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Prior to the arrival of Europeans, iwi in Taranaki had occupied the length of the Taranaki coast. However, in the 1820s and 1830s, inter-tribal fighting on a large scale led to a series of movements out of the Taranaki region. Many Te Atiawa were also taken captive by neighbouring tribes, while others relocated to areas around Kapiti, Wellington and the top of the south. However, ahi kaa – was maintained during this time by people who remained in the rohe, and by the intermittent return of migrants and their descendants to Taranaki.
In May 1839, the New Zealand Company was formed in London to promote the profitable colonisation of New Zealand. The Company’s directors were already aware that the British Crown planned to claim sovereignty over New Zealand and establish the Crown’s sole right to purchase land. The New Zealand Company hastily despatched representatives to New Zealand to acquire large tracts of land before annexation occurred. In October 1839, at a time when many Maori were still absent from Taranaki, the New Zealand Company purported to purchase twenty million acres of central New Zealand, including all of the Taranaki region.
In January 1840, Lieutenant Governor William Hobson proclaimed that no private purchases of Maori land made after January 1840 would be confirmed or recognised by the Crown, and that it would establish a commission to investigate the validity of any land transactions that had already occurred between settlers and Maori, including the New Zealand Company’s deeds. On 6 February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, establishing the Crown’s right of pre-emption over land sales.
On 15 February 1840, New Zealand Company agents transacted the “Nga Motu” deed with seventy-nine Maori living around New Plymouth, purportedly purchasing a large area of land lying between the Hauranga and Mohakatino Rivers that included most of the Te Atiawa rohe. At this time, many Maori were unfamiliar with the process and effects of land purchases according to English land law.
In November 1840 the New Zealand Company and the British Government negotiated an arrangement to provide land by Crown grant to the Company in New Zealand on the basis that the Company had spent large sums of money associated with colonisation, including the purchase of land. Under the arrangement the Crown would grant the Company four acres of land for every pound spent on its colonisation operations. In early 1841, a New Zealand Company surveyor arrived in Taranaki to set out a township within the 68,500 acre area claimed by the Company between present-day New Plymouth and the Waitara River. Settlers who had purchased land from the New Zealand Company in Britain began to arrive soon after.
Maori who had left Taranaki during preceding decades began to return around the same period. Relations between those Taranaki Maori who had remained in the area, those who had migrated and then returned, and those who had been taken captive but subsequently released were complex, as were their views on land sales.
The New Zealand Company’s claim in Taranaki under the “Nga Motu” deed was eventually investigated by Crown-appointed Lands Commissioner William Spain, who in June 1844 recommended an award of 60,000 acres to the New Zealand Company. Spain denied that Maori who were not then resident in Taranaki had any rights in the area claimed by the Company.
Spain’s recommended award was opposed by Te Atiawa people who had not received payment from the Company and by absentees whose rights to the area had been denied. One such absentee was Wiremu Kingi te Rangitake, a chief of the Manukorihi hapu of Te Atiawa and a leader of high status and reputation among Te Atiawa. Kingi was then residing in Waikanae but had been present at Spain’s announcement, and immediately wrote to the Governor to express opposition to the award. In response to the concerns of Maori, and of European settlers in Taranaki who were worried for their safety, Governor FitzRoy travelled to Taranaki in August 1844. After conducting his own investigations, FitzRoy announced that he found the New Zealand Company’s titles to Taranaki lands to be “defective”, and refused to ratify Spain’s recommendation. He then moved to purchase 3,500 acres encompassing the town of New Plymouth, upon which he intended to relocate settlers from the disputed outlying lands.
Further settlers arrived in Taranaki throughout the early 1840s. From 1844, Governor FitzRoy waived Crown pre-emption to allow the New Zealand Company to make additional payments to Te Atiawa outside the FitzRoy block and to absentees in order to secure more land for European settlement.
Following a change in the British government in 1845-1846, the new Governor of New Zealand, George Grey, was instructed to secure, as far as it was practical to do so, the balance of the 60,000 acres awarded by Spain. Early in 1847, Governor Grey met with the leaders of various hapu of Te Atiawa and informed them that he intended to resume more of Spain’s 60,000 award. He also stated that he would set out “ample reserves for the present and future wants” of resident Maori and those who were likely to return to Taranaki. Grey wrote afterwards that “very few of the Natives seemed disposed to assent to this arrangement”. Grey then instructed Donald McLean to make arrangements for the purchase of 60,000 to 70,000 acres around New Plymouth.
In May 1847, McLean concluded a purchase with twenty-eight Te Atiawa from the Ngati Whiti hapu for 9,770 acres of land (known as the Grey block) to the south of the FitzRoy block. The payment of £390 was made in three annual instalments. In March 1848, after settlers had expressed frustration at McLean’s failure to conclude any further purchases on the fertile lands north of New Plymouth, Grey agreed to allow New Zealand Company agent F. D. Bell to negotiate with Maori. The Company then embarked on negotiations at Hua and Mangati, to the north of New Plymouth. The proposed sale of the Mangati land was strongly disputed by sections of the Puketapu hapu. In April, Bell ordered surveyors to cut boundary lines at Mangati “in order to try the right of the disputants”. After surveying began, Bell reported that two groups within Puketapu hapu fought with “fists, sticks, and the backs of their tomahawks” over the location of the survey lines.
