The Land and its Peoples

January 23, 2021
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IT’S something of a cliché, locally,that Christchurch is ‘English’ and Dunedin ‘Scottish’. Indeed, for a long time,the different national origins of early settler communities, including asignificant number of Chinese gold miners, entirely overshadowed the fact thatMāori also inhabited the South Island for some 3000 years and were the firstColonisers. In fact, they travelled to and around the Pacific.

Māori culture was seen as something associated with theNorth Island and the boiling mud pools of Rotorua, not the South Island: where,indeed, colonial poets wrote about an empty land, untouched by humans untilthey came along.

It was true that the frost-sensitive crops the Māori broughtdown from the tropics could only be grown in the North Island and the Prow ofthe South Island by and large; and, indeed, only with a certain amount ofencouragement as well.

But even the chillier parts of the South Island of athousand years ago were capable of supporting a large population ofhunter-gatherers. For in the days when the island really was untouched by humanhand it was full of plump, easily-caught flightless birds, of which theemu-like moa are simply the best known. On top of that, there was also anabundance of seals, penguins, ocean fish and fresh-water eels. A number ofnative plants could be eaten as well.

Regrettably, this abundance did not endure. The moa and someother flightless species became extinct or, as with the takahē, nearly so.Fires were lit to flush out the game or prepare the ground for whatever cropsmight grow. Australian aborigines have long used the same method. But the earlyMāori, who came from islands where it rained continually, seem to have beenless aware of the dangers of lighting fires in the driest time of the year.

The Great Fires of Tamātea, as Maori lore records them,resulted in the permanent deforestation of many of the drier parts of the SouthIsland.

(Later British colonists, from damp and clouded islesthemselves, would perpetrate the same mistake in both islands. Striving toclear small areas of ‘bush’ they would inadvertently set fire to large,valuable forests.)

The Rise of the Waitaha Culture

In the meantime, as the SouthIslanders were accidentally denuding the land and running out of game, the moresettled and agricultural Māori of the North were becoming more numerous. Beforelong, the centre of gravity of Māori population passed, overwhelmingly to theNorth.

There are seven thousand recorded pā, or Māori village,sites in the North Island, but only 300 pā in the South Island: which abounds,on the other hand, with campsites that Māori would visit seasonally, or whentravelling to and from the places where greenstone was extracted.

But to say that the centre of gravity passed to the North isnot to say that South Island Māori faded away completely. Instead, adistinctive culture known as that of the Waitaha people came into being, one ofits products being a form of art that looks quite different to the ‘classic’Maori art of the North Island. Here’s an example from one of the caves nearTimaru, where most of the surviving Waitaha rock art is to be found.


The Waitaha were also responsible for much lore about theSouth Island. The great lakes of the interior were, supposedly, dug out by theancestor Rākaihautū, captain of one of the voyaging-canoes by which the Māoriarrived from tropical Polynesia, with his magical kō or digging-stick, andfilled with food for the future. The great fires of Tamātea are a morehistorical account. The Canterbury Plains were known as ‘the seed-bed ofWaitaha’ before they became the Canterbury Plains. Aoraki, the Maori name forMount Cook, does not mean piercer of the clouds as literal translator mightthink, but refers to another ancestral hero, Aorangi, who once stood on thehighest point of the keel of an overturned canoe. For the South Island is notonly known traditionally as the waters of greenstone, or the canoe of Maui, butalso as Te-Waka-o-Aoraki, the canoe of Aoraki (i.e., Aorangi).

The Second Wave of Māori Colonisation

In the 1700s, by the Western calendar, aniwi or tribe that was to become the dominant one in the South Island, Ngai Tahu,began to immigrate from their original North Island home. This was probably aresponse to overpopulation in the North and the by-now relatively empty andbeckoning nature of the South. Ngai Tahu tradition holds that their people’scolonisation of the South Island was not so much a matter of conquest as ofintermarriage and adoption of Waitaha ways.

