October 2014 Māori Law Review

Tūhoe-Crown Settlement – historical background

Dr Vincent O'Malley provides a concise historical background of events lying behind the Tūhoe-Crown settlement.


Behind the Tūhoe-Crown settlement is a long and tragic history of interactions with the Crown. The demand for mana motuhake, self-determination or autonomy, was central to the Tūhoe claim. It was a demand that echoed those of previous generations of Tūhoe leaders. Although Tūhoe leaders did not sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the Crown nevertheless assumed sovereignty over their territory (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 1, Sec. 3.3).

Initially, though, things changed little on the ground. British sovereignty was little more than a legal fiction and the first government visitor to the Urewera district arrived 22 years after the Treaty was signed, in 1862. All that changed almost overnight. Repeated and brutal invasions of the Urewera district from the mid-1860s partly reflected its status as a place of sanctuary for Māori from elsewhere who were seeking to elude government forces (Judith Binney, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921, p.68).

Kereopa Te Rau — convicted in 1871 for the murder of Opotiki missionary Carl Sylvius Völkner in March 1865 (and statutorily pardoned in 2014) — was one of those to be pursued. The Pai Marire faith he supported was officially condemned as a 'fanatical sect' in April 1865 and all 'loyal' subjects of the Crown encouraged to aid in its suppression. In September a government expeditionary force landed at Opotiki. Then, in December 1865, Crown forces launched an invasion via the Waikaremoana district, supposedly in pursuit of Pai Marire adherents fleeing the government attack on their former Turanga (Gisborne) stronghold at Waerenga-a-Hika. Entire settlements were laid waste and prisoners executed in cold blood (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 2, Sec 6.5).

But it was the presence in the district of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki and his followers that resulted in the most protracted and devastating period of conflict. Most of the whakarau, as they became known, had been seized by the Crown and deported to the Chatham Islands in 1866 after being captured during the East Coast Wars. Some Tūhoe taken prisoner at Waikaremoana and elsewhere were among their number. They were held without trial as 'political offenders', enduring harsh conditions and brutal treatment while the government made arrangements to confiscate their lands back at home (Waitangi Tribunal, Turanga Tangata, Turanga Whenua Report, Vol. 1, Sec. 5.2). In July 1868 Te Kooti and his followers escaped and made their way back to the mainland. Seeking to travel peaceably inland, Te Kooti instead found himself hounded by government forces. He retaliated in November of that year, killing more than 50 people (both Māori and Pākehā) at the settlement of Matawhero, near Gisborne, before being granted sanctuary in the Urewera district the following year (Waitangi Tribunal, Turanga Tangata, Turanga Whenua Report, Vol. 1, Sec. 5.5).

Tūhoe were to suffer terribly for giving shelter to Te Kooti. Scorched earth tactics directed against them saw their homes and crops deliberately destroyed by colonial forces and their cattle and livestock plundered (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 1, Sec. 5.5). Those not killed in the conflict would be starved into submission. Worn out by wave after wave of bloody invasion, in 1871 Tūhoe chiefs reached a crucial agreement with the government, promising to capture and hand over Te Kooti in return for a Crown undertaking to respect their internal autonomy. In this way, although Te Kooti managed to escape, making his way to the King Country in May 1872, Tūhoe's rohe potae or encircling boundary came into existence.

Local rangatira quickly established a new governing body for their district in the aftermath of the war. Te Whitu Tekau (the Seventy) declared its opposition to land sales, surveys, roads and other tools of colonisation that threatened to undermine Tūhoe independence. But Crown and private agents were already chipping away on the fringes, posing a serious challenge to Tūhoe land and autonomy. The confiscation of valuable lands in which the iwi claimed interests in the Bay of Plenty and further south at Waikaremoana was felt deeply, and the steady erosion of the rohe pōtae that the government had promised to protect in 1871 would have serious consequences for Tūhoe (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 1, Sec. 4.5; Part 2, Sec. 7.5)

It may have been important to Tūhoe, but as far as the Crown was concerned, Native Minister Donald McLean’s 1871 agreement with the tribe was no more than a temporary expedient at a time of war (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 2, Sec. 8.3). Opening up the district to the rule of English law and land sales became a prime objective, especially as rumours circulated as to the existence of gold and other valuable minerals in the area. Setting aside the ring boundary was to be attempted in a number of different ways, including land purchases on the Urewera perimeter conducted with rival tribes, or secretive advances paid to needy individuals in the aftermath of the war that would later have to be repaid in land. For both Crown and private land buyers, indebtedness became a key tool in prising open the district (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 2, Sec. 10.4). Forced surveys for which the tribes would nevertheless be required to cough up land in payment was one tactic used — while outright fraud was also employed in some circumstances, most notably with respect to lands at Waiohau that were subject to an illegal partition, resulting in the owners being evicted from their homes (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 2, Sec. 11.5).

By the early 1890s the boundary had become not just smaller but also literally an encircling one as all of the lands on the edge of the district had either been confiscated, purchased or at least been pushed through the Native Land Court as a preliminary to sale. Colonisation became largely a matter of legal procedure rather than military might. The process of survey and title adjudication in which formerly communal and customary titles were replaced by legal ones empowering individuals to sell their piece of the tribal patrimony was one that many Tūhoe leaders had fought tirelessly to exclude from their district. But the relentless nature of government efforts to unlock the region to European settlement left Tūhoe deeply vulnerable to rifts and infighting prompted by land disputes (Judith Binney, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921, p.329).

