Fault lines

by Karl du Fresne / 29 January, 2011

Aratoi.

The story of Pouakani doesn't echo through our social history like Bastion Point or Parihaka, but it's another important symbol of Government dishonour.

It was pumice land, good for nothing - miles from anywhere, inaccessible by road, infested with rabbits and covered with tussock and stunted scrub. Yet it was this land on the volcanic plateau that dispossessed Maori from the southern Waira­rapa were persuaded to accept in exchange for a resource of almost inestimable value: Lake Wairarapa and the surrounding wetlands.

For want of a better analogy, it was like swapping a fully optioned late-model Lexus for a rusting Morris Marina with bald tyres, a blown head gasket and no warrant of fitness.

The place was called Pouakani - hardly a name with the historical resonance of Parihaka or Bastion Point. Yet the long trail of dishonour that led to Pouakani must rank as one of the more shameful episodes in the history of Maori-Pakeha relations. At every turn in a convoluted saga stretching over a century, the Maori who ceded Lake Wairarapa to the Crown in 1896 were shafted.

How they were pressured into giving up their precious moana and were later fobbed off with a barren wasteland in return is covered in an exhibition at Aratoi, Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton, and more thoroughly documented in a Waitangi Tribunal report issued last June. If you read the history of the affair, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Maori goodwill was cynically exploited in the only part of the North Island that escaped armed conflict during the 19th century.

At the heart of the issue lies the lake that gives the Wairarapa region its name. (it means sparkling waters, although most of the time the lake is a dull brown). Wai­rarapa Moana, as local Maori of the Rangi­tane and Ngati Kahungunu iwi called it, is the North Island's third-largest lake after Taupo and Rotorua. Shallow and low-lying, it drains into Palliser Bay via a second, much smaller lake, Lake Onoke.

Until the late 19th century, the gravel spit that separates Lake Onoke from the sea would block up every summer. As waters backed up behind the spit, lake levels would rise by as much as 4m, creating one vast lake and doubling the area under water to more than 20,000ha. It was a food source of immense importance, rich in whitebait, flounder, kokopu (freshwater fish), waterfowl and, most important, eels.

The annual eel harvest attracted Maori from throughout the Wairarapa and yielded 20-30 tonnes a year. Alexander Mackay, who in 1891 conducted a royal commission of inquiry into Maori claims over the two lakes, described the Wai­rarapa Moana eel fishery as being "as of much value to [Maori] as the banks of Newfoundland are to those who deal in cod-fish".

Each hapu had rights over certain creeks and rivers but shared access to the area around the mouth of Lake Onoke, where migrating eels congregated in huge numbers to find a way through to the sea. Fishing parties would dig blind channels into the spit, then block them off once the eels had swum into them. Eels would be preserved in the thousands on drying frames and used as food throughout the year or traded with iwi from other districts.

But the eel fishery depended on two natural phenomena: the annual flood cycle and the blockage of the outlet to the sea. And therein lay the reason for the tension that arose between the Maori and the first settler farmers, who resented their valuable pastureland being flooded and began agitating for a permanent outlet so the floodwaters could discharge harmlessly out to sea.

That the land surrounding the lakes was legitimately bought by the Crown for sale to settlers was not in dispute, but the purchases did not cover the lakes themselves and it was accepted that local Maori retained rights over the spit. However, as farming intensified and the value of land rose, the initially amicable relationship between settlers and Maori deteriorated. Settlers began lobbying the Government and threatened to open the lake mouth themselves - an ultimatum described by Government land purchaser Donald McLean as preposterous.

In an attempt to defuse the situation, McLean authorised negotiations for the purchase of Lakes Wairarapa and Onoke, but even after a direct approach from the premier, Sir George Grey, the majority of owners refused to sell.

Parliament's Native Affairs Committee and the courts became involved. Meanwhile, the settlers piled on the pressure, petitioning Parliament over the "obstructive" behaviour of the local Maori (this after Maori had volunteered to open the outlet at an agreed time in return for ­payment).

Later, the settlers tried another tack, forming the South Wairarapa River Board and announcing they would open the outlet on the pretext that it was covered by legislation governing drainage works. Despite advice from the Solicitor-General that they had no right to do so, the lake mouth was opened in 1888. A small party of Maori protesters watched.

Mackay's royal commission in 1891 confirmed that Maori were the rightful owners of the spit and that no one else had authority to interfere with the opening of the lake or with other proprietary rights "guaranteed to the Natives by a solemn compact with the Imperial Government". Any infringement of those rights without Maori consent, or the payment of compensation, was a grievous wrong and a breach of property rights, Mackay wrote.

