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European ideas about Māori

by James Belich

European ideas about Māori have always been shaped by the theories and beliefs they brought with them – some saw ‘noble savages’, others a ‘dying race’. At times, harshly racist views bolstered notions of European superiority.

Explorers and Māori to 1800

Abel Tasman

The first European ideas about Māori derived from Abel Tasman’s unfortunate encounter in Golden Bay in 1642 when four of his men were killed by Māori. ‘Murderers Bay’ was inscribed on world maps, and New Zealand’s people became known as dangerous and violent.

Enlightenment ideas

The next explorers of the land and observers of Māori were imbued with the ideas of the European enlightenment. James Cook, and the French explorers Jean François Marie de Surville and Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne, brought a spirit of scientific observation. On the basis of his experience on his first voyage, Cook developed a largely positive view of Māori as ‘a strong, well-made, active people, rather above common size’ and ‘a brave, war-like people, with sentiments void of treachery’.1 The early explorers, especially the French, were also affected by Enlightenment ideas of the ‘noble savage’, inhabitants of a South Seas paradise who had not been corrupted by decadent civilisation.

Learned disagreements


18th-century European intellectuals had a range of views about Māori. Voltaire described them as ‘the most barbarous of all barbarians’,2 but to the expatriate American thinker Benjamin Franklin they were ‘a brave and sensible people’.3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the original proponent of the romantic view of the ‘noble savage’, was perplexed after Marion du Fresne’s murder: ‘Is it possible that the good Children of Nature can really be so wicked’.4


The cannibal image

These generally positive views did not last. Following the discovery of cannibal practices and, more seriously, a fatal attack on his men at Grass Cove in the Marlborough Sounds in 1773, Cook came to hold more negative views. The French had a more drastic reversal of opinion when Marion du Fresne and 25 of his crew were killed in the Bay of Islands in 1772. Māori became treacherous ‘ignoble savages’ and blood-thirsty cannibals. The burning of the Boyd and killing of its crew and passengers at Whangaroa in 1809 reinforced these images.

    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Between worlds: early exchanges between Māori and Europeans, 1773–1815. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 25. Back
    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 308. Back
    • Quoted in Between worlds, p. 25. Back
    • Quoted in Bernard Smith, European vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850: a study in the history of art and ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960, p. 87. Back

Biblical ideas, early 19th century

From about 1800 Europeans began to settle in New Zealand. Most were Christian and from 1814 they included missionaries. Such settlers still believed literally in the Bible. The Earth was thought to be 6,000 years old; all animals were descended from the pairs saved on Noah’s Ark; and all humans were descended from the sons of Noah: Japheth (Europeans), Shem (Asians) and the benighted Ham (Africans). The rise of science and the exploration of fresh parts of the world made these views harder to sustain. It was not easy to imagine the tuatara and the platypus skipping off the Ark, two by two; or that the offspring of Shem had diversified into Chinese, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Polynesian and American Indian in a mere 6,000 years.

Scale of civilisation

Alongside these biblical views, Europeans believed in a scale of civilisation, or a great chain of being, with themselves on top. In this, they were no different from the Chinese. As explorers revealed new peoples, Europeans increased the range of their scale of civilisation, and suggested numerous rungs on it: from super-civilised and progressive Western Europeans through semi-civilised and unprogressive Chinese and Indians to higher ‘savages’ such as Tahitians and lower ‘savages’ such as Aboriginal Tasmanians. Racial theories emerged, and perceptions of non-European peoples were increasingly influenced by racial stereotypes. The question remained as to whether these racial distinctions were inherent – perhaps ‘savage’ peoples could be civilised?


Until the 1850s, the key debate among European racial theorists was between monogenists, who believed that all humans were descended from one Adam and one Eve, and polygenists, who believed that the major races were separate species, descended from different Adams and Eves. Monogenists accepted most aspects of biblical orthodoxy. Some, such as Archbishop Richard Whately, a mentor of Governor George Grey, argued that savages had degenerated from a higher state. Most argued that they had failed to progress, but could progress and should be helped to do so. Such views were behind the British abolition of the slave trade and a surge of missionary activity from the 1790s.

