It is a revisionist article of faith that the Waitara land purchase which sparked the Taranaki War (and in some measure ignited the subsequent Waikato War) stands out as a primary example of white settler wrongdoing to Maori.

The facts of the matter are quite different.

In 1827, a number of Taranaki Maori had migrated south to Waikanae, hoping to take advantage of the increased opportunities to trade with Europeans that would come from residing nearer to Cook Strait.

In 1834, the Taranaki was invaded by musket-toting Tainui, who defeated and killed most of the Taranaki Maori still living there. Tainui then returned to the Waikato, taking with them a number of captives to eat on the way or use as slaves and concubines. Small rump groups of Taranaki Maori fled to the offshore islands or to their relations at Waikanae and even as far south as the Nelson-Golden Bay area to escape death or captivity.

When the NZ Company arrived in 1839 looking for land to purchase for its settlements, the Taranaki-New Plymouth area was practically deserted. Colonel William Wakefield went first to the Taranaki refugees living on the offshore islands and paid them to purchase large tracts of this vacant land.

Armed with information about their whereabouts, he then went to the places at which the other Taranaki migrants and refugees were living and procured signatures from tribal chiefs (including Wiremu Kingi) selling most of the Taranaki-New Plymouth area (including the subsequently disputed Waitara Block) to the NZ Company.

Tainui soon identified an opportunity to profit from the affair. In 1842 they went to Governor Hobson stating that as conquerors of the Taranaki tribes, the mana of the land lay with them. Tainui threatened that if not paid too they might just return and molest the New Plymouth settlers. Hobson gave them money and trade goods to extinguish this claim.

In 1843, Commissioner William Spain, charged with investigating pre-Treaty land sales on behalf of the Crown, finally got around to reviewing the NZ Company’s Taranaki purchases. He awarded the New Plymouth settlers some 200 km² of tribal land around New Plymouth, including the Waitara Block.

Problems first arose when the newly-Christianised Tainui began releasing the captives they’d taken in the 1834 invasion. These former slaves then trickled back to Taranaki and began to re-occupy the land, asserting that they’d never agreed to the New Zealand Company sale or received any of the purchase money.

Emboldened by these developments and well aware that the presence of white settlers meant Tainui was now unlikely to re-invade, Wiremu Kingi wrote in 1845 to Governor Fitzroy from Waikanae, where he’d lived since migrating there almost two decades earlier. Kingi now repudiated the sale he’d agreed to in 1839, and asserted that the Taranaki tribes would not yield their tribal lands.

The only troops available to uphold the rights of the New Plymouth settlers were at that time embroiled in Northland fighting in Hone Heke and Kawiti’s war. Making a mistaken virtue of necessity and in order to keep the peace, Fitzroy overturned the Spain Award and downscaled the final land grant to the settlers to some 20 km² around New Plymouth.

The balance was returned to its former Maori “owners,” most of whom had not only cravenly fled the area back in 1834, but had accepted payment for the land from the NZ Company in 1839, when it looked like they’d never be able to return lest Tainui come back and finish them off.

In 1848, Kingi and his hapu returned to Taranaki despite strong initial opposition from Governor Grey, and settled around Waitara. He was allowed to go back on the condition that he settled on the northern bank of the Waitara River. Kingi agreed to this then broke his promise.

In order to place the river between his hapu and renewed hostilities from Tainui, Kingi convinced another chief named Tamati Ruru to allow him to build his pa on the southern side of the Waitara River on land which belonged to Ruru and his hapu. It should be noted that Kingi’s ancestral land was on the northern side of the river, where he was supposed to re-settle in the first place.

Over the next 11 years the Crown and settlers made numerous attempts to repurchase land already purchased twice over: once by the NZ Company from the Taranaki tribes and again by the Crown from Tainui, but short-sightedly returned by Governor Fitzroy. A number of chiefs had in 1854 formed an anti-land selling league, and its ability to intimidate others who hadn’t joined it meant the would-be buyers failed to make much headway.

