Lofty ideals and fatal flaws, Alan Ward

Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921
Judith Binney
Bridget Williams Books, $79.99,
ISBN 9781877242441

This is arguably the most important book on Maori-Pakeha relations to be published in the last quarter-century, unlikely to be equalled in this generation.

Its importance stems from the fact that, notwithstanding the flow of brilliant and original works of history, anthropology and law by New Zealand scholars from Sir Keith Sinclair onwards, and the ferment of research generated by the proceedings of the Waitangi Tribunal, Maori and Pakeha still do not understand each other very well. Judith Binney’s work too is about policies and processes but mainly it is about people. Through this book we come to know a great deal about the leaders of Tuhoe and associated tribes, regional and national Maori leaders such as Te Kooti, James Carroll and Apirana Ngata, and the Pakeha politicians, officials, soldiers and teachers with whom they interacted intensely on the New Zealand frontier. Binney shows the Urewera leaders to be intelligent, thoughtful and complex people, trying to achieve balance in a world that had become confused, turbulent and threatening. Her work fosters respect for them, and understanding of their predicament.

The book is unlikely to be soon equalled because very few Pakeha have attained a comparable understanding of Maori language and culture, and the trust of Maori informants. Equally, because very few Maori have yet attained comparable skills in critical documentary research, which is also essential for an accurate understanding of just what took place in complex negotiations on the marae and in politicians’ offices in Wellington. Binney’s bicultural understanding and skills are guiding lights for future scholarship, whether in the universities or the whare wananga.

The British assertion of sovereignty in 1840 was in law deemed to embrace all European residents of New Zealand and all Maori, whether or not their rangatira had signed the Treaty. What was not settled was how Maori would be involved in the governance of the new nation-state, and to what extent customary law and property rights would be respected. Maori were more than willing to be involved, but sought to control the timing and manner of their engagement, particularly by retaining their land. This they were denied, through the impatience and land-hunger of the settlers and Governors Grey and Browne. By the mid-1860s, the Waikato and Taranaki had experienced military invasion and massive land confiscation. But in the Urewera the Crown’s writ did not run, and Kereopa Te Rau, wanted for the killing of the missionary Carl Volkner at Opotiki, found refuge there.

The saga Binney unfolds is one of Shakespearean dimensions, embracing all facets of the human condition, noble and ignoble. She has crafted her chapters as a sequence of discrete dramas, peopled by characters with lofty ideals and fatal flaws, beset by forces largely beyond their control. The detail, the originality and the poignancy of her writing are compelling. We are led to an understanding of why some of the Urewera hapu were drawn into the wars, against the wishes of the majority of Tuhoe; of the way the government used the killing of Volkner and of James Fulloon as the basis for land confiscation which punished the innocent as well as the guilty; of the agonising of local rangatira over whether to shelter Te Kooti or drive him away lest he bring further government vengeance down upon them; and of the peace negotiations between Donald McLean and the Tuhoe leaders in 1871, following the arrest of Kereopa.

Through their writings and their recorded oratory, Binney reveals the humanity and complexity of such remarkable participants as Te Whenuanui I, Te Makarini Tamarau, Erueti Tamaikoha, Kereru Te Pukenui and Tutakangahau. If these men are more obscure to us than Shakespeare’s characters that is all the more reason we should come to know them: they were fellow New Zealanders, and we are likely to meet with their descendants and their intellectual heirs in the streets of Whakatane or Opotiki, or in the councils of government.

We learn more about Te Kooti too, both as a remarkable guerrilla leader and later as a mediator during the contested surveys and threatened violence of the early 1890s. We can share the surprise of the soldier-negotiators like William Mair when, deep in the Urewera, they discover that the Ringatu faith and ritual, adopted by the people even when they could not shelter Te Kooti, were strongly grounded in Christian scriptures, and spoke of peace.

During the 1880s, blocks of land on the borders of the Urewera were acquired by private purchasers. Binney’s chapter about this should be required reading in universities, because it reveals in a way not previously published the means by which Maori were deprived of land they were determined not to sell. These means included the abuse of friendship and marriage connections to acquire a few signatures from part-owners, factional or bogus applications for surveys and Land Court hearings and abuse of judicial processes. Even when the Native Affairs Committee of Parliament, and the Crown Solicitor, found that actual fraud had occurred in the initial transaction for block Waiohau IB, government intervention was weak and subsequent transactions for the block were protected by the Land Transfer Act. The hapu concerned could not afford proceedings in the Supreme Court and eventually they were turned off their settlement at Te Houhi, as “trespassers”. This kind of travesty, repeated over and over in various parts of New Zealand, is well-known in Maori circles. Unless Pakeha take the trouble to read about it they will never understand that Maori did not lose their land simply out of naivety and fecklessness but very commonly from almost unbelievable ruthlessness and manipulation.

