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 a significant number of Chinese gold miners, entirely overshadowed the fact that Māori also inhabited the South Island for some seven or eight hundred years and were the first colonisers, having navigated their way there from the tropical Pacific.

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

It was true that the frost-sensitive crops brought down from the tropics by the ancestors of the Māori could only be grown in the North Island and in a few places in the northern half of the South Island, by and large; and, indeed, only with a certain amount of encouragement as well.

But even the chillier parts of the South Island of 700 to 800 years ago were capable of supporting a large population of hunter-gatherers. For in the days when the island really was untouched by human hand it was full of plump, easily-caught flightless birds, of which the emu-like moa are simply the best known. On top of that, there was also an abundance of seals, penguins, ocean fish and fresh-water eels. A number of native plants could be eaten as well.

Regrettably, this abundance did not endure. The moa and some other flightless species became extinct or, as with the takahē, nearly so. Fires were also lit to flush out the game or prepare the ground for whatever crops might grow. Australian aborigines have long used the same method, with care. But the early Māori, who came from islands with a different climate and mix of vegetation, seem to have been unaware of the ease with which fires could get out of control in New Zealand: the South Island, in particular.

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

(Later British colonists would perpetrate the same mistake in both main islands of New Zealand. Striving to clear small areas of ‘bush’ they would inadvertently set fire to large, valuable forests.)

The Rise of the Waitaha Culture

In the meantime, as the South Islanders were accidentally denuding the land and running out of game, the more settled and agricultural Māori of the North were becoming more numerous. Before long, the centre of gravity of Māori population passed, overwhelmingly to the North.

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 when travelling to and from the places where greenstone was extracted.

But to say that the centre of gravity passed to the North is not to say that South Island Māori faded away completely. Instead, a distinctive culture known as that of the Waitaha people came into being, one of its 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 near Timaru, where most of the surviving Waitaha rock art is to be found, in the form of a classic 1960s stamp. There have been more recent stamp series featuring Waitaha rock art, as well.

The Waitaha were also responsible for much lore about theSouth Island. The great lakes of the interior were, supposedly, dug out by the ancestor Rākaihautū, captain of one of the voyaging-canoes by which the ancestors of the Māori arrived from tropical Polynesia, with his magical kō or digging-stick, and filled with food for the future. The great fires of Tamātea are a more historical account. The Canterbury Plains were known as ‘the seed-bed of Waitaha’ before they became the Canterbury Plains. Aoraki, the Maori name for Mount Cook, does not mean piercer of the clouds as literal translator might think, but refers to another ancestral hero, Aorangi, who once stood on the highest point of the keel of an overturned canoe. For the South Island is not only known traditionally as the waters of greenstone, or the canoe of Māui, 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, an iwi or tribe that was to become the dominant one in the South Island, Ngāi Tahu,began to immigrate from their original North Island home. This was probably a response to overpopulation in the North and the by-now relatively empty and beckoning nature of the South. Ngāi Tahu tradition holds that their people’s colonisation of the South Island was not so much a matter of conquest as of intermarriage and adoption of Waitaha ways.

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

The best-known peculiarity of the South Island dialects is that ‘ng’ often becomes ‘k’. So Ngāi Tahu are just as often called Kāi Tahu and their 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, a fierce thornbush known elsewhere as tūmatakuru or matakoura or, less flatteringly, Wild Irishman, though that name is neither Māori nor official. Here and there the ‘r’ in Māori words is also replaced with ‘l’, whence the rather Hawai‘ian-sounding name of Lake Waihola for example.

The Musket Invasions

In the early nineteenth century, the South Island tribes were decimated, or worse—for decimation literally means the killing of one in ten—in a series of raids carried out by North Island Māori from 1828 onwards. These new invaders from the North Island were armed with muskets, which one of their chiefs had even sailed all the way to England to purchase and bring back.

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

From Purchase to Pauperdom

Only a decade or so later, at the beginning of the 1840s, British government purchase agents arrived, and soon acquired almost the whole of the South Island very cheaply.

Ostensibly, reserves that were still quite large were to be left by the British for the indigenous inhabitants. These reserves were known as ‘tenths’, because the idea was that the British would only take nine acres or so out of every ten they’d formally purchased, and leave roughly a tenth behind for the original inhabitants. The exact boundaries of the tenths would be decided after the purchase, because the island hadn’t yet been surveyed by modern methods.

This wasn’t an unreasonable idea in the abstract, as the permanent habitations of the South Island Māori only amounted to a tiny fraction of the island’s area in any case: mostly on the coasts, up rivers and beside lakes.

It seems, as I understand it, that the South Island Māori thought they were selling off the more barren parts and mountainous parts of the island to people who wanted to run sheep, a win-win outcome if in fact that had been the case.

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

The amount of money that local Māori received for selling the South Island, or nearly all of it, was, furthermore, not something that they would have viewed as full and final settlement, but rather a sort of peppercorn sum that was merely intended to cement a fruitful economic partnership with the Europeans.

