Land is the Price: colonialism then…and now

Throughout history capitalists has searched the world for profitable exploitation. To create a paradise for capital, lands were sought, claimed and the people that lived there forced off their communal property. Those commoners then became the pool of labour that the industrial revolution was built on. From the enclosing of the commons in Britain to the colonisation projects the world over, this pattern was repeated. The robbery of land, and the subsequent creation of wage labour, is found throughout histories of colonisation.

The means by which this accumulation is first gathered has its roots in slavery, alienation, pauperism and genocide. As Marx stated “Capitalism comes into the world dripping from head to foot, from every pore with blood and dirt.”

Plotting an empire

The economic crisis and wars in Europe during the 1830’s drove the push for colonial expansion. There was not only the unemployed labour but also unemployed capital which could not be invested at a profit in Britain. This situation was driving down the rate of profit of capital already invested. Not only did the Empire need a place to send its “unwashed”, unemployed masses, it also needed new markets to sell in, new profitable investment opportunities and, most importantly, to accumulate natural capital.

Edward Wakefield was one of the most ardent British politicians to argue for capitalist expansion and accumulation in the colonies, particularly in Aotearoa. Wakefield deplored the fact that in the American colonies men acquired land easily, supported themselves by their own labour. This made it difficult to accumulate capital for there was little unemployed labour to put to work. He attributed this ability of some working men to acquire land and develop self-sufficiency as a direct cause of the American Revolution.

Wakefield was fixated on how to replicate British class society where, instead of each man having his own plot of land, some would have to work for others and accumulate wealth for their employers and not for themselves. Previously slavery had been used to generate a reserve supply of labour. For later colonies slavery was no longer an option as it had been abolished in 1833.

The convict method in Australia was the next evolution of the colonial endeavour. Vagrancy laws were introduced in Britain to round up the poor and dispossessed who were suffering from the effects of the economic crisis. Prison ships, “hulks”, were used at first then the poor were shipped to Australia. Because of their convict status, Australian workers were unable to accumulate capital themselves but made their employers rich. Convicts from Britain, however, were not enough. After clearing the numerous Aboriginal lands in Australia through genocidal policies, the new colony found itself with thousands of acres and too little “free” labour to do the work.

Wakefield noted that, without slaves or a continuing class of wage workers, capital in the hands of employers gradually disappeared. He wanted to prevent wage workers from becoming small land owners and competing with the capitalists. His solution for New Zealand was that a high land price would make the labourer work for an employer for a considerable time before he could save enough to become a landowner. The colonial authorities continued to import new wage workers to keep the labour market well supplied. The system was designed to deter workers from acquiring land. The high land price would act as a ransom which the worker needed to pay to escape from the labour market.

Each attempt at colonisation was a more refined effort to secure power and resources in the hands of the ruling classes of the imperialist countries. Whether it was the indigenous people or imported workers, the key was to deny land in order to create free labour.

From the mass slavery and homestead development of the American colonies to the convict settlement of Australia there evolved a style of capitalism particular to Aotearoa. It was built on the prevention of self-sufficiency of Māori and Pākeha workers, without suggesting any egality between the two other than in their long-term destination in a modern working class. In the case of Māori, military forces of the British Empire were brought to bear to separate them from their land.


The beginning of the alienation of Māori land starts with William Wakefield’s New Zealand Company. The New Zealand Company dubiously claimed in 1839 that it had claimed to have bought 20 million acres – or around two-thirds of the North Island in size. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 meant that all these purchases had to be investigated under the terms of the agreement.

The Treaty of Waitangi lays out the terms of the sale of land. The key aim for the British government was a state monopoly in the sale of land to prevent settlers dealing directly with Māori. For Māori it supposedly meant peace from the deals with the settlers, increase in trade, a promise of judges, schools and other infrastructure, and protection.

The New Zealand Company sued over this attack on their dubious claims and a judge, William Spain, was brought out to arbitrate over the land deals. He started with the Taranaki purchase. He awarded further meagre payments, but crucially gave 60,000 acres of the original 100,000-acre lot to the Company. This decision infuriated the Māori living at Waitara and the Ngāmotu Maori, threatening to throw the colony into war. At this point Governor Fitzroy disagreed with Spain’s ruling and reduced the allotment to 3,500 acres, but also allowing settlers to purchase further land directly. Fitzroy was recalled as Governor because of widespread settler dissatisfaction with the slow pace of acquiring land. Māori were unhappy too, as he later extended the waiver he made for Taranaki to the wider colony, allowing direct sales to settlers. This meant that just five years after the signing of the Treaty its main clause for the protection of Māori became null and void. The protections promised from the Treaty vanished. The promised support for Māori society, of courts, schools and infrastructure, never appeared, and thus any sense of partnership went.

By 1853 Governor George Grey, the replacement for Fitzroy, proclaimed self-government for New Zealand. The sheep farmers who monopolised the land definitively became the governing class, accelerating the accumulation of land. The new parliamentary assemblies ignored Māori representatives and chiefs almost entirely, justifying this position by saying that because Maori land was owned collectively Māori could not vote or be represented. Without representation Māori sought to create a Māori King to deal directly with the Queen, rather than the settler parliament that ignored them.