His recommendations were ignored. The river board continued opening the lake mouth. In 1892 an estimated 100 Maori protesters, including women, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the opening. Iwi leader Piripi Te Maari went to the Court of Appeal alleging trespass and claiming damages. The court, by a majority of four to one, came up with a novel ruling that the outlet to the sea, even when completely blocked by shingle and sand, still existed. Since the lake mouth was a natural watercourse, albeit hidden for part of the year, the court found that the river board was not liable for damages for opening it.

Te Maari subsequently petitioned Parliament twice. On the second occasion the Native Affairs Committee "most urgently" recommended that "the undoubted grievances under which the Natives labour should be redressed". Still nothing happened.

In 1896, the owners of Wairarapa Moana unexpectedly moved to resolve the impasse by gifting the lakes to the Crown. Te Maari, who had led the battle for the lakes, had died and the Waitangi Tribunal suggests Maori were worn down by the long struggle. "For decades, they had resisted constant pressure to yield their rights to the settlers and the Crown; they had petitioned Parliament again and again and been to court repeatedly. The toll on them in terms of time, effort, and money was surely enormous."

The tribunal concluded that the Wai­rarapa Maoris' options, and probably their money, were running out. The ceding of the lakes to the Crown, an arrangement requiring reciprocal obligations, would have seemed an honourable and mana-enhancing solution.

A crucial part of the deal, which was celebrated at a big picnic attended by ­Premier Richard Seddon, was that the Crown undertook to provide "ample reserves" of land in exchange for the lakes. The English version of the agreement was not specific about the location of these reserves, but the Maori translation said the land would be in the area of the lakes and would be put aside carefully and deliberately so as to cater to the needs of the Maori.

The deal also involved a payment of £2000 to Maori. The tribunal considered whether this meant the lakes were sold rather than gifted, but concluded that the £2000 was given as compensation for legal costs incurred by Maori in the struggle to retain ownership. It based this opinion partly on Seddon's speech at the picnic, in which he not only stressed that the lakes were a gift to the Crown but also told Maori: "Your money disappeared like snow from the mountain tops."

As for the "ample reserves", it was not until 20 years later that they were allocated and they were nowhere near Lake Wairarapa. They were nearly 500km north at Pouakani, around present-day Mangakino - a place possibly chosen because no one else wanted it. The tribunal commented that the land at Pouakani was "different in every way from what the donors of the lakes may legitimately have expected".

It added: "To say that the Pouakani land was in an out-of-the-way place or that it was hard to get to would be to understate the position entirely. Its total inaccessibility meant that it remained untouched for 30 years after the Wairarapa people became its owners."

The records suggest although Seddon wanted to keep faith with Wairarapa Maori, attempts to find suitable land in the Wairarapa got bogged down in bureaucratic inertia and unwillingness. A Department of Lands official opposed Maori being granted land around the lake for fear of friction with European ­property owners.

An Act of Parliament in 1907, after Seddon's death, prevented the acquisition of lakeside reserves; a proposal to purchase nearby land at Whangaimoana was ruled out because it was too expensive. Attention then shifted to other parts of the Wairarapa and eventually to Pouakani, a place the Wairarapa Maori knew nothing about and with which they had no connection.

The 12,000ha at Pouakani was described in a survey plan as "poor pumice country", covered with tussock and scrubby tea-tree. Maori leaders were divided over whether to accept it, but according to the tribunal, the Government played for time in the hope that opposition would dissipate - which it did.

In 1916 the land was vested in its new owners - 230 of them, based on an 1883 certificate of title to Lake Wairarapa. The tribunal commented: "They ended up with what no one in their situation would have chosen unless they had absolutely run out of alternatives - and by the end, they were clearly worried that they might get nothing at all."

None of the new owners would move to the remote block until the late 1940s. In the meantime, the authorities continued to treat them with contempt. When the Government chose Pouakani as the site for the Maraetai hydro dam on the Waikato River, no one bothered to tell the Maori owners, still less seek their consent. An access road was built from Tokoroa in 1945 and the foundations of Mangakino township were laid without their know­ledge. The tribunal cites evidence that officials kept the Maori owners in the dark so they would be presented with a "fait accompli".