What happened next, even before the decade of the 1840s was out, was that a great flood of colonists started to turn up with the intention of founding towns and cities in all the favourable spots where the Māori had their pā!

Many South Island Māori were evicted from their pā, the obvious nuclei of the tenths if the bargain had been fully kept. And which they would have kept if the British had indeed only been interested in farming sheep.

They were evicted, typically, by founders who decided that the old Māori village was a good place for a town square and had to go accordingly.

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

As for the South Island Māori, they either went to live with relatives in places the tide of colonisation had not yet reached or were assimilated into the culture of the frontier in the same way that their ancestors had been assimilated into the ways of the Waitaha, learning English and forgetting what their own place names 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 protest march 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 land that they regarded as rightfully theirs.

In August 1879 Te Maihāroa’s people were evicted by armed constables from Ōamaru and local reinforcements, and forced to walk 170 kilometres down the river to the coast, where they established a new settlement just south of the river mouth. It was the middle of winter, and perhaps the closest 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.

Here is a photograph taken some fifty years later at a reunion of the families who took part in the protests of 1877-79. It was on a signboard at Lake Pūkaki, and is credited to the Bill Dacker collection at the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.

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

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

Nairn was an artist and naturalist from Nelson who had worked as a young man, in the 1840s, with Walter Mantell, the chief government purchaser of South Island land from 1848 onwards, and thus had first-hand familiarity with the whole business.

A self-portrait done by Frank Nairn.

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

“We consider that the promises made to the Native owners of the territory which is held to have been ceded . . . must be held to amount to a distinct pledge that the lands included therein would be so dealt with by the pakeha [i.e., the British or the European] that the Maori would share them with him, and that the consequences of the surrender would, under such administration, be so advantageous to the latter that, in comparison with future advantages, the money payment offered ought to be regarded as, and really 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 was indeed a peppercorn sum, with the intention of becoming paupers in their own land!

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

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

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

Not anticipated at first would be the way that the colonists who’d got in on the ground floor would trouser enormous increases in land value and other windfalls as immigrants kept flocking in and as the land was subdivided, while the Māori often got nothing out of all this progress apart from the possibility of various menial jobs on the land of a colonial aristocracy. Even the younger generation of colonists were starting to feel locked out of prosperity by the great ascendancy of those who’d got land cheaply off the Māori in the old days.

A Wellington businessman and politician of Māori descent, Wi Parata, had brought a court case over that very issue just a couple of years before in 1877. Parata argued, in essence, that the sharing of future prosperity was implied by the Treaty of Waitangi that had been signed between Māori chiefs and the Crown in 1840, a treaty generally regarded as New Zealand’s foundational document.

The first generation of colonists who’d stepped off the boat in the 1840s couldn’t expect to monopolise the whole country against the claims of Māori who’d handed over land cheaply and, in some cases, even for nothing on the 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 took a narrow view of things. All the same, Smith and Nairn took the view that the implied contract of co-prosperity was real and foundational. And that the government to which they reported had a duty of implementing the virtue known in Māori as atawhai, which they translated as ‘kindly care’, and which may also be translated as hospitality, in making sure that Māori and Pākehā really did prosper together in coming decades, and to take whatever steps were necessary to 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 a value he regarded as important.

The 150 year wait for justice

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

For, the more high-minded sort of settler would always be in tension 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. Which is all very well if you’re the one who’s now got the legal right to erect Keep Out signs and call on the cops to enforce them, as opposed to the victims who remember.

Not until 1998, in the 150th anniversary year of Mantell’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, the horse 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 per head. The money was invested on behalf of the whole Ngāi Tahu population, about 55,000 today.

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

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

Sharing the atawhai

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

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

Some of the leading social activists of twentieth-century New Zealand also came from the South Island. And indeed, even, in the persons of the three main architects of New Zealand’s 1938 Social Security Act jointly known as the ‘Three Wise Men of Kurow’, from the very Waitaki Valley itself: as though a torch had somehow been passed down from Te Maihāroa’s day. Here's a video about an art exhibition on the Three Wise Men of Kurow:

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

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

Or should the principle of atawhai, of hospitality and kindly concern, ever flow to all citizens of the country as an aspect of citizenship, in the hope that seeds of future prosperity, due to all as a birthright, will grow everywhere?

Further Resources

I mention the events of 1877-79 on the Waitaki elsewhere, in another blog post about the geographical area in which the protest took place. That post contains a less close-up photo of a signboard, by the Waitaki River, which reproduces the same reunion photo.

See also:

Te Ara on Māori land loss in the South Island:

Ngāi Tahu cultural mapping, Kā Huru Manu:

Names and locations of Iwi (Māori tribes) in Wikipedia:

1,000 Māori place names explained:

Interactive display of New Zealand place names:

Report of the Smith-Nairn Commission:


If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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