Claiming the wastelands

Hamish Keith in the The Big Picture notes how art was used to present an image of an empty land. Landscape paintings and lithographs of New Zealand removed people from the scenes, as Keith says ‘no need to bother them [the prospective settlers] with illustrating it as occupied by the people whose land it almost certainly was’.

What land was held by Maori was a critical issue in early colonial New Zealand. On the Crown side, there was a battle between whether Maori customary rights applied to all land in New Zealand, or only applied to those actually occupied or cultivated by iwi and hapu at the time.

The distinction strikes to the heart of how ‘ownership’ was so differently viewed by the two cultures. The former fits better with the traditional Maori ways of viewing use rights over land – that they can be multiple and overlapping, and not necessarily constant. The latter was derived from English philosophical ideals of rights to property only arising from the result of labour and capital – the remainder that had not been worked or directly occupied was considered ‘wastelands’.

Wastelands. Those open spaces in landscape paintings just waiting to be tamed and civilised by the hard toil of industrious settlers. In the distance a pa may signal an instance of occupation, but this was contained to a very small portion of the large expanse, the rest seemingly open to claim. For a landless family in London, the thought of becoming a landowner and progressing through their own hard work was an enormous attraction, one played up to by the New Zealand Company.

But while the New Zealand Company fought hard to influence the Government to allow access to such wastelands, it was by no means a clear cut policy. In 1845 it was decided that Maori had title to practically the whole country arising from Maori customary law, but this immediately came under pressure from those who sought a wastelands theory. Not willing to go that far, a policy of pre-emptive purchase by the Crown was put in place which allowed recognition of Maori customary title, though upon purchase this ‘Native Title’ was ‘extinguished’.

This middle ground policy did not last long. By 1862-5 the Government put in place a system of indigenous land tenure through the Native Land Acts that was unprecedented internationally. This initial move to individualisation of title was slow to take hold, and so changes (some subtle and some not so subtle) were introduced to speed things up. A driving force behind many of the changes was to turn the ‘wastelands’ into economically productive units. Soon, the extinguishing of native title would be so pervasive that the pa would be surrounded by land subjected to settler capital and labour, cultivated rather than wasted.


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