Polygenists, those who originally believed in the separate creation of races, were much harsher racists. Eventually they soft-pedalled on the issue of separate human species, but still argued that each race was created for a particular environment. Savages, they believed, were inherently inferior and could not be substantially improved. In this view, missionary activity was a waste of effort and Māori could never become fully civilised. Those who seemed to have become European-like would eventually throw off the veneer and return to barbarism at the ‘call of the Pah’. Like the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Jamaica Rebellion of 1865, the outbreak of war in New Zealand in 1860, together with ‘massacres’ such as that at Poverty Bay in 1868, were seen as evidence of this tendency.
Full polygenist views of Māori were not unknown. In 1854, for example, Thomas Cholmondeley, author of Ultima Thule; or, thoughts suggested by a residence in New Zealand, broached the possibility that Polynesians, and therefore Māori, were ‘expressly created for the islands in the Pacific’.1
While its hard racist, polygenist, origins were forgotten, the belief that Māori could never become fully civilised persisted in some quarters well into the 20th century. ‘One of the most disheartening features in connection with educational work among the Maori,’ declared Wellington’s Evening Post in 1902, ‘is the constant tendency of the pupils to relapse into semi-barbarism … The same phenomenon is to be found among all savage or semi-civilised peoples’.2
The notion that Māori ‘all go back to the pā in the long run’ was pervasive in Pākehā novels until at least the 1930s. Traces of polygenism can also be found in the ‘comic Māori’ stereotype, a stock figure in Pākehā folk humour. The comic Māori was capable of low cunning and could be likeable, but was fundamentally lazy and stupid. As late as 1964, comic tales of ‘Hori’ were published, about a ‘fat, happy-go-lucky Maori whose nature is as gentle as the brown eyes of the children of his own race’.3