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Tribunal reports on Crown and Maori atrocities

Media Statement
Waitangi Tribunal reports on Crown and Maori atrocities
30 OCTOBER, 2004

The Waitangi Tribunal has ruled that the Crown repeatedly disregarded its own laws in its treatment of Maori from the Turanga (Gisborne) area in the 19th century, and the execution of unarmed prisoners at Ngatapa Pa in 1868 was one of the worst abuses of law and human rights in New Zealand’s colonial history.

Significantly, it has ruled that Maori also breached the treaty during this period, and that there was no justification for the murder of Pakeha settlers and other Maori in the Turanga area by Te Kooti and his followers.

The findings are contained in Turanga Tangata, Turanga Whenua the report on treaty claims around the Turanga (Gisborne) area which was formally handed to claimants at Whakato marae today.

This document is the first of the Waitangi Tribunal’s “new approach” reports to be released, and heralds a faster approach to the hearing of, and reporting on, historical claims. This new approach has produced a report in four and a half years – from the first judicial conference held with claimant groups, their lawyers and the Crown, to discuss how the new approach would work practically in Gisborne, through to hearings, and then the writing, editing and release of the report today.

This is roughly half the time it has taken in comparable districts using the standard inquiry process. The Tribunal says the two volume report is the result of an unprecedented degree of co-operation both among the various claimant groups, and between claimants and the Crown.

In the Turanga Tangata, Turanga Whenua report, the Waitangi Tribunal found that the Crown breached the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi by: attacking a defensive pa at Waerenga a Hika in November 1865; deporting and detaining 123 prisoners on Wharekauri (the Chatham Islands) without charge or trial; executing between 86 and 128 unarmed prisoners at Ngatapa pa in 1868, again without charge or trial; extracting the cession of 1.195 million acres of land under duress; and by confiscating, without legal authority, the property rights of hundreds of Turanga Maori “alleged” to be rebels.

Significantly, the Tribunal also found that Te Kooti and his followers breached their own responsibilities as citizens and Treaty partners, when they murdered between 50 and 70 Maori and Pakeha at the settlements of Matawhero, Oweta and Patutahi. Even though the Whakarau (as Te Kooti’s followers were called) were greatly provoked by the Crown’s action, the tribunal found that “the Treaty of Waitangi continued to speak for reasonableness, moderation and an ethical response”.

The report details significant moments from Gisborne’s past. Turanga, as it was then called, was a fully autonomous district until 1865. That autonomy was broken when the Crown laid siege to the defensive pa at Waerenga a Hika, killing 71 defenders in the process. The Tribunal found that the Crown may only turn its guns on its own citizens if they are in rebellion. This, it said, was not the case in Turanga.

Following the surrender of the pa, the Crown imprisoned 113 men and transported them to the Wharekauri (the Chatham Islands). The Tribunal found that since the prisoners never faced charges, and were never convicted of any offence, their imprisonment was unlawful and in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Te Kooti and nearly 300 men, women and children escaped from Wharekauri. The Whakarau landed at Whareongaonga, in the south of Poverty Bay of Plenty. Colonial forces tried to re-arrest them, and failed. Te Kooti sought safe passage from Tuhoe and sanctuary from King Tawhiao. When denied both, he attacked the Turanga settlements of Patutahi, Matawhero and Oweta. Between 50 and 70 Pakeha and Maori were killed by the attackers. The Whakarau retreated to Ngatapa Pa in the interior, where they were besieged by colonial forces. The pa surrendered four days later. Between 86 and 128 unarmed prisoners were executed.

The Tribunal found that there was no justification for the murder of between 50 and 70 settlers and Maori in Turanga. “The Whakarau were entitled to defend themselves against Crown actions which were illegal and in breach of Treaty principle, but they breached their own responsibilities as citizens and Treaty partners in attacking and killing or forcibly detaining unarmed civilian targets,” the report states.

The Crown was entitled to pursue and punish the perpetrators to the full extent of the law. But the Treaty was breached when Crown forces executed without trial, this large group of unarmed prisoners. According to the Tribunal, the scale of systematic killing at Ngatapa represents one of the worst abuses of law and human rights in New Zealand’s colonial history. Certainly, it was the worst ever perpetrated by the Crown. The Crown had to respect and uphold the rule of law. It had to comply with the standards it expected of its own citizens.

Following the attack on Matawhero, 279 Turanga Maori ceded 1.195 million acres to the Crown. The Tribunal found that the cession was made under duress- the Crown had threatened to remove its protection unless the entire district was ceded. This threat was in breach of the Treaty. Nor could the deed extinguish the rights of the majority of Turanga Maori who did not sign the cession at all, the Tribunal found. In 1869, the Poverty Bay Commission was established to punish “rebels” by confiscating their lands, and to return land to “loyal” Maori. The Tribunal found that the commission did not have the power to confiscate land. Nor did the commission comply with applicable nineteenth century standards for fair legal process.

The Native Land Court followed the Poverty Bay Commission. The court commenced title investigations in Turanga in 1875, under the new Native Lands Act. The Tribunal found that although Turanga Maori saw the benefit of titles that had been ratified by the Crown; they wanted to make their own title decisions. They opposed the land court because it took that right from them. Alongside this, the Native Lands Act removed from Maori communities, the legal capacity to manage their lands collectively. This meant that the only way Maori could benefit from the new colonial economy was by the sale of individual shares, but the land sale process under the new Act was complex, expensive, and risky for both buyers and sellers. To compound matters, the titles that Maori received remained in a form of customary tenure that was far less valuable in the new settler-driven market. As a result, prices were significantly discounted. Taken together, these factors meant that Maori sold more land as individuals than they would have sold as a result of a community decision-making process, and at far lower overall prices. The promised economic benefits which colonisation would bring to Maori were thus never realised in Turanga.

The Waitangi Tribunal noted that the peoples of Gisborne have a rich and sometimes dramatic shared history. However, it expressed frustration at the lack of local education programmes to ensure local communities are aware of that history. That, it said, remains a primary obstacle to the process of reconciliation.

Ends.

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