Book Review: Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820 – 1921 by Judith Binney (Bridget Williams Books, 2009)

Reviewed by Mike Kay

One of New Zealand’s leading contemporary historians, Judith Binney, has written a major study on the story of how the people of the Urewera came to be parted from their lands. This book deserves to be widely read. However, at over 600 pages long, it is unlikely to reach the audience that it merits. Therefore, I will attempt to summarise the narrative in this review, and then analyse it from a Marxist perspective.

Hapū of the Urewera take their name from Tuhoe-potiki, who was descended from the immigrant Toroa, leader of the Mataatua waka, and also the indigenous ancestors Toi and Potiki I.

While the Urewera has always been the Tūhoe heartlands, other areas have been contested with other tribes. The fertile alluvial plains of Opouriao were conquered by Tūhoe in the 1820s who defeated the costal people of Ngāti Raka, and saw off Ngāpuhi who had come to expel them. The inaccessibility of the Urewera gave rise to many European prejudices about its people:

The colonial myth of Empire – an assumed right to authoritative control by Europeans – turned Te Urewera into New Zealand’s “Heart of Darkness”. The land was primordial and menacing, not able to be easily ordered by an axe, and its people “primitive”. They were considered to be, in the 1860s, the final bastion of an entrenched mana Māori, because they defended their land until they were physically removed from their dangerous mountains into temporary “concentration camps” or, in some instances, into permanent exile. The government insisted that the Urewera had to be subjugated. There was, thus, a direct political relationship imagined between the people and the concealing landscape. That this remains a recurrent mental association has been demonstrated by the armed police invasion of Ruatoki in 2007. (pp. 30-31)

Musket-armed Ngāpuhi attacked Tūhoe about 1822, causing everyone to flee inland to Maungapohatu. In 1829, Tūhoe leader Paora Kiingi I forged a peace between Maatatua tribes. Trade and the arrival of missionaries began to rapidly transform life in the Urewera. Contact with traders brought pigs, corn and potatoes from Auckland’s markets. Missionaries brought literacy. “Maori Christianity was extensively self-taught in the Urewera.” (p.52) There was great competition between Protestant and Catholic missionaries. The latter were more successful with their ornate rituals, icons and political neutrality in a British colony. Increasingly, Tūhoe were seeking paid work, mainly in government road building, since they needed money to acquire metal tools, cooking pots and cutting instruments. By the early 1840s Tūhoe had reoccupied the Waimana and Ruatoki river valleys.

In 1856, Tūhoe attended an intertribal gathering at Pukawa to discuss Māori “kinship”, but did not join the Kiingitanga until two years later under the leadership of Potatau. Governor George Grey’s representative visited the Urewera in 1862 with a proposal for “rūnanga” – self-governing Māori district councils with powers to determine land titles, partly intended to undermine the King Movement. The initiative was cautiously welcomed by Tūhoe, but it was never tested, since the Native Land Court (a roving tribunal) was set up instead.

In 1862 the Waikato chief Rewi Maniapoto visited Ruatahuna, seeking military support. After some debate, a contingent of about 50 Tūhoe was sent. They fought in the siege of Orakau in 1864, the final battle of the Waikato War. The pā was outnumbered four to one by government forces. Nevertheless they resisted five assaults and 56 hours of continuous fighting. About 30 Tūhoe were killed with remainder escaping in the subsequent orchestrated breakout. Later, Tūhoe came to interpret the decision to make distant war as a disaster. But they had decided to send a small contingent because “[t]hey feared (correctly) that their lands might be next to come under threat of government invasion.” (p.73)

Missionaries from Taranaki prophet Te Ua Hamene’s Pai Mārire religion arrived in 1865. Keropa Te Rau and Patara Te Raukatauri preached a doctrine of divine intervention that “offered a theology of a future liberation in a colonial situation.” (p.75) They imposed a blockade at Whakatane to prevent the return of the Anglican missionary and government informant Carl Volkner. A rūnanga then decided to execute Volkner. Kereopa was central to the decision, but there was little evidence of Tūhoe involvement. Pai Mārire spread rapidly through the Urewera, where Kereopa found sanctuary. This led to civil war with neighbouring Ngāti Porou. Government agent Donald McLean demanded loyalty oaths from tribal chiefs, leading to further division and warfare. Another government informant, James Fulloon, was killed after provoking Pai Mārire adherents at Whakatane.

