The largest surviving collection of 19th century Maori-language letters is now available online and the stories they tell give life to mass land sales and cheeky requests from Maori women.
The Alexander Turnbull Library's new manuscripts and pictorial website draws its material from over 100,000 pages of diaries, correspondence, letterbooks and telegrams, and 60,000 images from Sir Donald McLean's collection.
As chief land purchase officer leading up to the 1860s land wars, Sir Donald received more than 3000 letters written in te reo.
Maori specialist David Kukutai Jones said that between 1840 and 1860 iwi and hapu were participating fully in the economy - negotiating for roads to move produce to markets and the establishment of mills.
It was the period before colonisation led to mass confiscations.
"They're engaging directly with Government, they are negotiating really successfully for various packages, whether it be financial or the development of economic infrastructure in order to assist the iwi or hapu. They're very self-determining - expressing their tino rangatiratanga. They're negotiating deals over thousands and thousands of acres of land."
One of the Maori women who features in the correspondence is Te Rangi Topeora, a major Ngati Toa rangatira and one of the prime land sellers of the era.
To grease the wheels of business she wrote an enterprising letter to Sir Donald.
"She writes: 'Dear Donald, I hear that you are a kind and generous man.' She asks him to buy her a ball gown and other stuff. And I think she got it. Some people might call it cheeky, I just call it tenacious," Mr Kukutai Jones said.
In the absence of a clear Maori identity, the letters also reveal much about inter-hapu politics as each writer jockeys for the best position.
The documents also provide an insight into the polished performance of Sir Donald, who used spies to find out how hapu wars were going.
"One barrier to land sales is war. He gets Maori friends to start writing to hostile Maori, 'Oh, what are your plans for the next two weeks? Where's the taua [war party] going through?' He gets a fair idea of how long the war will last, whether he needs to go in and start negotiating hard or make the most of the situation."
While academics and researchers have used the material before, the website provides practical access for a wider audience with the library aiming to translate all of the te reo content.
The website is mp.natlib.govt.nz.