Wairarapa Maori own water in Wairarapa lakes

John Key says nobody owns the water. One hundred and sixteen years ago Richard Seddon told Ngati Kahungungu despite gifting Wairarapa lakes to the Crown, they still owned the water and the fish. Two prime ministers, which one is right?

Do property rights fade like fabric in the sun?

Or do they remain as strong as a man's word?

The story of the struggle by Maori owners to try and hold on to their traditional -- and vital -- eeling grounds at Lake Wairarapa and Lake Onoke, immediately adjacent to the sea at Palliser Bay, has an inevitable sense of doom about it. And yet who is really the moral victor? The pakeha?

Separating Onoke from the sea was a stretch of shingle and sand known as the spit. When Maori sold land surrounding these lakes to European settlers in the 1800s, they only sold up to the foreshore, deliberately retaining their seabed because the lakes were rich with eels, which they traded as far north as Gisborne. Then in 1895 a huge earthquake uplifted more land, which the settlers claimed was theirs, but, since it came from the seabed, Ngati Kahungungu said was theirs.

For a while matters were calm, but as the road over from Wellington improved, more farmers arrived, putting pressure on available land. During wet weather, the sandspit caused Onoke to flood nearby pastures, and the new owners wanted the sandspit opened to drain Onoke. Of course Maori objected, because this put their eeling in jeopardy.

So the settlers formed the South Wairarapa River Board with the intention of opening the spit (obviously illegally, though not in their eyes). 

The Maori owners agreed to open the spit for two months a year, but the County Council unilaterally declared the spit "a public drain", which Cabinet approved, so it could be opened, and police would be present.

Piripi Te Maati, one of the leading Ngati Kahungungu owners, took the fight to the Supreme Court. The Court advised a Parliamentary Inquiry.

To cut a long story short (and the full story is in Roberta McIntyre's excellent book, The Canoes of Kupe) a drawn-out, tortuous legal fight ensued with Ngati Kahungungu finally threatening to go to the Privy Council, but was saved by the Native Affairs Select Committee which reported that the "Natives' proprietary rights had been interfered with".

In the midst of all this, the cobbled together River Board was able, via its friends in Parliament, to arrange "for the inclusion of a section (18) in the 1889 Public Works Acts Amendment Act giving it power to open the lake, in defiance of both the Treaty of Waitangi and the House Standing Orders, which stated that matters affecting Maori were to be translated into Maori." (The Canoes of Kupe)

When I read this story, I imagined how we would feel if, there being pressure on housing in Auckland with people immigrating both from overseas and other parts of New Zealand, these newcomers just came and set up house on the spreading lawns in leafy suburbs like Remuera, Herne Bay, or even the People's Republic of Grey Lynn.

And needing to get on with the business of business, they set up a stall or two, hawking their wares? Aah, but you say, there are laws to prevent such flagrant breaches of property rights. Yes, so there were more than a century ago, when these European farmer settlers, desperate to move their sheep onto verdant pastures, breached the agreement signed in 1840 (with help from their friends in Wellington) and became squatters.

I wonder if those who carp on about ending the Treaty grievance industry (or whatever they call it) would be so generous if it were their own private property being squatted on.

But I digress. Ngati Kahungungu celebrated by throwing a huge picnic at Pigeon Bush on 18 January 1896, after signing an agreement with the Crown (trusting the Crown after all these years!) at Papawai Marae (the Maori Parliament) which gifted the lakes to the Crown. The VIP guests were Richard Seddon, Minister for Native Affairs James Carroll, and Ngati Kahungungu leaders Hamuera Tamahau Mahupuku and Hoani Paraone Tunuiarangi.

Mahupuku was at pains to point out that the lakes were being given to the Crown, not sold. This was to restore mana. So it was like, you can try and cheat us out of our property, take it away by legal means, or by force, but in the end you didn't get the lakes from us. We won. But we are bigger than that. You can have the lakes.

And Richard Seddon said: "The Mana of the lake-deeps still vests in you; although the Pakehas have put (Pakeha) fish therein. The waters are still yours, and so are the fish."