Ngai Tahu did fight a rival North Island iwi, Ngati Mamoe,that was busy doing the same thing. Rangitāne, an Iwi from the district thatwould later come to be known as Wellington, moved into the Prow. Ngai Tahu alsofragmented, splitting off the Poutini Ngai Tahu in Westland.

The best-known peculiarity of the South Island dialects isthat ‘ng’ often becomes ‘k’. So Ngāi Tahu are just as often called Kai Tahu andtheir rivals Kāti Mamoe.

A hard ‘g’ also crops up in place of ‘k’ in a number ofSouth Island place names and plant names, like Otago (Ōtākou) and matagouri, afierce thornbush known elsewhere as tūmatakuru or matakoura or, lessflatteringly, wild Irishman, though that name is neither Māori nor official. Hereand there the ‘r’ in Māori words is also replaced with ‘l’, whence the ratherHawai‘ian-sounding name of Lake Waihola for example.

The Musket Invasions

In the early nineteenth century, theSouth Island tribes were decimated, or worse—for decimation literally means thekilling of one in ten—in a series of raids carried out by North Island Māorifrom 1828 onwards. These new invaders from the North Island were armed withmuskets, which one of their chiefs had even sailed all the way to England topurchase and bring back. The South Island Māori hardly knew of such things, andso it was a one-sided affair.

The North Island Māori eventually departed, leaving theSouth Islanders in a weakened position.

From Purchase to Pauperdom

Only a decade or so later, at thebeginning of the 1840s, British government purchase agents arrived, and soonacquired almost the whole of the South Island very cheaply from locals who wereby now in no position to resist anyone.

Ostensibly, reserves that were still quite large were to beleft by the British for the indigenous inhabitants. These reserves were knownas ‘tenths’, because the idea was that the British would only take nine acresout of every ten they’d formally purchased, and leave a tenth behind for theoriginal inhabitant. The exact boundaries of the tenths would be decided afterthe purchase, because the island hadn’t yet been surveyed by modern methods.

This wasn’t an unreasonable proposal in the abstract, as thepermanent habitations of the South Island Māori only amounted to a tinyfraction of the island’s area in any case: mostly on the coasts, up rivers andbeside lakes.

Basically, the South Island Māori thought they were sellingoff the more barren parts and mountainous parts of the island to people whowanted to run sheep, a win-win outcome if in fact that had been the case.

Nor did they realise that future owners would probably tryto ban their occasional foraging and greenstone-prospecting expeditions intothe wilderness: a totally unreasonable thing to do by Māori standards. TheMāori concept of land sale was closer to what the British would have termed apastoral lease, had everyone understood things perfectly.

The amount of money that they received for selling the SouthIsland, or nearly all of it, was, furthermore, not something that they wouldhave viewed as full and final settlement, but rather a sort of peppercorn sumthat was merely intended to cement a fruitful economic partnership with theEuropeans.

What happened next, even before the decade of the 1840s wasout, was that a great flood of colonists started to turn up with the intentionof founding towns and cities in all the favourable spots where the Maori hadtheir pā!

Many South Island Māori were evicted from their pā, theobvious nuclei of the tenths if the bargain had been fully kept. And which theywould have kept if the British had indeed only been interested in farmingsheep.

They were evicted, typically, by founders who decided thatthe old Māori village was a good place for a town square and had to goaccordingly.

Before long, most of the inhabitants of the burgeoning townwould have no idea that a Māori village had ever stood on the square. A squarethat perhaps now boasted a whiskery and respectable statue of the founder whohad led his people to the promised land, but nothing to indicate the formervillage.

As for the South Island Māori, they either went to live withrelatives in places the tide of colonisation had not yet reached or wereassimilated into the culture of the frontier in the same way that theirancestors had been assimilated into the ways of the Waitaha, learning Englishand forgetting what their own placenames meant.

