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During the short period between the ploughing and fencing campaigns of 1879 and 1880, the first West Coast Commission was set up under Section 2 of the Confiscated Lands Inquiry and Maori Prisoners’ Trials Act 1879 “to make provision for an Inquiry into alleged Grievances of Aboriginal Natives in relation to certain Lands taken by the Crown under the authority of Law”. This required Maori to present claims to the Commissioners, who would then consider those claims and report their “opinion” to the Governor.
The Maori Member of Parliament appointed to the first Commission resigned, claiming that his fellow Commissioners were not impartial. The other Commissioners had previously been Ministers responsible for Native affairs, and had supported the enforcement of confiscation.
The functions of the first Commission were narrowly focused on the Compensation Court awards and specific Crown promises and did not empower the Commission to inquire into the question of fairness of the confiscations and compensation process. The first Commission refused to hear counsel who wished to question the validity of the confiscation.
The Commission’s final report found that the Crown had failed, over a number of years, to fulfil promises about reserves for Maori. They then described the extent of the reserves that they thought were required to satisfy Maori grievances. However, these recommendations sought to balance Maori grievances against the Crown’s wish to secure land for European settlement. In their final report, the Commissioners stated that “the true solution of the trouble on the coast is, after all, occupation and settlement . . . [and that] the establishment of English homesteads, and the fencing and cultivation of the land, will be the surest guarantee of peace.”
The first Commission recognised Ngati Rahiri’s grievances with regard to the loss of their traditional lands, and assured them that compensation would be made to them. In 1884, the second Commission recommended compensating Ngati Rahiri £4,000 for those parts of their lands that they had lost to military settlement. However, the Commission then suggested that the money should not be paid to Ngati Rahiri directly, but should instead be used to pay for fencing roads that the Crown had built through Ngati Rahiri lands. This, the Commission stated, would help prevent “very great trouble . . . in the future when the block, or adjacent blocks, may be occupied by Europeans.”
A second West Coast Commission was appointed in December 1880 to implement the recommendations of the first Commission. It arranged for the return of 201,395 acres to Maori across Taranaki. Another 13,280 acres were later added, making a total of 214,675 acres returned in all. Less than one-fifth was located in northern Taranaki.
The second Commission recommended granting reserves totalling 26,657 acres between Bell Block and White Cliffs. Most of this land, approximately 22,500 acres, lay within an area to the West of the Urenui River, which covered most of the lands in which Te Atiawa held interests. These 22,500 acres were allocated in fifty-one grants to 1,108 grantees. These reserves were supposed to be capable of supporting their residents. However, the reserves in the Te Atiawa rohe amounted to approximately twenty acres per grantee, much less than the fifty acres per man, woman and child minimum specified in Section 24 of the Native Land Act of 1873. The small size of the reserves was compounded by their poor quality. Much of this land was rough, inaccessible, or covered in bush, and in most cases, the second Commission did not make allowance for the poor quality of the available land. Te Atiawa people were thus left with insufficient agricultural land for their present and future needs.
The ownership of the blocks to be returned was determined by the second Commission without right of appeal by claimants. Of the reserves granted to Te Atiawa, virtually all was returned under individualised title, with the exception of four reserves to be held in trust for hapu of Te Atiawa. The Puketapu and Matataiore reserves, along with another unnamed reserve, totalling 908 acres, were granted in trust for the “Puketapu Tribe”, while a fity-one acre block in the Tikorangi District was granted in trust for “the Ngatirahiri Tribe”. Many of the Te Atiawa reserves were protected against alienation by sale when granted, but by the end of the nineteenth century these restrictions had been removed by statute. The West Coast Settlement Reserves Act 1892, for example, provided “that the restrictions, conditions, and limitations contained in the Crown grants of reserves shall be deemed not to exist”, to allow those reserves to be leased.