Despite the divisions among Puketapu over the sale, a deed was transacted in November 1848, with seventy-six signatories agreeing to sell 1,500 acres (known as the Bell block) for £200, although the sale price was later disputed. Even after the purchase was transacted, McLean withheld some of the purchase money because he believed that it would be needed to pay members of the selling hapu who continued to oppose the sale. The last three owners did not accept payment for the land until 1852.
By 1848, Wiremu Kingi te Rangitake was expressing his intention to resist the alienation of his traditional land at Waitara by returning to the area. In April 1848, Kingi led nearly 600 people, including many Te Atiawa, back to Taranaki from the south. Some travelled by waka while others drove stock before them up the coastline. The Crown sought to prevent this return, with Governor Grey threatening to destroy their canoes. When it became clear that their return could not be prevented, Grey attempted to convince the returning Te Atiawa people to settle on the north bank of the Waitara River, although the rohe of many hapu extended south of the river. When Te Atiawa returned to Waitara in November 1848, they settled on their ancestral lands on south bank of the river.
Te Atiawa people were soon participating fully in the emerging Taranaki economy. They developed substantial cultivations of maize, wheat, oats, and potatoes, owned large numbers of stock, and possessed agricultural machinery. The sale of crops provided a significant and growing income. Some settlers expressed concern that local Maori were becoming “more sensible of the value of available land, and will consequently be more difficult to bargain with”.
British settlers in Taranaki wishing to attract more immigrants to the area continued to put pressure on the Company and the Crown to secure the lands awarded by Spain and to obtain additional land, particularly between Waiwhakaiho and Waitara. As the Company and the Crown attempted to meet this demand, Maori opposition to sales both north and south of New Plymouth increased, and tensions between selling and non-selling members of Te Atiawa continued to grow. In late 1849, members of the Puketapu hapu of Te Atiawa erected a forty-foot-high pou (pillar) on the northern bank of the Waiwhakaiho River between New Plymouth and Waitara. McLean understood this to indicate that the hapu wished to “prevent Europeans acquiring more land in that direction”. In January 1850, some Te Atiawa people met with Governor Grey and offered to sell land to the Crown, but many others expressed their opposition. The Governor then attempted to visit Pukerangiora pā on the Waitara River, but some Te Atiawa people physically prevented him from entering their lands.
Around this time, Maori from various iwi of Taranaki held a series of meetings around the region to discuss land issues, and some made agreements to prohibit further sales. Crown officials viewed these agreements as obstacles in the way of European settlement.
In 1853 and 1854, the Crown concluded deeds for the 16,500 acre Waiwhakaiho block and the 14,000 acre Hua block, which took in large areas of Te Atiawa land. Again, the Crown failed to obtain the general agreement of all rangatira and hapu in these areas, and ignored the strongly expressed opposition of some hapu members. During negotiations for the Waiwhakaiho purchase, the Crown made unpublicised payments to individual Maori in an attempt to facilitate further sales. When discovered, these unpublicised payments created significant tension between neighbouring Te Atiawa hapu. A Crown agent wrote that these “petty jealousies” had worked “most opportunely” to generate further offers. After completing the Hua deed in March 1854, McLean wrote that the transaction had been difficult because a “decided minority of Natives [had been] in favour of a sale”.
In 1854 and 1855, tension between Te Atiawa individuals or groups arising from further Crown purchasing activities, particularly in relation to negotiations around the Tarurutangi block, developed into armed conflict between groups of Te Atiawa people, resulting in injury and loss of life. Conflict between Māori over land sales was such that European settlers in Taranaki petitioned the Government to send troops for their protection. By September 1855, approximately 500 Imperial troops were stationed in New Plymouth.
By 1859, following the sale of the 14,000 acre Tarurutangi block, nearly all Te Atiawa land lying south of the Waitara River was claimed by the Crown. Out of 59,378 acres purchased, only 4,604 acres (or 7.75 percent) had been reserved. Moreover, the proportion of land reserved varied significantly between the purchased blocks. More than sixteen per cent of the Waiwhakaiho block was reserved for Maori, but only 250 acres (1.7%) of the 14,000 acre Hua block, and ten acres (.07%) of the 14,000 acre Tarurutangi block were reserved. In the case of the Hua block, the Crown encouraged those Maori who were selling to repurchase sections for ten shillings an acre, more than three times what the Crown had paid for it.
Four reserves were placed under the Native Reserves Act 1856, which transferred their administration to Native Reserves Commissioners who often had the power to sell or lease them without the owners’ consent. By 1900, thirty-two per cent of the pre-1859 purchase reserves had been alienated by Native Reserves Commissioners. The land reserved for Te Atiawa from the pre-1860 purchases was later investigated by the Native Land Court and issued under individualised titles, which meant that customary title was extinguished over lands that Te Atiawa retained for their own use.
Between 1900 and 1905, title to all remaining pre-1860 reserves was vested in the Public Trustee and brought under the operation of the West Coast Settlement Reserves legislation. By 1990, at least ninety percent of the land reserved from the pre-1860 purchases of Te Atiawa lands was alienated.