In September 1865, the government ordered a full-scale military occupation of the eastern Bay of Plenty. They looted land at Opotoki, and confiscated costal areas of the Bay. Any resistance to the imposed martial law was considered rebellion. In January 1866, low lying land at the northern edges of the Urewera was confiscated to fund escalating war costs and to break the will of the people. “Cost recovery” continued by means of land sales. A Compensation Court was set up, charged with distinguishing between “loyalist” and “rebel” Māori. This process began the individualisation of Māori land titles, undermining hapū and tribal cohesion.

On 11 September 1866, the government gazetted a confiscation line, cutting out a huge chunk of costal land. The boundary was both economic and punitive. Urewera chiefs agreed to surrender Kereopa. However, Binney argues that probably “the government did not wish to settle for peace terms with Tūhoe’s leaders… [they] wanted to break the autonomy of Te Urewera.” (p.111) Tūhoe declared the confiscation line an “aukati, a defensive line that none could cross with a hostile purpose without reprisal.” (p.113) Land beyond the line became the “Rohe Pōtae”, just as Maniapoto had declared in the King Country. Guerrilla warfare continued, and in January 1868 and epidemic (probably influenza) was raging. Major J. H. St John destroyed cultivations, having “learnt that starvation was his best ally in this war.” (p.130)

Within this tragic story there is some light relief at the ineptitude of the colonial government. Its East Coast Land Titles Investigation Act of 1866 was intended to enable the “confiscation of lands belonging to those considered to be rebels. However, in the following year it was suddenly realised that the Act had been incompetently drafted: a tangle of double negatives ensured that the Act authorised the government to retain land owned by all those who were deemed not to have been in rebellion!” (p.134) It was hurriedly corrected.

In 1869, another government fugitive, Te Kooti, sought refuge in Te Urewera. The alliance he forged with Tūhoe “was  the direct consequence of the government’s actions” (p.143) The overwhelming force of government troops amounted to “a war of domination, extending far beyond the search for one man.” (p.180) Tūhoe were forced to “come in” to costal areas and sell land under duress. Loss of land drove Tūhoe to support Te Kooti. But finally, Tūhoe gave their allegiance as a tribe to the government in April 1871. Even so, they showed considerable ambivalence to the on-going manhunt. In December, the Anglican missionary William Colenso published a pamphlet pleading for clemency and an end to “an unjust and unholy war.”

The first promise of autonomy for Tūhoe from the government came from a pact that Ruatahuna chief Paerou negotiated with McLean in 1871. In June 1872 Urewera hapū formed a council called “ Te Whitu Tekau” (The Seventy). Their aim was to support the authority of the Rohe Pōtae. But the government’s strategy of “conquest by purchase” was threatening its borders. Yet the Urewera’s Rohe Pōtae remained “substantially outside the bounds of British sovereignty”, long after its counterpart in King Country was opened up. Absolute poverty of the subsistence farming meant “[t]here was no surplus production by which Tūhoe could develop trade.” (p.259) This increased pressure to lease land.

In 1886, Native Minister John Balance promised a “separate district” to the Urewera. But Tūhoe were finding that the Land Court system and the costs associated with it ensured that they would lose time and again. “The survey debts imposed as liens over their lands were impossible to meet without further subdivision and sale.” In 1895, surveys were obstructed by Tūhoe, who then faced police and artillery and eventually imprisonment. Prospectors were increasingly interested in the Urewera as a possible source of gold deposits.

The Urewera District Reserve Act was passed in October 1896. Prime Minister Seddon claimed that it fulfilled McLean’s earlier promise. The Act gave the Urewera autonomy, but also gave the government a monopoly on buying land in the area. The intention was to establish the mana of the Queen, rather than the existing de facto autonomy. The Act also established the Urewera Commission, chaired by a Land Court judge. The Commission was charged with establishing block titles, but this led to feuding amongst the various hapū due to overlapping boundries.

