Whenua eh?

I was disappointed to read a review of the Te Tuhi Land Wars exhibition in Auckland which carried the misunderstanding that ‘the battles over land in New Zealand today are fought through money and legislation, rather than the military battles of old.’

It is a shame to think that artists and architects out there view the loss of land by Maori as being only, or even simply primarily, due to military conflict. This probably reflects the lack of knowledge of land history in New Zealand in general, but for architects it is inexcusable given how closely related the land is to their discipline.

Loss of land directly through military battle was minimal in New Zealand. Even if we view the raupatu that occurred in the 1860s (which was backed by legislation so is not your typical loss of land through military occupation) as within the definition of land loss through military battle, this only accounts for some 3.2 million acres of land (some 15% of land then remaining in Maori customary ownership). Compare this 3.2 million acres with the 33 million that was alienated between 1840 and 1852. This massive amount (about half of the total originally in Maori hands) was not obtained through military might but through purchasing facilitated by the Crown.

This isn’t to say that Maori did not willingly sell some or a lot of this land. But many of the sale transactions were of dubious legal status given that much was purchased by individual settlers at a time when only the Crown had pre-emptive rights to extinguish the customary title, or before such issues had even been considered. This is perhaps best illustrated by the New Zealand Company who even before 1840 had purchased close to 20 million acres on either side of the Cook Strait. The legitimacy of these purchases was bought into question when the Treaty was signed, since that provided pre-emptive rights only to the Crown. Post-1840 a lot of pressure was placed on the government by the New Zealand Company as they hurriedly sought to have their earlier purchases confirmed as being legitimate as well as to open the way for further purchases without requiring the hassle of a Crown grant.

The various incarnations of the Native Land Court (now the Maori Land Court) were also instrumental in the alienation of land from Maori, resulting in Sir Hugh Kawharu famously calling the Court ‘a veritable engine of destruction for any tribe’s tenure of land’. Originally designed to establish ownership to the land, the process of doing so was often long and arduous and those that did not attend at the right time lost their rights to their land. The requirement for surveys resulted in Maori going into debt to establish title to the land, which often required selling part or all of the land to clear. Early Court sittings to hear title establishment cases were often not held in the rural areas where the land was, and since the Court rules stated that only those present would be heard, many Maori were disinherited simply because of the difficulty in attendance.

Reducing the relationship of Maori to land to one of only ‘belonging’ and expressing this through romantic design gestures denies the complicated matters surrounding the alienation of million of acres from customary tenure. Understanding the tangled history of the alienation of land from Maori is important for generating designs that reflect a wider view of the relationships that exist.


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