Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Land Ownership in Old Polynesia

Polynesian Resource Center

From Old New Zealand by Fredrick Maning

As usual on any subject when it comes to the customs and manners of Old Polynesia.
for colourful description Fredrick Maning is the man.

“Every Englishman's house is his castle,” “I scorn the foreign yoke,” and glory in the name of Briton, and all that. The natural end, however, of all castles is to be burnt or blown up. In England it is true you can call the constable, and should any foreign power attack you with grinding organ and white mice, you may hope for succours from without; from which cause “castles” in England are more long-lived. In New Zealand, however, it is different, as, to the present day, the old system prevails, and castles continue to be disposed of in the natural way, as has been seen lately at Taranaki.

I now purchased a piece of land and built a “castle” for myself. I really can't tell to the present day who I purchased the land from, for there were about fifty different claimants, every one of whom assured me that the other forty-nine were “humbugs,” and had no right whatever. The nature of the different titles of the different claimants were various. One man said his ancestors had killed off the first owners; another declared his ancestors had driven off the second party; another man, who seemed to be listened to with more respect than ordinary, declared that his ancestor had been the first possessor of all, and had never been ousted, and that this ancestor was a huge lizard that lived in a cave on the land many ages ago: and, sure enough, there was the cave to prove it.

Besides the principal claims there were an immense number of secondary ones—a sort of latent equities—which had lain dormant until it was known the pakeha had his eye on the land. Some of them seemed to me at the time odd enough. One man required payment because his ancestors, as he affirmed, had exercised the right of catching rats on it; but which he (the claimant) had never done, for the best of reasons, i.e., there were no rats to catch: except indeed pakeha rats, which were plenty enough, but this variety of rodent was not counted as game. Another claimed because his grandfather had been murdered on the land, and—as I am a veracious pakeha—another claimed payment because his grandfather had committed the murder! Then half the country claimed payments of various value, from one fig of tobacco to a musket, on account of a certain wahi tapu, or ancient burying-ground, which was on the land, and in which every one almost had had relations or rather ancestors buried, as they could clearly make out, in old times; though no one had been deposited in it for about two hundred years, and the bones of the others had been (as they said) removed long ago to a torere in the mountains.

It seemed an awkward circumstance that there was some difference of opinion as to where this same wahi tapu was situated, being, and lying; for in case of my buying the land it was stipulated that I should fence it round and make no use of it, although I had paid for it. I, however, have put off fencing till the exact boundaries have been made out; and indeed I don't think I shall ever be called on to do so, the fencing proviso having been made, as I now believe, to give a stronger look of reality to the existence of the sacred spot, it having been observed that I had some doubts on the subject. No mention was ever made of it after the payments had been all made, and so I think I may venture to affirm that the existence of the said wahi tapu is of very doubtful authenticity, though it certainly cost me a round “lot of trade.” There was one old man who obstinately persisted in declaring that he, and he alone, was the sole and rightful owner of the land; he seemed also to have a “fixed idea” about certain barrels of gunpowder; but as he did not prove his claim to my satisfaction, and as he had no one to back him, I of course gave him nothing; he nevertheless demanded the gunpowder about once a month for five-and-twenty years, till at last he died of old age, and I am now a landed proprietor, clear of all claims and demands, and have an undeniable right to hold my estate as long as ever I am able.

It took about three months' negotiation before the purchase of the land could be made; and, indeed, I at one time gave up the idea, as I found it quite impossible to decide whom to pay. If I paid one party, the others vowed I should never have possession, and to pay all seemed impossible; so at last I let all parties know that I had made up my mind not to have the land. This, however, turned out to be the first step I had made in the right direction; for, thereupon, all the different claimants agreed amongst themselves to demand a certain quantity of goods, and divide them amongst themselves afterwards. I was glad of this, for I wished to buy the land, as I thought, in case I should ever take a trip to the “colonies,” it would look well to be able to talk of “my estate in New Zealand.”

The day being now come on which I was to make the payment, and all parties present, I then and there handed over to the assembled mob the price of the land, consisting of a great lot of blankets, muskets, tomahawks, tobacco, spades, axes, &c., &c.; and received in return a very dirty piece of paper with all their marks on it, I having written the terms of transfer on it in English to my own perfect satisfaction. The cost per acre to me was, as near as can be, about five and a half times what the same quantity of land would have cost me at the same time in Tasmania. But this was not of much importance, as the value of land in New Zealand then (and indeed now) being chiefly imaginary, one could just as easily suppose it to be of a very great value as a very small one; I therefore did not complain of the cost.


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