Story: Ethnic inequalities

Page 2. European majority, Māori minority: 1840–1945

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Ethnicity and inequality overlap in the formation of ethnic minorities. Minorities are relatively powerless because they lack numbers, economic resources and political influence. In New Zealand there was both an indigenous minority, the Māori people, and immigrant minorities – largely non-European migrants.

Māori become a minority

Originally a majority controlling all the land and fisheries, by the end of the 19th century Māori were a minority suffering considerable inequality. Rapid loss of Māori land and a failure to implement or recognise protections under the Treaty of Waitangi severely hurt their economic and social status. Exposure to European diseases led to depopulation and poor health.

However, it is difficult to say with accuracy exactly how unequal Māori were in material terms. Until 1926 Māori censuses consisted of a mere head-count, and there was no full integration of the census until 1951. Even in 1945 about three-quarters of the Māori population lived in rural areas, where they had an economic and social system with high levels of non-market activities and hapū or whānau support. This makes it difficult to judge their real standard of living, in comparison with the small-town and urban Pākehā community which was fully part of the capitalist world.


There were striking differences in health status and life expectancy for Māori and Pākehā. This reflected both differences in material conditions and Māori lack of immunity to European diseases. As late as 1950–52 the gap between Māori and non-Māori females for life expectancy at birth was 14 years – for males it was 16 years.

Not all equal

The first registrar of old-age pensions, Edmund Mason, argued that the ‘inclusion of aboriginal natives, on equal terms’ was ‘undesirable or at least, unnecessary. Whether aid to Maoris should be given in kind only … is an open question, but it is by all argued that the claims and needs of a Maori living in Maori fashion, are much less than those of a European, and that a marked distinction should be made.’1


Housing conditions for Māori were inferior to conditions experienced by most Pākehā. Surveys of Māori housing in the late 1930s noted that Māori rural dwellings commonly lacked a toilet and running water, and had crowded sleeping quarters and poor ventilation. Different cultural patterns and an expectation that extended family would live together partly explain some of these factors. Yet there is no doubt that at least until the Second World War levels of health, housing and monetary income were considerably lower for Māori than for the rest of the population.

Political rights

With respect to political rights, Māori men (and later women) did have the right to vote, and from 1867 had Māori representatives in the four Māori seats. Relative to population this was roughly equal to Pākehā, but this form of representation marginalised them. Māori did not receive equal state benefits. Old-age pensions were theoretically available to Māori under the 1898 act, but in practice their claims were harshly judged and payment was two-thirds of the European rate. Discrimination continued in the payment of benefits until it was finally ended by the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945.

  1. 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. 26. Back
How to cite this page:

David Pearson, 'Ethnic inequalities - European majority, Māori minority: 1840–1945', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 November 2018)

Story by David Pearson, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 21 May 2018