limited seem to received a much warmer hearing.
History has not yet ended on Motiti.
But as a mostly Maori-owned territory where rates are not charged and dogs are not registered, it is an anomaly. Buying the Land tells what happened when the government asserted territorial jurisdiction over Maori-owned New Zealand between 1865 and 1921, when islands came very cheap indeed and “the Maori people were stripped of their last great estates in the North Island for next to nothing”.
There is a section on Motiti. After seven dense pages, in which Boast shows how the Native Land Court operated in the late nineteenth century, his stamina finally flags (to be fair, he claims to be worried about his readers):
“No doubt to most readers the impression given is of a bewildering and confusing sequence of hearings and partitions and of unfathomable complex disputes between descent groups.”
This is exactly right. But it is also why everyone who has ever criticised the process of settling historical claims via the Waitangi Tribunal as lengthy and tortuous should read this book.
Few will. This is a pity, as it’s a much more readable book than the subject suggests and, at 450 pages, Buying the Land is a good deal shorter than the reports of the Waitangi Tribunal reports that cover similar ground.
Boast has been a regular participant in the Tribunal process, and appears somewhat jaded by the experience. Perhaps that’s not so surprising – the Tribunal, after all, is supposed to establish whether the actions of the Crown have breached the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. It’s a fairly narrow question, and the repetitive regularity with which the Tribunal finds that, yes, the Crown has been at fault, must be cumulatively depressing.
In reaction, he is keen to make the point that settler politicians’ motives need to be understood. Often, he says, they acted with the best of intentions, from idealism and from a belief in the benefits of strong and expansive State power.
But it’s also obvious that they made laws governing Maori land with the express purpose of getting Maori to part with as much of their land as possible. They made no real effort to consider what the effects would be on Maori, and despite spending millions of pounds on subsidising farm development by settlers, did not provide any similar encouragement for Maori to develop their land.
Boast says this was not due to racism, and writes:
“Rather than consciously planning to dispossess Maori of their remaining lands, most Liberal politicians, I suspect, tended not to think about Maori at all.”
One system for Europeans, in other words, and not much if any system for Maori. Leaving aside questions of intent, that would be “institutional” racism then, wouldn’t it?
Boast is a legal historian. He has his own predilections. Placing his book in a wider historical setting – of the Anglo-Saxon seizure of temperate North America, Australia and New Zealand – he adds a second layer of historiographical context when he praises the work of Canadian historian John C Weaver, who “has noted both the rapacity of the process and the extent to which it was mediated by law in a colonising culture in which respect for law was deeply culturally entrenched and the ideology of property was highly developed”.
Respect for the law did not prevent settler politicians from radically reshaping the law in ways that advanced their interests.
Nor, in the 1860s, did it prevent the state from using force to get its way. Boast says that confiscation has been overemphasised as a means of acquiring land: about 2.5 million acres of Maori land was confiscated in the 1860s, compared to the 10 million acres acquired by the Crown between 1870 and 1928.
Those figures show that the rate of confiscation was higher than the later rate of purchase. In addition, the confiscated land – Waikato, Taranaki, the eastern Bay of Plenty tended to be the most desirable and fertile terrain.
The development of the system of Maori land tenure began more or less at the same time that war broke out in Taranaki.
Is it really possible to discuss one without the other? And for most Maori, remote from the legal arguments in Wellington, which would have seemed more threatening?
Okay, we may not ever know for sure, but I’d think there’s a strong case that the state’s readiness to resort to war against its Maori citizens and to put their land under military occupation had a profoundly intimidatory effect.
A focus on law and policy can tend to obscure the reality, which for some Maori meant concerted efforts by government troops to destroy crops and burn kainga.
The threat of military action continued long after the wars had supposedly ended. Think of Parihaka in 1881 and Maungapohatu in 1916. And who knew that, as Boast writes, the government sent troops armed with rifles and machine guns to Rawene in 1898, after the inhabitants of Waima refused to pay the local council’s dog tax?
All the same, Buying the Land is an excellent account of the development of the system of Maori land tenure which remains more or less in place today, and the settler culture that produced the radically individualistic ideas of land ownership that still persist today throughout New Zealand.
Bemused general readers will probably have trouble finding their way in the historigraphic debates that are elliptically carried on here – I often thought when reading, come on, spit it out and tell us exactly what it is these other historians have been doing wrong. But the conclusion about the effects, if not the intent, of the government’s Maori land policies are no less stark than those of the Waitangi Tribunal.
If anything, Boast is able to be more withering in his criticism. At the end, to illustrate the effects of the policies he’s spent 400 pages accounting for, he illustrates “the raw reality of Maori poverty” anecdotally, in the words of a Hawke’s Bay school medical officer:
“One boy aged approximately 10 years had a TB bone condition of the elbow and when Mrs Oliphant began to unroll the bandage the smell was indescribable, greeny pus oozing over his shirt sleeve and his coat sleeve. Another boy a little older with a kyphosis [pathological curvature of the spine] which I am told breaks down at times, and with scarring of the conjunctiva which probably was a TB infection. He has little vision now. . . . These two boys are not attending school. The older children were drinking the blackest of tea without milk and eating bread without butter for their dinner and a little girl was feeding the baby on bread soaked in hot water. Milk is an extremely rare commodity in the pah.”
And the policies themselves? They were “unimaginative, thoughtless, mediocre, governed by untested assumptions and mean-spirited.”
The more obvious outrages, such as at Parihaka, have tended to catch our historical imagination, but Buying the Land makes it clear that it was the mundane and constant grind of land court hearings, proclamations, sales, partitions, crippling survey and transaction costs, and further sales that are by far the more important events for us to understand today.
Richard Thomson is a Wellington writer and reviewer.