A substantial community sprang up at Mangakino, including a school, playing fields, a post office and stores. Still the owners knew nothing. It was only when Prime Minister Peter Fraser visited Pouakani in 1947 and learnt of the owners' ignorance of the massive development that they were finally notified. Another year passed before the Cabinet formally approved acquisition of the land for the dam and township, although by then work had been under way for years. To add insult to injury, the site on which Mangakino had been built was considered the best and most fertile land in the Pouakani block. A further six years passed before compensation was settled for the land, the Government all the while quibbling over the valuation and arguing that the Maori owners had got the benefit of improvements associated with the dam. By that time Mangakino was a thriving town with a population of several thousand.

The story doesn't get any better. The first Wairarapa Maori - five men - moved to Pouakani in 1948 and others followed in the 1950s, but it was not a happy migration. Memory Te Whaiti, who made the journey north in 1956, told the tribunal: "My family was very unhappy at our shift to Mangakino because it was so far away. I remember that my grandmother and the other older people in the family were against us having the land at Mangakino. They felt that we were in someone else's territory, tramping on their land."

By 1959, 26 families had moved north. By then Pouakani was part of a Maori development scheme administered by the Department of Maori Affairs, but attempts to farm the land read like a gothic horror story. Like much of the volcanic plateau, the land was critically cobalt-deficient. Cows developed bush sickness and died. Pumice blocked water bores.

Pai Te Whaiti, one of the first five to move to Pouakani in 1948, told the tribunal that red clover was the only grass capable of surviving. "Everyone had cows dying and nobody seemed to be helping us." In the first year he lost 14 cows from a herd of 52. Maori Affairs advisers were not much help. "We had a dairy supervisor there and all he was doing was to show us how to put the cups on cows," Pai Te Whaiti said. "We already knew that." What they needed, he said, was advice on developing land and running a business. The tribunal concurred, saying the idea of putting young, inexperienced farmers - "raw Maori boys, a long way from home" - on remote, difficult farmland under the guidance of civil servants "did not seem like a recipe for success".

Demoralised by high development costs and crippled by debt and drought, many of the Pouakani settlers gave up. The logging of native timber provided some income to the Pouakani 2 Trust, whose shareholders are all descendants of the original Lake Wairarapa owners, but it wasn't until 1999 that farming operations finally began returning dividends.

In the meantime, the owners of the Pouakani lands suffered another crushing setback. The land on which Mangakino was built had originally been leased to the Government on the basis that the town was temporary and when no longer needed would be cleared and the land returned to the owners in its original condition. But Ministry of Works officials convinced the owners that Mangakino faced a prosperous future as a permanent town and would provide a long-term source of profitable rental income. The leasing arrangements were duly changed in 1959 and the owners agreed to pay the Crown £55,000 for improvements to the land.

Alas - shafted again. Mangakino went into a deep decline from which it never recovered. Only two years later it was described as a ghost town with high unemployment and little prospect of improvement. Property values slumped, rents fell into arrears and the owners found themselves liable for rates bills that far exceeded income. The tribunal commented, "In persuading those owners to depart from the original leasehold concept for the town, they led them to forfeit forever the opportunity to recover their freehold acres." The town has since been sold to a Tauranga property developer.

Happily, there was to be light at the end of this long tunnel. After a restructuring of the troubled Pouakani 2 Trust's affairs in the 1990s, the tribunal says, the Pouakani land is now profitable dairying country. Former New Zealand First MP Ron Mark and Kingi Smiler, previously a partner in accounting firm Ernst & Young, played key roles in the restructuring. The Pouakani trust provides income to the Masterton-based Wairarapa Moana Trust, which funds social and educational development for about 3000 descendants of the Lake Wairarapa owners.

Ironically, very few of the trust's shareholders - Mark estimates as little as 5% - still live at Pouakani. "A lot just gave up," he says. The last of the elders who led the northward migration died only last year. The Waitangi Tribunal is blunt, saying southern Wairarapa Maori suffered a century of loss. Their property rights were "overridden, disregarded and dishonoured". In the Wairarapa, more weight was always given to the interests of settler farmers; at Pouakani, the interests of the Crown came first.

Now that the land has started to return a profit, the tribunal says, Wairarapa Maori would probably say that getting Pouakani was a lot better than nothing. "But for the generation of Wairarapa Maori who gave up the lakes, the difference between Pouakani and nothing must have been hard to spot."

Mark, now the mayor of Carterton, puts it slightly differently. Pouakani broke both the hearts and backs of the people who moved there, he says. "To say that the move to Pouakani was traumatic would be a complete understatement. It was absolutely soul-destroying, and they still talked about it many years on. Loss of self-esteem, loss of pride, loss of the ability to be self-sufficient ... it's difficult to calculate the consequences of it."

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