The Act lead to a renewed enthusiasm for achieving autonomy amongst Tūhoe. A symbol of this was the flag obtained by Maungapohatu chief Tutakangahau. It consisted of the Union Jack defaced with the wording “Kotahi Te Ture/ Mo Nga Iwi E Rua/ Maungapohatu” (One Law/ For Both Peoples/ Maungapohatu) The demand for radical equality is evident. This flag was subsequently seized by the police in 1916 as evidence in the charge of sedition against Rua Kenana.

In 1907 the community at Te Houhi in the western Urewera were evicted from their ancestral land, despite the private landowners obtaining their title fraudulently. The people could not afford to initiate legal proceedings. The laws favoured “one form of property ownership (European-owned, private freehold property) at the expense of Māori communally owned land.” (p.493)

Tūhoe were looking to a newly emerging leader, Rua Kenana. He claimed authority based on Te Kooti’s prophetic tradition, not whakapapa (which favoured his traditionalist rival Numia). He founded a settlement named Hiruharama Hou (New Jerusalem) at Maungapohatu in 1907. A European visitor described the community as a place of “peace and plenty” with crops, livestock and orchards. The MP for Eastern Māori, Apirana Ngata ensured Rua could sell land to the government to raise working capital for Hiruharama Hou.

In 1906 Tūhoe elected a General Committee in an attempt to realise self-government under the 1896 Act. But the government was preoccupied with granting prospecting licenses, which it was able to do under the 1905 Mining Act. Rua Kenena was “not so much a democrat, but a potential monarch”, who saw scriptural history and the possibility of gold as providing for a self-sustaining, co-operatively farmed kingdom in the Urewera. Meanwhile the Liberal government faced “heavy pressure to make Māori land more productive.” (p.518)

Ngata and fellow Māori MP James Carroll set about undermining the 1896 Act in order to bring the Rohe Pōtae within the country’s general laws. New legislation gave the government a monopoly on buying land in the Urewera. Additionally, it could set its own land valuations, which in the Urewera did not include timber value.

The government had promised Tūhoe that it would build a road in the Waimana Valley, but it never did, as this would have increased the value of land held by Tūhoe. Ngata’s policy was to open up Tūhoe land to European settlement and conserve a tribal core as papa kāing (communally owned inalienable land, i.e. reserves). Carroll began negotiating directly with Rua, undermining the General Committee. “It was the beginning of direct and illegal purchasing in the Urewera.” (p.557)

The government formally suspended purchasing in the Urewera in March 1912, by which time it had acquired some 40,000 acres. Ngata “used Rua to break open the shell of Tūhoe resistance to land sales” (p.564) This was ”the direct application of the Liberals’ view that ‘idle’ lands should be removed from the hands of ‘backward’ or inept landlords, and vested with others.” (p.566) By 1915, Rua was seen as
”the main obstacle” to the government’s land purchasing plans.

In April 1916, Rua was arrested by armed police in what the Supreme Court later ruled an illegal assault. Rua had been charged by police several times prior. The 1910 Licensing Act, under Ngata’s influence, had proclaimed “Native Prohibition Areas”, which included the Urewera. This Act enabled Rua’s arrest for “sly grogging” in 1915. During the trial, a constable “gave evidence that it was ‘practically impossible’ to get Māori in the district to enlist [for World War I] owing to Rua’s influence.” (p.580) He served a three month jail sentence, but this only served to increase his mana.

Binney examines the evidence of the 1916 raid and draws a number of conclusions: Rua did not resist arrest; his son was probably murdered by police; and the police probably fired the first shot. Rua was then sent to Auckland for trial. His trial was at that time the longest in New Zealand history, running to 47 days of hearings. Of the eight charges against him, the jury found him guilty of just one: “morally resisting arrest”. Yet Judge Frederick Chapman (later Chief Justice) sentenced Rua to one year’s hard labour and a further 18 month’s imprisonment. Chapman told him that the “arm of the law was long… That is the lesson that your people should learn from this trial.” (p.591) On the very same day that the sentence was delivered, the Reform government introduced legislation to retrospectively validate its previous illegal land purchases in the Urewera.

