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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Chapter XV — “Sons of the Soil”

page 124

Chapter XV
“Sons of the Soil”

Natives Prove Born Cultivators—Poverty Bay's Exports in 1830's—Amusing Evidence Given in England—“Slaves Used to Grow Crops”—Development of Native Lands—East Coast Enterprise.

Poverty Bay had become a large trading base some years before the first of the Dominion's cities was founded. When the demand for dressed flax began to dwindle in the middle 1830's, the natives turned their attention more seriously to the cultivation of maize as well as of potatoes, and to the breeding of more pigs for export. Commercial relations between pakeha and native had, by then, developed to an appreciable extent.

That the natives of the East Coast were born cultivators was noted by Cook, Banks and Solander in 1769, when the Endeavour was at Tolaga Bay. These distinguished visitors were impressed not only by the methodical manner in which the plantations were laid out, but also by the high degree of tidiness with which they were tended. “Tillage, weaving and the rest of the arts of peace,” Banks says, “are best known and most practised in the north-east districts of New Zealand.” Cook, in a supporting statement, suggests that the East Coast natives excelled as agriculturists “owing to the necessity that they are under of cultivating or running the risque of starving.”

The most elaborate description of the native plantations at Tolaga Bay comes from Banks's pen:

“Their plantations,” he says, “were now hardly finished, but so well was the ground till'd that I have seldom seen, even in the grounds of Curious people, Land better broken up. In them were planted sweet Potatoes, Cocos and some one of the Cucumber kind…. The sweet Potatoes were planted on small hills, some in rows and others in quincunx, and all laid out most regularly in line. The Cocos were planted on flat land and had not yet appear'd above ground. The Cucumbers were set in small hollows or ditches, much as in England. These plantations were from one to two to 8 or 10 acres each. In the Bay, there might be 150 or 200 acres in cultivation, though we did not see 100 people in all. Each distinct Patch was fenced in, generally with reeds placed one by another so that scarce a mouse could creep through.”

Whilst the Adventure was at Tolaga Bay in November, 1773, William Bayly, the astronomer, went a few miles into the country with the surgeon and inspected some small plantations. Describing the methods employed to break in the land, he says: “… They first set fire to the Wood and then cut it off about knee high. Then they turn the earth and cleanse it with sticks, which serve page 125 them instead of spades…. I saw Wood pigeons, Parroquets, Grey Parrots, Poey birds and Quails, and a vast variety of singing birds, but no Animal great or small, or any Fruit trees of any kind whatsoever.”

Polack, who first visited the East Coast districts in 1835, was greatly impressed by the fertility of the soil. In New Zealand: Travels and Adventures, Vol. 1, p. 257, he says:

“The country around Poverty Bay and Hawke's Bay is formed of alluvial soil. These places, which contain the most fertile land that may be imagined, lie useless among the natives, apprehensive as they are of meeting with an enemy before they can finish the labours of planting and, if they have succeeded in planting, are fearful of being deprived of the fruits of their toil.”

In The Tasmanian Journal of Science (1842), Colenso is equally laudatory with reference to the excellence of the natives' work as cultivators.

“The taro plantations at Te Kawakawa [Te Araroa, E.C.] were,” he says, “in nice condition and looked very neat, the plants being set out in quincunx order and the ground strewn with white sand, with which the large pendulous dark green and shield-shaped leaves of the young plants beautifully contrasted. Small screens, formed of the branches of manuka, to shelter the young plants from the violence of the northerly and easterly winds intersected the ground in every direction. Of the taro plant, the natives possess two kinds—taro maori and taro hora, neither indigenous, and only the former introduced by the present race.”

As an article of food for themselves, and as a trading commodity, pigs were held in high esteem by the natives. Wi Pere (Gisborne N.L. Court minute book, No. 26) says that, in the early days, pig breeding was an important work. Some members of each tribe were selected for the task of feeding the animals. If any pigs strayed, the owners would not go secretly after them on to land belonging to others, but would notify the occupiers, and both parties would search for the wanderers.

Poverty Bay's Trade in 1830's

Some documentary evidence relating to the extent of native agriculture in Poverty Bay in the 1830's is available. Perhaps, the most interesting is the testimony—much of it fanciful—which Joseph Barrow Montefiore, merchant, of Sydney, gave before a Select Committee of the House of Lords which sat, in 1838, to inquire, inter alia, into conditions in New Zealand. He had, he said, disposed of his trading station in Poverty Bay to a trader [Captain Harris]. His former agent frequently gave credit to the natives, and the debts were invariably honestly discharged. In 1837, his firm in Sydney, “being the agent for parties who are cultivating in Poverty Bay,” had received large quantities of page 126 maize, wheat and potatoes, and had traded also for flax, pork, hogs' lard, whalebone, oil and everything else with which the country abounds—a variety of products which he described as “very valuable and useful.” [The inclusion of wheat in his list was an error; that cereal had not then been introduced.] Correspondence which he produced did, however, show that, in that year, his firm had obtained several thousand bushels of maize from Poverty Bay.