A series of disputed surveys in the early 1890s that threatened to spill over into open warfare served as the catalyst for a new agreement with the Crown. The Native Land Court would not be imposed on Tūhoe's remaining lands provided they agreed to an alternative title investigation process. At the same time, the internal autonomy of Tūhoe and other Urewera iwi would be protected so long as the ultimate authority of the Crown was recognised. This 1896 agreement thus gave Tūhoe's de facto ‘home rule’ legal standing (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 2, Sec. 9.5). Given the frequently declared insistence of local politicians and leaders on a unitary form of government, in New Zealand terms this appeared to be a hugely significant concession and other iwi leaders expressed considerable interest in the model.

Yet the ominous if cynical warnings of Opposition MPs as the Urewera District Native Reserve Act passed through Parliament ultimately proved correct. Although Premier Richard Seddon spoke of finally honouring the quarter-century-old compact, his opponents predicted that the new measure was no more than ‘the thin end of the wedge’ that would finally open the district to colonisation. Tūhoe leaders may have thought they were getting legally sanctioned self-government, but they were really just opening themselves up to a new form of entrapment (Judith Binney, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921, p.404).

The Urewera Commission that began investigating land ownership in the area in the late 1890s soon proved more similar to the Native Land Court than anyone might originally have envisaged or feared. Under the 1896 legislation, it was to consist of five Tūhoe and two Pakeha commissioners. But an amendment passed in 1900 without consultation with the iwi disqualified any members who were personally interested in a case from deciding ownership. Consequently, many title orders were made by the Pakeha members. A second Urewera Commission established to hear more than 200 appeals had no Tūhoe representation on it. Tūhoe leaders complained that the titles that were issued failed to reflect their custom (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 3, Sec. 13.4).

Repeated crop failures, famine and disease wreaked havoc on tiny communities, as many as one-fifth of the total population of around 1600 dying in one year alone (1898) (Judith Binney, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921, p.629). It was in these desperate times that a great new Tūhoe prophet emerged. Rua Kenana claimed to be the successor that Te Kooti had much earlier prophesied. He set about building a thriving community at Maungapohatu. But Rua needed money to develop the area, and was willing to sell a limited amount of land to the government in order to get the capital he needed.

Crown officials expertly played Rua off against other tribal leaders, with the ultimate goal of overturning Tūhoe autonomy and opposition to land dealings. Tūhoe leaders had wanted the 1896 Act to include an outright ban on land sales. Instead, it reserved the right of purchasing solely to the Crown, with any purchases to be negotiated with the General Committee that was to be established under the legislation. Officials instead dragged their feet on convening the committee, while throughout manipulating tribal divisions engendered by the government’s own actions (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 3, Sec. 13.6)

A series of legislative amendments after 1896 incrementally undermined Urewera self-government. Then, in possibly the most cynical measure of all, in 1910 the government simply starting buying land interests directly from individuals, in direct contravention of its own laws (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 3, Sec. 13.7). With Rua no longer playing ball, in 1916 police raided his settlement at Maungapohatu on trumped up charges of sly-grogging, arresting the prophet and killing his son Toko (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 4, Sec. 17.3). The result was that, by 1921, Tūhoe autonomy was all but finished.

Legislation passed the following year repealed the 1896 Act, doing away with any last legal vestiges of self-government and providing the basis for a further round of wholesale land purchasing. The Urewera Lands Act of 1921-22 formally abolished the General Committee and authorised an Urewera Consolidation Scheme premised on ensuring that the scattered individual interests the Crown had acquired across many blocks was translated into outright ownership to around half the district. Another 40,000 acres was lost due to demands that Tūhoe contribute land for roading. The lands were taken but most of the roads were never built (Waitangi Tribunal, Te Urewera Pre-publication Report, Part 3, Sec. 14.3).

Further lands were taken for survey costs, and Tūhoe were left with just 16% of the Urewera reserve (Tūhoe Claims Settlement Act 2014, s 8(9)). Much of this was unsuitable for farming or subject to restrictions as a result of various conservation measures. With inadequate lands to support a population that had started to recover, by the 1930s large numbers of Tūhoe began moving elsewhere in search of employment opportunities. Matters were not helped by the establishment of the Urewera National Park in 1954, which placed further kerbs on access to customary resources and hampered the ability to develop lands adjoining or enclosed by the Park. The result is that today nearly five-sixths of all Tūhoe live outside Te Urewera and of those who remain a significant proportion suffer from severe socio-economic deprivation (Tūhoe Claims Settlement Act 2014, s 8(11)).


Author: Vincent O'Malley

Vincent is a Pakeha New Zealander of Irish and Scottish Highland descent. He has a BA (Hons) in History (1st Class) from the University of Canterbury and completed his PhD thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in 2004. Vincent has published widely in the area of Crown and Māori historical relationships, including his 1998 book, Agents of Autonomy: Māori Committees in the Nineteenth Century (Huia Publishers), and (with David Armstrong) The Beating Heart: A Political and Socio-Economic History of Te Arawa (Huia Publishers, 2008), The Treaty of Waitangi Companion: Maori and Pakeha from Tasman to Today (Auckland University Press, 2010, co-edited with Bruce Stirling and Wally Penetito), The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters, 1642-1840 (Auckland University Press, 2012), a finalist in the NZ Post Book Awards for 2013, and Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The Contest for Colonial New Zealand (Bridget Williams Books, 2014). He has also contributed to a wide range of local and international scholarly journals and other publications, including the New Zealand Journal of History, the Journal of the Polynesian Society, the Journal of New Zealand Studies, Labour History Review, Ethnohistory, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and a number of other monographs and book chapters. Vincent is the 2014 J D Stout Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington, where he is working on a history of the Waikato War.