Story: European ideas about Māori

Page 4. The dying Māori and Social Darwinism

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With the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s famous On the origin of species, a new era in European racial theory began. Darwinism, the theory of evolution through the selection of favourable variations by the ‘struggle’ for existence, was not in itself racist. Animals competed peacefully for food with members of their own group. Those with peculiarities suited to particular environments, such as longer necks among proto-giraffes, got more food and therefore had more offspring. Their offspring tended to have long necks too, those with the longest ate more and bred more, and so over many generations the full giraffe species originated. Social Darwinism misinterpreted Darwin’s competition within groups to mean conflict between groups, and saw the struggle between races as the engine of human progress.

Origin of species did not in fact deal with human evolution, which Darwin did not directly engage with until 1871, in his Descent of man. The issue was sensitive because the theory of evolution implied that humans were descended from apes. In the racialist context of the times, however, people were quick to deduce Social Darwinism from Darwinism proper.

Scientific learning


In 1863, nine months after reading On the origin of species, the settler-soldier Arthur Atkinson wrote, ‘I find one lies in wait to shoot Maoris without any approach to an angry feeling – it is a sort of scientific duty’.1


Fatal impact

Social Darwinism built on earlier ideas of ‘fatal impact’, whereby inferior races melted away as a result of contact with Europeans. In the 1830s, after extensive travels in northern New Zealand, English visitor Edward Markham wrote:

It seems to me that the same causes that depopulated the Indian Tribes are doing the same all over the World. In New Zealand the same as in Canada or North America, And in Southern Africa the Hottentots are a decreasing people and by all accounts the Islands of the South Seas are the same. Rum, Blankets, Muskets, Tobacco and Diseases have been the great destroyers; but my belief is the Almighty intended it should be so or it would not have been allowed, Out of Evil comes Good.2

Most of the many references to the ‘dying Māori’ lamented their passing, and very few suggested deliberate extermination. But, in the heat of warfare in the 1860s, some did. In 1868 a Wellington newspaper wrote: ‘They are determined to fight, and we, in self-protection, must treat them as a species of savage beasts which must be exterminated to render the colonisation of New Zealand possible’.

Up with the play


Some New Zealand intellectuals were close followers of contemporary European science. This is shown in letters from Judge William Martin and his wife Mary-Ann to their friend, the noted naturalist Richard Owen, in England. In 1844, the Martins hoped that the Māori, ‘this fine race’, might avoid fatal impact, ‘the common fate of aborigines’. In 1860, they noted the pressure that archaeological discoveries of ‘great antiquity’ placed on the biblical time-span, ‘unless we are content to accept the theory of those who cut the knot by asserting a number of primitive stocks’. By 1862 they were ‘highly amused’ by the Darwinian ‘Gorilla controversy’.4


Uses of racial theory

The usefulness of racial theory for Europeans was always more important than its accuracy. For example, polygenists claimed that different races could not interbreed, or at least that mixed-race people would soon prove infertile, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Racial theory buttressed the European self-image as the most advanced of races and put paid to doubts about the morality of their attempt to take over the world.

Even the most able writers could simultaneously accept two contradictory racial theories, or even all three. In 1863 the geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter managed to be monogenist, polygenist and Social Darwinist in a single chapter. He dismissed the evidence of Polynesian links with South-East Asia, and declared that the Polynesians had their ‘own sphere of creation’. He then both celebrated Māori ‘progress in civilization’ and predicted their inevitable extinction.

Richly endowed by nature with intellectual and physical powers, of a lively temper, energetic and open minded, and with natural wit, the Maori is fully aware of his progress in moral improvement and culture; yet he is not capable of attaining the full height of a Christian civilized life; and it is from this very incompleteness, that his race is doomed to gradual extinction … Compared with the fresh and full vigour, with which the Anglo-Saxon race is spreading and increasing, the Maori is the weaker party, and thus he is the loser in the endless 'struggle for existence'.5

The belief that Māori were dying out declined from about 1914, when Māori population increase became undeniable. Nevertheless, many continued to believe that Māori would be fully assimilated into the majority culture, surviving only as a ‘golden tinge’ on Pākehā skins.

  1. Guy H. Scholefield, ed., The Richmond-Atkinson papers, 2 vols. Wellington: Government Printer, 1960, Vol. 2, p. 49. Back
  2. Edward Markham, New Zealand or recollections of it. Ed. E. H. McCormick. Wellington: Government Printer, 1963, p. 83. Back
  3. Wellington Independent, 21 July 1868, p. 3. Back
  4. Owen correspondence, Sherbourne Autographs, British Museum, London. Back
  5. Ferdinand von Hochstetter, New Zealand. Its physical geography, geology and natural history: with special reference to the results of government expeditions in the provinces of Auckland and Nelson, 1863, Edward Sauter (trans.). Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1867, pp. 209–221. Back
How to cite this page:

James Belich, 'European ideas about Māori - The dying Māori and Social Darwinism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 June 2020)

Story by James Belich, published 5 May 2011