Questioned as to whether he thought the natives were likely to become good agriculturists, Mr. Montefiore said: “Certainly; they cultivate uncommonly well now. They fence in their lands and cultivate with regularity. Their potatoes are cultivated better than those grown by many of the settlers in New South Wales.” Members of the committee appear to have been surprised to learn that maize was, at that early date, among the exports from Poverty Bay, and he was cross-examined as under:

“By whom was the maize which you imported from Poverty Bay cultivated?” Answer: “By the natives.”
“You know that the land on which it was grown was cultivated by the natives?”
“Yes; we are agents for the person who is now carrying on such cultivation. I have no doubt that he possesses a large territory there.” [In strict fact, Harris, at that time, held only the small allotment upon which his trading station at Turanganui stood and the small portion of Opou which originally bore that name.]
“He is an influential man and is settled there?”
“Yes; he consigns to us his shipments of maize, flax, whalebone, etc.”

How it was possible for this trader to get the natives to grow so much maize also puzzled members of the committee. “Does he [the trader] use slaves to cultivate his land?” Mr. Montefiore was asked. His reply was: “No doubt of it; and, from his high connection, he can command as many as he pleases.” [It could not have been known to the witness that, if a trader desired to have a crop grown, he would require only to consult his native protector, who would arrange with his tribe to have the work carried out and would personally supervise operations.]

Continuing to draw upon his vivid imagination, Mr. Montefiore told the committee that the trader had married a chief's daughter, or, perhaps, the daughters of two or three chiefs [Harris did not become a polygamist, as did some of his fellow-traders.] Mr. Montefiore also averred that, when the natives went to war, or had their tumults among themselves, they locked up their trader in a fort and made him a neutral until they had decided their quarrel, when they brought him back to his old station. [During the only serious trouble which occurred in Poverty Bay in the 1830's—the Siege of Kekeparaoa—Harris was present as an honoured spectator on the day on which the pa fell.]

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Comment on the final section of Mr. Montefiore's cross-examination is unnecessary. He was also asked:

“Does he (the trader) find that the can casily get his land cultivated?”
“Yes, to any extent.”
“There is no indisposition on the part of the natives to work for compensation?”
“No; I think not.”
“There would be no necessity to send Europeans to cultivate the land?”
“No; not if they can compel the slaves there to work.”

The first maize planted in the Poverty Bay-East Coast area was probably imported by one of the earliest shore-traders, although, of course, it might have been a gift from a shipmaster. In the early 1830's that cereal was being extensively grown. Salmon (Rovings in the Pacific) says that, in 1840, it was being cultivated even in almost inaccessible spots at [?] Hicks Bay, where there was “an Englishman long resident on the East Coast.” His description of the locality answers to that of Te Araroa. It was “a narrow strip at the foot of perpendicular cliffs, comprising about 800 acres of tableland.” He explains that it was irrigated by means of channels fed from springs on the cliffs. There were, he says, good crops of potatoes, kumaras, taro, maize, melons, pumpkins, cabbage, onions and other vegetables. He saw heavy crops of maize growing in such acclivitous positions that he was quite fatigued in reaching them.

With a friend, Salmon paid a visit to Rangitukia. They ascended a high hill to obtain a view of the Waiapu Valley. Every small hill was found to be under cultivation in some degree. Much of the land had been cropped in potatoes, and ripening maize crops were in abundance. On the highest hill, they met an aged woman who had just ascended with two baskets of potatoes which, it was reckoned, could not have weighed less than 80 lbs. in all. She did not seem to be incommoded by her burden “and commenced her descent with less appearance of fatigue than probably we did.”

Wheat at 1s. 6d. per Bushel

Upon taking up his temporary residence in Poverty Bay in 1850, the Rev. T. S. Grace found that the natives were content to use potatoes instead of flour in order that they might reserve their wheat to sell at the traders' price of 1s. 6d. per bushel. He informed the Church Missionary Society that he had seen a starving family with a houseful of wheat, which was required as part payment for an old, worthless horse. Two years later, however, he reported that the natives had begun to use flour freely and that, as a consequence, there had been a considerable diminution in the death rate. They were then planning to obtain mills to grind their wheat.

page 128

Early in the 1860's, the natives' enthusiasm for agriculture and pig-raising waned. Inquiries by Europeans for large blocks for sheep-runs were becoming more numerous. Some of the natives might have gained the impression that sheepfarming was about to become the paramount industry. But what was probably a much more decisive factor was that unrest was becoming more intense among them. The East Coast War (1865) gave production a very severe setback, and when the Te Kooti revolt opened (1868) it came almost to a standstill. When the Native Land Courts began to function in earnest in the early 1870's, many natives attended the protracted hearings of disputes as to the ownership of blocks. In those localities in which the Crown acquired blocks, the growing of crops became a secondary matter with the natives whilst their newly-gained funds lasted.