The Rise of a Protest Movement, and its allies

In June 1877, a South Island Maorileader named Hipa Te Maihāroa led 150 of his people on a hikoi, meaning protestmarch or pilgrimage, to Te Ao Mārama, an inland locality on the Waitaki Rivernow known as the town of Ōmārama. The protestors were seeking to reclaim landthat they regarded as rightfully theirs.

In August 1879 Te Maihāroa’s people were evicted by armedconstables from Ōamaru and local reinforcements and forced to walk 170kilometres down the river to the coast, where they established a new settlementjust south of the river mouth. It was the middle of winter, and perhaps theclosest incident to the episode known in America as ‘the Trail of Tears’.Indeed, the parallel is reinforced by the coincidence that Waitaki means water,or river, of tears.

And yet at the exact same time, two government commissionersnamed Thomas Henry Smith and Francis Edward [Frank] Nairn were looking into thegrievances of people like Te Maihāroa to see whether they were in factjustified.

Smith, from Auckland, was a former Native Land Court judge,who also holds the distinction of being the author of the Maori-languageversion of the New Zealand national anthem, the one that begins “E Ihowā Atua .. “

Nairn was an artist and naturalist from Nelson who hadworked as a young man, in the 1840s, with Walter Mantell, the chief governmentpurchaser of South Island land from 1848 onwards, and thus had first-handfamiliarity with the whole business. Indeed, Mantell himself came to view

Of the most significant South Island purchases, includingthe one that affected Te Maihāroa’s people, Smith and Nairn reported, in 1881,that:

“We consider that the promises made to the Nativeowners of the territory which is held to have been ceded . . . must be held toamount to a distinct pledge that the lands included therein would be so dealtwith by the pakeha [i.e., the British or the European] that the Maori wouldshare them with him, and that the consequences of the surrender would, undersuch administration, be so advantageous to the latter that, in comparison withfuture advantages, the money payment offered ought to be regarded as, andreally was, but a trifling part of the consideration.”

In other words, the South Island Māori hadn’t handed overthe control of the island they inhabited to British colonisers, for what wasindeed a peppercorn sum, with the intention of becoming paupers in their ownland!

In colonial times the South Island was often known as theMiddle Island, since it lies between the North Island and Rakiura/StewartIsland. This name was reflected in the blunt title Mantell had borne in thelate 1840s, namely, Commissioner for Extinguishing Native Titles, MiddleIsland.

Well in any case, Mantell had, over the years, come to sharethe view that the South or Middle Island Māori had effectively been tricked andhe, himself, used as a mouthpiece for empty promises of future cooperation anddevelopment aid; though he was too close to the whole business to sit on thecommission that investigated his purchases, it goes without saying.

The Smith-Nairn Commission took note of a widespreadearly-days view that Māori and Pākehā were supposed to prosper together in amodel colony: a view that had enabled the Pākehā to gain much land frominitially friendly Māori at peppercorn prices in both main islands.

Not anticipated at first would be the way that the colonistswho’d got in on the ground floor would trouser enormous increases in land valueand other windfalls as immigrants kept flocking in and as the land wassubdivided, while the Māori often got nothing out of all this progress apartfrom the possibility of various menial jobs on the land of a colonialaristocracy. Even the younger generation of colonists were starting to feellocked out of prosperity by the great ascendancy of those who’d got landcheaply off the Māori in the old days.

A Wellington businessman and politician of Māori descent, WiParata, had brough a court case over that very issue just a couple of yearsbefore in 1877. Parata argued that the sharing of future prosperity was impliedby the Treaty of Waitangi that had been signed between Māori chiefs and theCrown in 1840, a treaty generally regarded as New Zealand’s foundationaldocument.

The first generation of colonists who’d stepped off the boatin the 1840s couldn’t expect to monopolise the whole country against the claimsof Māori who’d handed over land cheaply and, in some cases, even for nothing onthe expectation that they would prosper from a growing population of colonists,and who had therefore effectively been cheated when they didn’t.

