William Rees


William Rees
William Rees

William Rees (1836–1912) was born in England, and ordained as a Congregational Minister in Australia in 1861. He later left the ministry and practised as a barrister and solicitor.

Rees was drawn to New Zealand in 1866 by the lure of the Otago gold fields. He practised law for several years, and entered Parliament as an Auckland member from 1876 to 1879. He then acted as counsel for Ngāti Porou of the East Coast in their claims involving dubious land purchases. Through his skillful support and his ability as a speaker he gained the strong support of Māori leaders such as Wī Pere of Rongowhakaata/Te Aitangi-a-Māhaki/Te Whanau a Kai.

Rees and Wī Pere later sought ways for Māori to side-step the complex land laws and the problems of multiple ownership of land, and to finance land development. Rees persuaded Māori that he and Wī Pere should become informal trustees, with the authority to deal with a portion of their lands. Profits from selling or leasing the land would then be invested in remaining Māori land. However, the plan failed because of economic depression and political hostility - Parliament rejected a number of bills that would have put the scheme into effect.

Perhaps Rees's major contribution to Māori land policy was as chairman of the 1891 Native Land Laws Commission. He condemned what he saw as the highly negative effects of the Native Land Court system and the breakdown of tribal society, which the Court promoted by giving land title to individuals rather than tribal groups. Rees believed the Native Lands Acts created a "state of confusion and anarchy" that even lawyers could not sort out. A number of his recommendations were followed by the Liberal government.

Adapted from the DNZB biography by Tom Brooking

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