In 1859, evidently prompted by a dispute between a member of his hapu and Kingi’s over a woman, a chief named Teira decided to turf Kingi off his father, Tamati Ruru’s land, which had now come to him by way of inheritance. At a hui also attended by Kingi, Teira offered the Waitara Block directly to Governor Gore Browne, as he had every right under the Treaty of Waitangi to do.

Kingi then got up and told the Governor, “I will not permit the sale of Waitara … Waitara is in my hands, I will not give it up; I will not, I will not, I will not.” Note that Kingi never stated the land was his, because he knew full well that it was not.

The Crown’s view was quite correctly that Kingi had no personal rights in the land. The genuine owners, Teira and his hapu, who’d chosen to sell, would be supported, by force if necessary.

In early 1860 the government sent in surveyors. Though Kingi’s ancestral land on the northern side of the Waitara River was scrupulously excluded from the area surveyed, events soon spiralled into war. After a period of savage fighting, an uneasy truce was negotiated. In order to protect that peace, Governor Grey decided to cancel the Waitara purchase. It must be stressed that this was in no wise an admission of wrongdoing on the Crown’s part.

Kingi had his supporters. There were sickly white liberals prepared to rat out their own race for that warm glow even back then. The Reverend Octavius Hadfield, whose mission station at Waikanae had sheltered Kingi from his enemies, was one. Another was a previous Chief Justice, Sir William Martin. Both claimed that the Waitara purchase was illegal and that Kingi was simply exercising his right as a paramount chief to veto a land sale.

In the Eurocentric world view of these men, Maori social relationships were analogous to a rigid feudal system like that prevailing in Europe during the Middle Ages, under which the consent of an “overlord” was required for a “vassal” to do anything of importance. The Waitara Question thus became one of authority and jurisdiction, rather than a question of who actually owned a particular parcel of land.

The celebrated historian, Keith Sinclair, appears to have based his analysis of the situation entirely on the views of these men, and is principally responsible for the belief widespread today that the disputed land was improperly purchased.

Sinclair is wrong.

Martin had produced a pamphlet setting out his view of the Waitara Affair, which was introduced into the Parliamentary Record and completely demolished (see Further Papers Relative to the Taranaki Question, AJHR 1861, Session I, E-02). This rebuttal makes it clear that Kingi was no “paramount chief” with veto rights. Nor did he have any proprietary rights in the disputed land.

Parliament was advised of Kingi that: “it is absolutely certain that the various sections of Ngatiawa do not recognise him as chief of the whole tribe: it is extremely doubtful whether he was anything more than the principal man of the Manukorihi hapu.”

Even had Kingi been a paramount chief as asserted by Martin, “The land purchases made from the Natives by the Crown are divisible into two great classes: first, those made of leading chiefs representing whole tribes (iwi); secondly those made of subtribes (hapu) or families, or other comparatively small groups of individuals. In sales of vacant territory, the principal chiefs have themselves been the vendors. In sales of occupied territory, an absolute and unqualified right of alienation has always gone along with the right of occupancy, which is generally exclusive to certain hapus or families, and not in common with the [wider] tribe [iwi].”

In point of fact, Kingi had aped the separatism of the Maori King movement got up by his former Tainui enemies, and set himself up as the head of an anti-land selling league in the Taranaki. Kingi and his adherents then deployed their collective clout to stand over and even murder chiefs who hadn’t joined the league, thus preventing dissenters from exercising their Treaty right sell land that they owned to the Crown.

When the facts of the Waitara purchase were placed before the 1860 Kohimarama Conference attended by more than 200 chiefs from all over New Zealand, Kingi’s only supporters were his own relations.

The events outlined above show how Maori have always “run with the hares and hunted with the hounds.” By this I mean making the best of a situation by expediently cutting deals when they are weak. These agreements are then repudiated when their position is stronger and it becomes clear that by a combination of bluff and threats they can have another bite at the cherry.

This complete lack of honour (while loudly demanding it of the Crown) can be seen today in the many Waitangi Tribunal claims from tribes that have already agreed to full and final settlements (some more than once) of various grievances.

And so on ad infinitum, until New Zealanders are prepared to say that they have had enough of this nonsense.

By Peter Hemmingson