Story: Ethnic and religious intolerance

Page 1. Intolerance towards Māori

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19th century

Intolerance towards indigenous people is typical of colonial societies. Māori, as individuals and communities, were the subject of racism and discrimination as Europeans settled in New Zealand in the 19th century.

However, the extent and nature of intolerance varied. Partly because of their strength in war and political negotiation, Māori were accorded civil rights through the Treaty of Waitangi, more than a century before Aboriginal people became full citizens of Australia. Māori had four seats in Parliament from 1867, and were members of national sports teams from the beginning. There was a general acceptance of intermarriage. It was commonly thought by Pākehā that Māori were genetically superior to other native peoples, and at the end of the 19th century they were considered to be Aryans, like Anglo-Saxons.

Better than blacks

In 1898 politician and historian William Pember Reeves wrote: ‘The average colonist regards a Mongolian with revulsion, a Negro with contempt, and looks on an Australian black as very near to a wild beast; but he likes the Maoris, and is sorry that they are dying out.’1

The intolerance of most white people was based less on an assumption of genetic superiority than of cultural superiority. The conversion of Māori to Christianity, the usurping of their resources (notably land for farming by settlers) and the growing dominance of the institutions of the New Zealand state were based on beliefs about the superiority of European civilisation and the perceived backwardness of Māori culture. Māori schooling was based on the assumption that Māori were capable of becoming westernised as ‘honorary whites’.

There were instances of racist intolerance. When large areas of Taranaki were confiscated from Māori in 1865 after the Taranaki wars, this included the land of tribes who had not fought against the government. They lost land purely because they were Māori.

Early 20th-century discrimination

The effects of war and disease had a major impact on the size and health of Māori communities until the early 20th century. Discriminatory aspects of New Zealand were still very obvious until the 1960s. From 1926 Māori normally received 25% less than the full rate for old-age and widows’ pensions. Despite the Labour government’s claims of equality, discrimination by the pensions department continued into the 1940s. Not until 1945, following the full participation of Māori in the Second World War, was this discrimination stopped.

Keeping the poor poor

In 1937 senior Treasury official Bernard Ashwin explained Māori levels of pension payments: ‘On the face of it, it may appear equitable to pay the average Māori old-age pensioner the same amount per week as the average European pensioner, but in this matter questions of equity should be decided having regard to the circumstances, the needs and the outlook on life of the individuals concerned … the living standard of the Māori is lower – and after all, the object of these pensions is to maintain standards rather than to raise them.’2

In 1959 Dr Henry Rongomau Bennett, a senior medical officer in an Auckland hospital, was refused a drink in the bar of a local hotel because he was Māori. Other hotels refused bookings from Māori. Rental properties were advertised for ‘Europeans only’, and in some places Māori were kept separate from Pākehā in cinemas and swimming pools.

Māori migration and restored mana

After 1945 increasing numbers of Māori moved to the city. This meant that Māori and Pākehā had greater contact as they intermingled in urban areas, and a new generation of Māori grew up without significant contact with their cultural heritage.

From the late 1960s Māori organisations, influenced by the American black civil-rights movement, challenged the way their culture and rights had been treated. They received support from Pākehā groups such as the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD), which researched the discriminatory treatment of Māori.

Attitudes to race relations changed between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. The Race Relations Act 1971 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, nationality or ethnic origin. A Race Relations Conciliator was appointed to set up procedures for investigating complaints about discrimination. Under the Human Rights Commission Act 1977, discrimination on the grounds of marital status, sex, religion and ethical belief also became illegal. Pākehā intolerance and institutional discrimination were extensively challenged.

Māori activism about land rights, culture and language led to the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to investigate alleged breaches of te Tiriti o Waitangi. From 1985 the Waitangi Tribunal could investigate breaches dating back to 1840. Māori whānau, hapū and iwi presented their claims to the Tribunal relating to many actions by the Crown that were breaches of the treaty. On the basis of findings by the Waitangi Tribunal the Crown embarked on a range of settlements, starting in the late 1980s.

There was a new sensitivity towards Māori by state organisations, reparations for Treaty of Waitangi breaches, and the restoration of resources such as fisheries (in 1992) to Māori ownership. Māori were active in establishing new institutions such as kōhanga reo (language learning nests) to foster their cultural interests. While the settlement process was often demanding and slow, and institutional change was difficult, New Zealand in the 2000s was a very different place for Māori than it had been previously.

  1. William Pember Reeves, The long white cloud (Ao-tea-roa). London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1898, p. 57. Back
  2. Quoted in Margaret McClure, A civilised community: a history of social security in New Zealand, 1898–1998. Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1998, p. 79. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Spoonley, 'Ethnic and religious intolerance - Intolerance towards Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Paul Spoonley, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 7 Jun 2018