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Native Land Court


The Native Land Court was created in 1865 and gave Crown title to communally owned Maori land. It was a new instrument to force Maori to sell their land, one historian called it "another act of war."

Originally almost all Maori land was owned by the community. The Native Land Court destroyed this communal ownership by ordering land surveys and issuing individual share entitlements. For the first time in Maori history land titles were individualised.

The purchasing of land suddenly became much easier as buyers only had to deal with a few owners rather than a whole hapu. By allowing individuals to trade land, a large percentage of any particular hapu could become disenfranchised. The Court's Chief Judge Fenton encouraged this. He saw that the trust relationship between chiefs and people had protected the tribal identity he wanted to diminish.

The Ministers of Native Affairs approved of the court. One of them, John Bryce, had a reputation for cruel action against Maori during the wars. As Minister, he enforced action against Maori who resisted the alienation of their land.

Any Maori could take a piece of land to the court. This dragged all the owners into court if they wanted to defend their land. Court hearings were often held at district court houses so Maori ran up debt at local stores whilst waiting for their case to be heard. When they ran out of cash and credit at the stores, land was taken as payment.

Often Maori had to pay the cost of surveying the land even if they didn't order it. The scale of land loss during surveying was huge. Land could be surveyed without permission of the owners who would then have to sell parts of their land to pay for it.

For most tribes in the North Island this was the process that brought them down, not the wars. Maori dubbed it the "Land Taking Court." Even the colonial press had sympathy saying, "the working of the Native Land Court has been a scandal for many years, but as the chief sufferers were Maoris, nobody troubled themselves very much."

Individualisation of title was probably the single most significant factor in the break-down of tribal society - and that was its purpose. Settler politicians believed the destruction of the tribe was necessary to achieve colonisation and that ultimately, it is was for the Maoris' own good.

By the 1890s Maori had lost most of their land. This helped to create a new New Zealand, one dominated by European New Zealanders and one in which the grievances of Maori would linger for generations.


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