Parata had been rebuffed in the colonial courts, which tooka narrow view of things. All the same, Smith and Nairn took the view that theimplied contract of co-prosperity was real and foundational. And that thegovernment to which they reported had a duty of implementing the virtue knownin Māori as atawhai, which they translated as ‘kindly care’, and which may alsobe translated as hospitality, in making sure that Māori and Pākehā really didprosper together in coming decades, and to take whatever steps were necessaryto make sure that that happened in future.

Atawhai appears in one of the eight lines of Smith’s anthem:“Kia tau tō atawhai,” ‘may your atawhai ever flow’. It seems to have been avalue he regarded as important.

The 150 year wait for justice

Nothing much came of the Smith-NairnCommission’s recommendations, any more than its existence stayed the NativeMinister, John Sheehan, who was perfectly aware that the commission appointedby his own government was in session, from ordering armed police to evict TeMaihāroa and his followers in the dead of winter.

For, the more high-minded sort of settler would always be intension with those who took a finders-keepers view of land and its windfalls.Or, who held that it was time to forget about old grievances and move on. Whichis all very well if you’re the one who’s now got the legal right to erect KeepOut signs and call on the cops to enforce them, as opposed to the victims whoremember.

Here’s a signboard at Lake Pūkaki in the South Islandinterior, showing a 1920s gathering of survivors and descendants of those whocamped at Ōmārama from 1877 until 1879, with an explanatory caption.

Here are the caption on the left, and the photo on theright, respectively.

The photograph is credited to the Bill Dacker Collection atthe Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, which is well worth visiting. I mention thismuseum again in my Dunedin chapter.

Not until 1998, in the 150th anniversary year ofMantell’s most significant purchases, would there be an agreed settlement ofthe claims of the largest South Island iwi, Ngāi Tahu, and even then, I wonderif it was a matter of settling for what Ngāi Tahu could get in practice, thehorse having bolted so long ago. The amount settled for was NZ $170 million,with a relativity clause for top-ups if other iwi later gained much more perhead. The money was invested on behalf of the whole Ngāi Tahu population, about55,000 today.

According to Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of NewZealand, Ngāi Tahu have undergone a significant revival since the settlement:

“One aspect of thecultural resurgence of Ngai Tahu was the revival of the traditional marae. AtTakahanga in Kaikōura and at Bluff new buildings have been constructed. Ōnuku,near Akaroa, acquired a new carved house. In Christchurch, the sub-tribe NgāiTūahuriri have assumed the mana of an urban marae, Rēhua. At Waihao, Arowhenua,Taumutu, Kokorarata, Tuahiwi and Mangamaunu existing buildings have beenimproved or extended. The Puketeraki people of Otago have replaced theiroriginal meeting house.”

Sharing the atawhai

I’ve mentioned the youngergeneration of colonial immigrants who began to feel locked out, themselves, bythose who’d surfed the wave of rising land values since the 1840s.

Disputes between forerunner and newcomer settlers, andbattles for good jobs and affordable housing for all, would set the tone formuch of New Zealand’s politics in the twentieth century.

Some of the leading social activists of twentieth-centuryNew Zealand also came from the South Island. And indeed, even, in the personsof the three architects of New Zealand’s 1938 Social Security Act jointly knownas the ‘Three Wise Men of Kurow’, from the very Waitaki Valley itself: asthough a torch had somehow been passed down from Te Maihāroa’s day.

Arguments about the importance of making sure thatprosperity is widely shared do not only apply to historical disputes betweenPākehā and Māori. The issue is one that exists everywhere and always. In thatsense, it even continues to find an echo in 21st century debatesabout how millennials have been shut out of the housing market and forced tosubsist on insecure jobs.

Should land, living space and opportunity be seen as so manytrinkets to be defended like some Viking hoard of gold and silver against theclaims of another fraction, whoever the hoarders and have-nots may be in agiven time and place?

Or should the principle of atawhai, of hospitality andkindly concern, ever flow to all citizens of the country as an aspect ofcitizenship, in the hope that seeds of future prosperity, due to all as abirthright, will grow everywhere?

Further Resources



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