Conflict flared up in Taranaki as Te Atiawa came back to their ancestral lands, looking for prosperity and peace. In Waitara, the chief Wiremu Kingi set up with his returning people. Rich settlers envious of the profitable cultivated lands that Wiremu Kingi had set up, encouraged purchases towards Waitara where he was based. Te Teira, a minor chief from Waitara, declared to the Governor that he was willing to sell his land. He placed a woven blanket at the Governor’s feet, intended to offend other Māori who were attending, in particular Wiremu Kingi. Kingi stated that he would never give up his ‘blanket’, symbolising his power, his land. The Governor accepted Te Teira’s offer and demanded Kingi sell his land. In March of 1863, Governor Grey declared war and marched on Taranaki to secure the sale.

The Kīngitanga movement offered support to Wiremu Kingi and came to his defence. Worried that this movement could challenge the government, and fuelled by speculators greedily eyeing up fruitful Waikato lands, Grey ordered the invasion of the Waikato.

The Great South Road, furnished with blockhouses, was built from the Auckland settlement deep into the Waikato. Ten thousand men marched south to destroy the King movement. The building of roads was funded through a 3.5 million loan borrowed against the value of the land that would be alienated for military settlers. The Waikato tribes were to pay for the settlement and development of their lands by its expropriation in a war for the extension of the Crown’s sovereignty into their territory. Parliament also passed the New Zealand Settlements Act which allowed massive confiscations from iwi associated with the Kīngitanga movement, or from any district that the government claimed harboured rebels. By the end of the conflict, over 1.2 million hectares were confiscated in the North Island adding to the 2.8 million hectares already purchased by the Crown. Unconquered Māori lands still constituted 6.4 million hectares, though not for long.

Securing individual title

After the war the Colony sought to secure private property as the rule for all land in Aotearoa. It did this through forcing individual title on Māori. To do this the Native Land Court was set up, or as Māori termed it the Land Taking Court. The ‘owners’ of the land were expected to apply to the court for a hearing to grant them ‘ownership’ in the form of a certificate of title for that which was already owned. Individual title could only be given to a maximum of ten people, who had absolute power over the land. This meant that whole tribes could be outplayed by a single member claiming ownership of the land. This method of confiscation was incredibly successful. Within 30 years more than 4 million hectares of the remaining 6.8 million hectares of land, was alienated from Maori. As soon as a title was granted land sharks, speculators and government land purchase officers moved in to buy the land. Obtaining a grant was a costly affair. Once a court hearing was forced, charges against the land began to accumulate: credit advanced to support the claimants while attending court sittings in towns away from their homes, court costs, lawyer’s fees and survey costs as well. Selling the land at the end of the court case was usually the only way to clear such massive debts.

The Land Wars and confiscations of land coincided with depressions in the local and global economy. For most of its early history the colony was beset by boom-bust cycles integral to the nature of capitalism. By the 1880’s just 250 men owned more than 7.5 million acres, showing that the land alienated from Māori became heavily concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few.

Without land, and divorced from any productive resource, Māori became second-class citizens in their own land. Forced off their land, Māori had to sell their labour to the new capitalists.

Treaty Settlements – refusing to give back the land

In the modern era the Waitangi Tribunal and the settlements with the Crown have highlighted the continuing alienation of Māori land and the failings of governments to meet their obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Tribunal, established in 1975, is a toothless institution, only able to enquire into claims and make recommendations but little else. Tribunal recommendations always end up like William Spain’s court in Taranaki – identifying where compensation should be paid rather than returning land.

There are a number of caveats involved in settling with the crown. The first is the requirement to gain a mandate. This is required to even begin negotiations. The process has been fraught for many iwi. The requirement of a mandate to support an anti-democratic system to accept and dispense compensation has lead to much infighting over how it should be done and who is responsible when it goes wrong. The legal terms of the settlement further entrench private property. The formation of a corporate body is required for land title. With this the concept of communal ownership has little practical meaning.

Secondly, this process engenders the recreation of class society within te ao Māori; and by entering the competitive market the developing capitalist class, by necessity, exploits its own people. In order to compete with other capitalist companies, Māori businesses, with little capital to help accumulate wealth, are forced through market competition to exploit workers in order to remain profitable. The compulsion for profit forces these companies to exploit the environment, as well as workers, to renege on the promise of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the land. This competition is not just between Pākeha business and iwi business but also between iwi damaging the prospects for kotahitanga (solidarity).

Thirdly, the settlements themselves are regarded in law as full and final. Iwi will not have the opportunity to redress historical grievances once a settlement has been agreed to. Indeed, the expectation of the previous National government, which ramped up settlements with iwi, was that once all settlements were completed they could disband the Waitangi Tribunal, thus removing one of the few avenues for iwi to get their modern grievances aired, such as over pollution and water rights.

Lastly, gaining compensation instead of land is like building a sand castle in front of the incoming tide. Since capitalism is a system of accumulation, wealth flows from the bottom to the top. The incumbent capitalists, whose accumulated wealth dates back to land confiscations, are better able to accumulate more wealth. The entire economic system is predicated on the exploitation and expropriation of workers and the land. Ngāti Tama lost a $14.5 million settlement within four years. Half of Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board’s $66 million settlement went within five years.

It is important that these settlements cannot and must not be the end of the story.  The ecological and environmental catastrophe of global warming is fundamentally caused by private property. Ihumātao is a watershed moment. It represents challenging that a settlement as an end of Māori grievance. It represents the fight for whenua (land) and ecological sustainability, and it represents the fight for communal rights. It represents an essential challenge to the state, one that must be supported to look towards a future where we can effectively fight against ecological catastrophe and rampant capitalism.

Manaaki whenua, manaaki tangata, haere whakamua