The trial had placed huge financial burdens of Tūhoe, who had to bear the substantial legal costs, and were also billed for the costs of the police expedition (amounting to over £900), meaning they were forced to sell more land. Land Court judge J.W. Brown was charged to “inspect” the distressed community at Maungapohatu with a view to government assistance. This he declined on the basis that “The Tuhoe Natives are, if anything, more communistic than any other section of Natives in New Zealand.” (p.592)

Legislation of August 1916 allowed individual Māori owners in the Urewera to sell land “to the Crown, but to no other person.” (p.595) By late 1919, the government had acquired more than half of the land in the Rohe Pōtae. The consolidation process resulted in almost 68,000 acres being transferred from Tūhoe to the government, with the non-sellers being concentrated in reserves. The underlying principle of the process was described by Native Minister Gordon Coates as “the extinction of existing titles and the substitution of another form of title which knows no more of ancestral rights to particular portions of the land.” (p.597) As Binney notes, “In Tūhoe’s case, it was the state that took their land, not individual settlers.” (p.615)

In her conclusion, Binney states that the shift in the population balance in favour of the European settlers was in the end decisive for Tūhoe. Yet the Urewera District Reserve of 1896 “was a unique experiment. There was –and is- no other legally recognised, self-governing tribal enclave in the country.” (p.604) She quotes a submission to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2003 which described the encirclement of the Urewera as “New Zealand’s equivalent of the highland clearances in Scotland” (p.608)

Tūhoe found themselves trapped behind their aukati, isolated from their kaimoana and other traditional food sources. “The recurrent crop failures at the end of the nineteenth century, caused by flooding, unseasonal frosts and blight were an indication of the marginality of the lands they were trying to cultivate with new crops.” (p.609) Far from the “isolationist” stereotype of Europeans, Tūhoe had tried to develop an economic relationship with settlers, e.g. gifting land to Pākehā at Ruatoki for a store and a co-operative cheese factory.

For Tūhoe, history is still very much a living thing, emphasised by the fact that heavily armed police from the Special Tactics Group patrolled the confiscation line at Ruatoki during the so-called “anti-terror” raids of 15 October 2007.

Binney points to Nunavut, the large Inuit state on the north coast of Canada, as a model for Tūhoe self-government within the nation state. She concludes by suggesting that Tūhoe autonomy may be realised in the same way “the Treaty of Waitangi itself has been reborn in the last thirty years at the social contract” (p.615)

For Marxists, what is decisive in the turbulent period of history examined in Binney’s book is a fundamental change in the economic mode of production. The Polynesian mode of production was marked by communal labour and land ownership. With arrival of European settlers, this system was increasingly under pressure from a new one: the Peasant mode of production, marked by subsistence agriculture, consolidated in “Māori land”. Rua’s struggle at Maungapohatu can to some extent be seen as an attempt to defend the Polynesian mode of production in unfavourable historical circumstances.

The Young Maori Party (of which Apirana Ngata was a member) believed the future for Māori lay in their assimilation into a fully capitalist way of life. Ngata’s colleague Peter Buck wrote in 1906:

The [Māori] communism of the past meant industry, training in arms, good physique, the sharing of the tribal burden, and the preservation of life. It was a factor in the evolution of the race. The communism of today means indolence, sloth, decay of racial vigour, the crushing of individual effort, the spreading of introduced infectious diseases and the many evils that are petrifying the Maori and preventing his advance. (Quoted in Nunes, p. 19)

It is not hard to see how such a political outlook encouraged Ngata to assist the government in the alienation of communally owned tribal land.

