Story: East Coast region

Page 5. European impact on Māori, 1769 to 1869

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First landfall

British explorer Lieutenant James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour landed at Tūranga on 8 October 1769. The historic first meeting with Māori took place in the middle of what is now Gisborne harbour. The British stayed only 36 hours, but in that time, over-reacting to actions by locals, they killed or wounded nine Māori. Cook dubbed the place Poverty Bay because ‘it afforded us no one thing we wanted.’1

The Endeavour also visited Anaura and Ūawa (Tolaga) bays. Cook named them Tegadoo and Tolago Bay respectively – Tolago was possibly ‘teraki’, referring to a southerly wind blowing into the bay. Here the Europeans had more positive interactions with Māori, before leaving the region.

Musket wars

It was almost half a century before the influence of Europe was felt again, this time in the form of muskets brandished by the northern tribes who decimated the region. The availability of muskets, which Māori acquired from European traders and settlers, led to the intensification of inter- and intra-tribal warfare. Kaitangata (cannibalism), slavery and the pursuit of utu (revenge) were at their worst during this period.

Traders and whalers

In the 1830s traders, whalers and missionaries arrived, bringing change for Māori. Traders in flax, muskets, blankets, tobacco and other products were present from the early 1830s, and shore whaling thrived for around a decade from 1837. Traders such as Barnet Burns, John Harris, Manuel José and Thomas Halbert strengthened their positions by marrying into local hapū – Halbert married six times. From the 1840s Māori engaged in long-distance trading, shipping produce to a burgeoning Auckland.

Man with a mission


In 1838 William Colenso, with fellow missionaries William Williams and Richard Matthews, made an overland trip down the East Coast from Hicks Bay to Poverty Bay. The main objective was to find a mission site, but Colenso also engaged in botanical research and established useful contacts with local Māori. Later, Colenso ventured inland. He adopted the rather unsystematic practice of stuffing botanical specimens down the front of his shirt while on the move.



Anglican missionary William Williams established a station at Tūranga early in 1840. He gathered chiefly signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi later that year – 24 at Tūranga and 16 along the coast. By 1843 the Anglicans also had missions at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay), Waiapu and Kawakawa (Hicks Bay). Many Māori converted to Christianity, and the Anglican diocese of Waiapu was established in 1859.

Conflict in the 1860s

In the decades after the Treaty of Waitangi the Crown stationed resident magistrates at Tūranga and Ūawa for periods, but in practice the East Coast remained beyond the reach of the colonial government. This sense of independence, coupled with a number of government actions outside the region, notably the invasion of Waikato, created some disillusionment among East Coast Māori as to the Crown’s commitment to the treaty. In 1863 some joined the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) forces fighting the Crown in Waikato.

Pai Mārire

In 1865 the pendulum swung further and many in the region converted to Pai Mārire (also known as Hauhau), a religion whose proponents promoted Māori self-determination. This led to six months of war between Pai Mārire supporters and other Māori forces, with many skirmishes in the Waiapu River valley, and a five-day siege at Waerenga-a-Hika in Poverty Bay in November 1865. In these conflicts the government supported those fighting against Pai Mārire, and Pai Mārire were defeated.

A high price to pay


In its report on the Tūranganui-a-Kiwa claims, the Waitangi Tribunal stated: ‘we estimate that approximately 240 adult men, or 43 per cent of the adult male population of Turanga, were killed in armed conflict with the Crown. This is an extraordinary level of loss for any community anywhere. It is, we believe, the highest casualty rate suffered by Maori in any region in New Zealand during the land wars.’2


Te Kooti

After the siege at Waerenga-a-Hika around 300 local Māori were held without trial in the Chatham Islands. Nursing a sense of resentment over this injustice, the prisoners, under the leadership of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, escaped. They captured a supply ship and sailed back to the mainland, landing at Whareongaonga, to the south of Poverty Bay, on 10 July 1868. The group started to move inland towards Te Urewera.

After fending off colonial forces at Ruakituri gorge, Te Kooti and his followers, whom he called the whakarau – the unhomed or exiled – rested on the edge of Te Urewera before turning back to Poverty Bay. There, in revenge, they killed between 50 and 55 settlers and Māori at Matawhero (close to Waerenga-a-Hika), and fought several skirmishes against both government and Māori troops.

They met with a serious defeat at Ngātapa in January 1869, but Te Kooti and some of his followers escaped and returned inland. With the exception of a foray to the coast at Tolaga Bay in July 1870, Te Kooti did not revisit the region during the years he was being pursued by the government (he was pardoned in 1883). Rāpata Wahawaha of Ngāti Porou was a key figure in the hunt for Te Kooti.

  1. Quoted in W. H. Oliver and Jane M. Thomson, Challenge and response: a study of the development of the Gisborne East Coast region. Gisborne: East Coast Development Research Association, 1971, p. 13. Back
  2. Waitangi Tribunal, Tūranga tangata, Tūranga whenua: the report on the Tūranganui a Kiwa claims. Wellington: Legislation Direct, 2004, p. xx. Back
How to cite this page:

Monty Soutar, 'East Coast region - European impact on Māori, 1769 to 1869', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Monty Soutar, published 25 Aug 2011, updated 1 Mar 2015