Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand Māori had a staple diet of seafood and birds for protein, and aruhe (fern root) and cultivated imported crops. These crops, carried across the Pacific by their ancestors, were kūmara (sweet potato), taro, hue (bottle gourd) and uwhi (yam). The knowledge gained by Māori growing and storing these tropical crops in Aotearoa’s cooler climate gave them gardening skills that enabled them to move rapidly from subsistence gardening to commercial agriculture.
Potatoes, pigs and peas
When new domesticated animals, crops and iron tools arrived in New Zealand in the late 18th and early 19th century Māori quickly adopted them, and the shift to intensive horticulture and pastoral agriculture began.
When James Cook arrived in New Zealand in 1769 he gave (or traded) cabbage, turnips and potatoes to Ngāti Porou in Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). In the same year the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville brought wheat, rice and peas to Doubtless Bay. Four years later, Cook visited Ūawa again and dropped off pigs and potatoes. From 1803, Māori were reported trading in potatoes, pigs, maize and other foodstuffs.
The plough and Christianity
Māori traditionally used kō and timo (digging and grubbing tools) to prepare ground for planting crops. While effective on small garden plots they were labour intensive on large areas of land.
In 1814 the missionary Samuel Marsden introduced horses and cattle. Missionary John Butler introduced the plough in 1820. These new domesticated animals and iron tools eased the workload for land preparation.
Māori who travelled overseas could learn about different farming methods. When Ngāpuhi leader Ruatara returned from overseas he took an active role in the adoption of European farming methods within his tribe.
Wheat growing and shipping
The rise of Māori agriculture was rapid between 1830 and the 1850s. Most of the coastal shipping in the North Island was under Māori ownership, and a large proportion of the food sold locally and exported to Australia was grown by Māori. By the 1850s wheat growing had become widespread throughout the North Island and Māori were building dam- or water-operated flour mills throughout the country. Between 1846 and 1860, 37 flour mills were built for Māori owners in Auckland province alone.
Reliance on Māori
Expanding Māori agriculture in the mid-1800s played its part in the emergence of New Zealand as a leading agricultural nation. New Zealand’s population of European settlers began to increase rapidly during this period. Initially settlers, unfamiliar with local soils and climate, were reliant on Māori for food supplies. In 1842 Bishop G. A. Selwyn noted that Nelson settlers were completely dependent on the local tribe for food. The success of Māori as agriculturalists at this time was noted.
William Swainson described Māori farming activity among Te Arawa, Tūwharetoa and Mataatua iwi in 1859. He noted thousands of acres in wheat, potatoes, maize and kūmara (sweet potato); thousands of pigs, and hundreds of horses and cattle, plus flour mills and ‘43 small coastal vessels, averaging nearly 20 tons each, and upwards of 900 canoes’. 1
Success and demise of Māori farming
Within 30 years of the arrival of the plough Māori had moved rapidly from subsistence gardening to highly successful commercial farming. In 1856 the New Zealander described Māori as ‘landlords, farmers, graziers, seamen, ship owners, labourers and artisans’. 2
In the late 1850s most of the North Island was still owned by Māori. But this began to change dramatically as the settler government enforced individualisation of land titles, and large areas of Māori land were confiscated during the 1860s.