The Kemp Deed Was Signed – 12th June 1848

On 12th June 1848, forty Ngai Tahu chiefs signed the ‘Kemp Deed’ (also known as the Ngaitahu Purchase) at Akaroa. The New Zealand Company, acting on behalf of the Crown, purchased just over eight million acres of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island) from the native people for £2000. The Waitaha area of this purchase would become known as the Canterbury Block less than a year later.

Upon Henry Tacy Kemp’s return to Wellington, alarm was instantly raised. Firstly, how did Kemp make and seal the deal so quickly? It soon came to light that he had only stayed on shore for three days and travelled no further than Akaroa.  He had showed great impatience and threatened military action to hurry things along. He had taken no maps with him so no boundaries or promised Maori Reserves were marked out. Nothing about this transaction appeared to be legal.

Over the next few years, as this purchase was hotly debated by the Government (some horrified while others were delighted) it was clear there had been misunderstandings during translation. This didn’t stop the newly formed Canterbury Association on 25th March 1849 from purchasing some land from the New Zealand Company – whose director was also co-founder of the Canterbury Association – and surveyors soon arrived to mark the site of the future Church of England settlement of Christchurch.

In future arguments between the Ngai Tahu and the land courts, great stress was made of how the local iwi welcomed the white settler and could have done no more to help them. They were repaid by broken promises and disrespect. 6359 acres had been promised to the Ngai Tahu which was mahinga kai – food gathering places and reserves where the iwi could retain their way of living. This amount of land was calculated on the latest Maori census (637) and Kemp was instructed that the land put aside should support future generations of Ngai Tahu. The census used did not count the natives living in Kaiapoi or Banks Peninsula.  It soon became apparent that this information wouldn’t have done any good as Europeans soon drained the plains of its lagoons and swamps (used for fishing and hunting) and the birds and wild pigs that the Maori ate were killed as nothing more than game. The ways of the Ngai Tahu soon disappeared.

The following written by New Zealand Governor says it all:

“The Natives do not support themselves solely by cultivation, but from fern-root, from fishing, from eel ponds (weirs), from catching birds, from hunting wild pigs, for which they require extensive runs, and by such like pursuits. To deprive them of their wild lands, and to limit them to lands for the purpose of cultivation, is, in fact, to cut off from them some of the most important means of subsistence…” – Gov. George Grey, 7th April, 1847

Pictured here is historian Harry Evison looking over the Kemp Deed in which, if you look close, you can make out the Maori signatures in the shape of their mokos – their facial tattoos.

*Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library – – Reference: EP/1993/4173/12*

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