It was largely to prevent such legalised plundering that Tuhoe and associated tribes formed their Rohe Potae and sought to govern it peaceably through their “Council of Seventy” (Te Whitu Tekau). In recent decades the term autonomy has gained currency in discussions of Maori aspirations. Its vagueness is perhaps its strength but, in the end, many New Zealanders want to know exactly how it could be managed without a schism in the society. Binney’s analysis offers some answers. In the first place it is clear that contemporary stereotypes about Tuhoe being a lawless people, brooding in their mountain fastness and offering an incipient threat to peace and good order were nonsense.  Once Kereopa had been caught and executed, the tribes wanted first to be left in peace, and thence to resume a measured engagement with the wider society. A few rangatira drew government pensions but most Urewera people were desperately poor. They wanted to grow crops on the valleys that had not been confiscated and trade with the coast. For this reason they were willing to give land for roads, and gave land too for schools at Galatea, Ruatoki, Te Waimana and elsewhere.

Binney’s chapter on the native schools is remarkable social history, desperately sad because the founding of the schools coincided with years of crop failure, famine and epidemic diseases which killed many children, including those of progressive leaders. Official help was meagre, and the teachers were often the only source of medications. This was a context in which reactionary ideas could revive, and quasi-traditional healers flourish. In turn this raised the ire of the educated Maori modernisers James Carroll and Apirana Ngata. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 was their creation, aimed at Rua Kenana, whom they saw as a charlatan.

But mainly this history is about land. The Tuhoe leaders knew that in order to preserve their land they had to keep out land purchase agents, surveyors and the Native Land Court, for these were the pathways to indebtedness and piecemeal purchases. On the other hand some were interested in letting land, and in securing mining rights from gold prospectors and miners. But they were unanimous in their view that any such transactions would have to be with the collective leadership. This approach won some broad support from the Liberal governments of the day, especially from Premier Richard Seddon and from Carroll. The outcome of years of tortuous negotiations was the Urewera District Native Reserve Act 1896.

The act provided for two processes. In lieu of the Native Land Court, government commissioners were empowered to divide the district into blocks “adopting as far as possible hapu boundaries”, determine the customary ownership of each and list the entitled families and individuals thereof and their respective interests. The second process was the appointment of local committees for each block and the election of one member from each local committee to a general committee “to deal with all questions affecting the reserve as a whole”. This included the power to sell or lease land to the Crown or cede land for mining purposes. Binney shows that the creation of the general committee was eagerly desired by the Urewera tribes, as an evolution of their “Seventy” into a form of recognised local self-government under the Crown, and they expected it to happen quickly. In 1897 Tutakangahau’s flag at Maungapohatu cheerfully bore the slogan “Kotahi te ture mo nga iwi e rua” (One law for both peoples).

But the government’s priority was to determine the block titles, and the cooperation of the late 1890s weakened. By the time the general committee was formed in 1908 Seddon was dead, Parliamentary elections were dominated by passionate demands to open the Urewera and other Maori lands to settlement, and an amendment to the 1896 Act made Tuhoe liable for the costs of the block surveys and the Urewera Commission. Carroll proposed that some of the valley lands be leased to meet the debt but the lease terms were unattractive. Rua Kenana was persuaded to offer some lands for sale and a general committee, enlarged to include him and his supporters, eventually concurred. Once the dam was broken the Crown took advantage of factionalism and rivalry for mana to strike deals and by 1927 the Crown had acquired two-thirds of the original reserve. The Urewera District Natve Reserve Act was repealed in 1922.

Binney argues that the Crown monopoly prevented Tuhoe from securing higher rents and better prices from the private sector. Possibly. But citing a few examples of higher offers does not prove the point. It was equally likely that Maori transactors in the early 20th century would have found themselves in the same quagmire as those of the 1880s.

In discussing the roles of Carroll and Ngata in all of this, Binney is at her most controversial.  In contrast to the established view that these men used delaying tactics to slow the settlers’ demands, and include the Urewera tribes in land development, she sees them as machiavellian leaders of the drive to break into the Urewera and end Tuhoe autonomy. Undoubtedly she accurately reflects some current perceptions among the Urewera tribes, and she marshalls a formidable array of documentary evidence in support. Certainly Ngata played Rua off against Numia Te Ruakariata and other rangatira who were rivals in seeking the best way forward for their people. Whether the whole government strategy was laid down at the outset and pursued unwaveringly is another matter. The tumultuous politics of the period, the prejudice and pressure which Carroll and Ngata faced, even from their own party, admit of other possible interpretations of some episodes. But readers can judge for themselves and it will take very diligent research indeed to produce countervailing evidence.

The richness of Binney’s text is matched by the richness of the many original photographs and maps, made available by the Urewera people themselves or located by deep research and reproduced in colour. Bridget Williams Books have excelled themselves in the beauty of this publication. It is an artefact to treasure and enjoy.


Alan Ward is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales. 


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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