As sheep-raising was a type of farming with which the natives were not familiar, it made only a limited appeal to them at the outset. They found that much more capital was needed to establish a sheep farm than to engage in agricultural pursuits. As a consequence, the policy of leasing large areas to Europeans came into favour. However, it was the natives who provided nearly all the labour required to establish the sheep-stations which soon began to dot the fertile hills and valleys. They assisted to fell the bush, clear away the scrub, split posts, erect fences, lay down the pasture and make the roads. Fortunate, therefore, were the early settlers in having at hand native neighbours who were genuine sons of the soil and needed only guidance to become first-class station workers. Most of the labour to operate the sheep-stations on the East Coast has since been supplied by the Maoris.

Native Land Settlement

In a statement which Sir A. T. Ngata presented to Parliament in 1931, he pointed out that the main weakness in connection with the earlier native lands legislation was that it centred around the fabric of a communal title without, until later years, devising ways of circumventing or escaping from its toils. The indiscriminate pursuit of subdivision among individual owners now lay at the root of many of the difficulties in settling native lands. Drastic methods had been adopted by Parliament from time to time in the interests of settlement: viz. the vesting of large areas in the Public Trustee or in special boards, such as the East Coast Trust, cr, later, in Maori Land Boards, or in the Public Trustee for administration. In none of these plans, however, was the settlement of the Maori upon the land a feature, and they were not supported by the goodwill of the communities interested.

According to Sir Apirana, the solutions offered for this fundamental difficulty had been made only during the previous twenty-five years, and had been based on the experience of only one district, the East Coast. He instanced, first of all, the plan of providing for the incorporation of the page break
Te Kooti Rikirangi Instigator of Poverty Bay and Mohaka Massacres. From a painting by T. Ryan.

Te Kooti Rikirangi
Instigator of Poverty Bay and Mohaka Massacres.
From a painting by T. Ryan.

Col T. W. Porter, c.b. Commander of 7th and 9th N. Z. Contingents in Boer War.

Col T. W. Porter, c.b.
Commander of 7th and 9th N. Z. Contingents in Boer War.

page break
Major R. N. Biggs. O.C. Poverty Bay. Slain by Te Kooti Rebels, 10 November, 1868.

Major R. N. Biggs.
O.C. Poverty Bay. Slain by Te Kooti Rebels, 10 November, 1868.

Hon. Mokena Kohere, m.l.c. Noted loyal Waiapu chief.

Hon. Mokena Kohere, m.l.c.
Noted loyal Waiapu chief.

page 129 native owners of any area or of contiguous areas. This plan was, subsequently, extended to include areas not necessarily contiguous but having elements of common ownership; it could be brought into operation with the consent of a majority, based on values. The body corporate which was created had a committee of management, which had complete power to raise funds on the security of the land and to carry out farming operations. So far as it had been related to farming, it had practically been confined to the district between Gisborne and Hicks Bay. It was a valuable scheme in cases where a family carried on farming and was not willing to dispose of the land to one of its members.

Next came the consolidation of interests plan, which aimed at gathering into one location, or, if that was found impossible, into only a few locations, the scattered interests of individuals or of families. Commencing in 1911 with the Waipiro blocks, the principle had been extended until, by 1931, it applied to native lands in five counties on the East Coast and in the Bay of Plenty, five in the King Country, and to practically the whole of the native land north of Auckland.

“It is now,” Sir Apirana continued, “a stupendous undertaking…. Wherever it has been applied, the Maori communities have been insistent that it should be carried out with speed and vigour…. Consolidation is the most comprehensive method of approximating the goal of individual, or, at least, compact family, ownership.

Whilst the schemes of incorporation and of consolidation were being put into practice, steps were also being taken to vest in statutory bodies other lands that were held communally, and power was also being taken to administer them as farms for the native beneficiaries. A system of leasing to selected native-owners was also put into operation with limited success. Sir Apirana commented:

“The accumulated effect of the application of these devices, in conjunction with education and other factors, in the impact of western civilisation on the culture of the Maori people has been to break down the wall of conservatism and to force a resignation to methods which appeared drastic but which emphasised settlement of the lands as against niceties of title.”

Under more recent legislation, difficulties as to title are not permitted to stand in the way of the development of suitable areas. Power is given to Maori Land Boards to use their funds for the development of lands for settlement and authority is given to the Native Trustee to use funds in his account for a like purpose. Funds may also be provided by the Minister for Finance through the Native Land Settlement Account. Further, it has been made possible either for a Maori Land Board or for the Native Trustee to farm special blocks on behalf of the beneficial owners. Even earlier, the foundations had been laid on the East Coast for the training of natives to enable them to become industrious settlers.


The Ahuwhenua Cup (donated by Lord Bledisloe for competition among Maori farmers to encourage agricultural efficiency) was won in 1936 by W. Swinton (Raukokore), in 1938 by H. J. Dewes (Horoera, E.C.) and in 1948 by T. Callaghan (Raukokore).

The title “Native Trustee” has been officially altered to “Maori Trustee”; that of “Native Department” to “Maori Affairs Department”; and that of “Native Land Court” to “Maori Land Court.”