But what of the idea for Tūhoe autonomy that Binney argues so stridently for throughout her book? My major concern with Binney’s conclusion is her comment framing the case for self-determination against the context of the New Zealand’s state’s rediscovery of the Treaty of Waitangi in recent years. For us in the Workers Party, the Treaty (which Tūhoe never signed) is nothing more than legal cover for robbery and seizure of Māori tribal land. Few Māori beyond a tiny tribal elite have seen any real gains from the Treaty claims process. One would hope any form of self-government for Tūhoe would be far more democratic and equitable than anything that has come out of the Treaty tribunals!

The programme of a predecessor organisation of the Workers Party includes support for: “a high degree of autonomy for the Maori people up to and including the creation of Maori Autonomous Regions with special state financial assistance aimed at redressing past injustices.” However, the fact that today Māori are overwhelmingly part of working class, urbanised, detribalised and intermixed with non-Māori peoples, means that autonomy is impractical in most instances.

But for Tūhoe in the Urewera, they remain a compact population with many of their traditional kinship ties still in place. This, together with a longstanding yearning for self-determination (and the existence of a unique, if short-lived, historical precedent) may mean that revolutionaries need to take a fresh look at the case for autonomy in the Urewera.


Nunes, Ray “The Maori in Prehistory and Today” Workers’ Party of New Zealand, 1991

3 Responses to Book Review: Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820 – 1921 by Judith Binney (Bridget Williams Books, 2009)

  1. Could you please hep me to get clarity around the policies of Te Whitu Tekau when they declared their own government and self autonomy.
    Were the policies based under the principles of Te Kooti arikirangi and rua kenana, setting up.
    Help. Kia ora.
    We are looking for a model that rangatahi of tuhoe can understand to be able see what way tuhoe will go in terms of the return of our lands and the claims. We would like to have a clear economic model to follow and not the one that is current forcing us to take.

  2. Mike22275 says:

    Kia Ora Marie

    When Te Whitu Tekau was established at Ruatahuna in 1872, they formed an agreement to ban roads, leases and sales within the Rohe Potae. However, this proved to be contentious amongst some members. Certainly, the Ringatu faith underpinned Te Whitu Tekau. The problem for the council was that although the government had promised them autonomy, in practice it undermined them at every turn, because it was seen as an obstacle to the colony’s land policy. Because of the encirclement of the Rohe Potae, the council was never given the chance to develop its own course.

    “Te Whitu Tekau’s combined leadership was never able to find consistent support from either government or hapu. General government strategy became, rather, to find individual chiefs who might be chiselled away (by money or trickery).”

    In terms of the economic basis for autonomy in Te Urewera today, Judith Binney suggests: “Tuhoe’s central resources would not be mining, but managed ecotourism within the Urewera National Park.”

    The torturous Treaty claims process produces so little of benefit to plebian Maori, and an alternative is urgently needed. About three years back, the Workers Party helped to promote the struggle of the group of occupiers at Acacia Bay, Lake Taupo in opposition to the Land Trust’s decision to lease land (on which ancient bones were discovered) to an Auckland property developer.

    However, the degree to which autonomy is realizable while Aotearoa remains dominated by the capitalist system, is debatable.

  3. M Harris says:

    I came across a quote from Dun Mihaka the other day which throws a different angle on the debate about autonomy:

    “One of the unique things about our annexation and the introduction of industrial society to our shores was that the property relations that came with it were in direct opposition to the common property relations that were already in existence here.

    Despite the fact that different property relations were imposed on Maori society, they have, nevertheless, over the last 150 years become the widespread practice here. Yet people still persist in debating ‘Maori rights’ to the ownership of property on the strength of primitive communal rights which are irrelevant because the reality we have today, of private property, is diametrically opposed to collective ownership on the basis of tribal kin groups. It is for this reason that I am highly suspicious of the government’s current agenda, hidden under every public service stone -and on every marae for discussion - of devolution, the fabrication of ‘iwi authority’, official kaumatua, which do nothing but pander to cultural nostalgia for the ulterior motive of ensuring that the present status quo is maintained whereby private property and maximum profit are the realities.” (“Ki Te Whei-Ao, Ki Te Ao-Marama…”.72)

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