Māori potential

Because of their immediate interest in European objects and ideas, and their status as agriculturalists rather than mere hunter-gatherers, Māori were seen as exceptionally good prospects for conversion and civilisation by missionaries and governments. From the 1830s, Māori did engage with Christianity, and New Zealand was trumpeted as a great evangelical success, a proof of monogenism. Helped by George Grey’s self-serving propaganda about his peaceful subjugation of Māori, observers as early as 1847 were concluding that: ‘Their change from barbarism to Christianity has been rapid; and it has also been complete, and will prove permanent.’1

White Māori


The career of the Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara seemed to prove that Māori would be quickly ‘civilised’. As a young man he visited England, became fluent in English, and wore European clothes. John Nicholas, who accompanied Samuel Marsden when he set up his mission at Ruatara’s place, Rangihoua, in 1814, wrote of him: ‘His deportment was dignified and noble … not disfigured with the disgusting mark of the moko … His complexion was not darker than the natives of Spain and Portugal, and in general the lineaments of his countenance assumed the European character.’2 Ruatara died aged 28 in 1815, probably a victim of a European disease.


The monogenist-missionary idea of the ‘whitening Māori’ lost ground during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, then revived in new forms from the 1880s. Because monogenists believed that all humans were potentially equal, in one sense they were not racist at all. But they judged ‘progress in civilisation’ strictly by European standards, so they were cultural racists rather than genetic racists. In practice, they saw equality for savages as something very far in the future.

    • George French Angas, Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1969 (originally published 1847), p. 338. Back
    • John Liddiard Nicholas, Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand. London: James Black and son, 1817, 23–25. Back

Hard racism and the ‘Call of the Pah’

Polygenist ideas

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.

Racist thoughts


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


Later versions

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 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

    • Thomas Cholmondeley, Ultima Thule; or, thoughts suggested by a residence in New Zealand. London: J. Chapman, 1854, p. 340. Back
    • Evening Post, 23 April 1902, p. 4. Back
    • W. Norman McCallum, quoted in Hori, Fill it up again! Auckland: Sporting Life Publications, 1964, introduction. Back

The dying Māori and Social Darwinism


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.

    • Guy H. Scholefield, ed., The Richmond-Atkinson papers, 2 vols. Wellington: Government Printer, 1960, Vol. 2, p. 49. Back
    • Edward Markham, New Zealand or recollections of it. Ed. E. H. McCormick. Wellington: Government Printer, 1963, p. 83. Back
    • Wellington Independent, 21 July 1868, p. 3. Back
    • Owen correspondence, Sherbourne Autographs, British Museum, London. Back
    • 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

The Aryan Māori and other stereotypes

The Aryan myth

The most remarkable and influential European racial stereotype was the ‘Aryan Māori’. The Aryan myth claimed that thousands of years ago, a proto-European master-race emerged somewhere between the Caucasus and northern India. It later migrated mainly to Europe, which it dominated and energised. Britons, Germans and Scandinavians were always included in definitions of Aryan; Celts also usually made the cut, and so, sometimes, did other Western European peoples. Aryanism could also include non-European peoples, such as the northern Indian elite. Aryan or Caucasian (a broader term embracing all or most Europeans) origins for the Polynesians were suggested from the mid-19th century and widely accepted in the first half of the 20th century.

Edward Tregear

The key publication was Edward Tregear’s The Aryan Maori (1885), which claimed that Māori were of pure Aryan descent and that the British colonisation of New Zealand was therefore a family reunion. Tregear’s linguistic scholarship was laughably naïve, and some laughed at it at the time. But this did not prevent the idea of the Aryan or Caucasian Māori catching on. By 1912, there was ‘a general consensus of opinion that the Māori ... are a Polynesian, that is originally an Aryan race’.1

Cultural nationalism

For Pākehā, Aryanism laundered Māori culture into a form suitable for adoption, providing New Zealand with an instant culture – a romantic prehistory, distinctive symbols and a landscape already encrusted with stories and names. For writers such as James Cowan, Māori became brown-skinned Britons. Māori were an island people, great explorers and navigators, fierce fighters in war, lyrical poets. ‘A people’, Cowan wrote, ‘whose love of the sea and pride in deeds of battle show strangely close affinity to some of the dominant traits of the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic race’.2 ‘Maoriland’ was a common alternative name for New Zealand between the 1890s and the 1940s.

Not marble but bronze


In 1907 Johannes Andersen published Maori life in Ao-tea. He hoped the book would provide details of Māori myth and tradition which, like Greek or Norse mythology, might inspire New Zealand poets and artists. He wrote: ‘The dusky skin has been urged as an objection to artistic treatment: but if marble be unsuitable, is there not bronze?’3


Once it was clear that Māori were not dying out, Aryanism implied they were no threat to New Zealand racial unity in a dangerous world. It also revived the ‘whitening Māori’ idea, and the legend of New Zealand as a paradise of racial harmony, featuring Pākehā as the world’s best managers of natives.

New Zealand racism

There are multiple ironies in New Zealand Aryanism. First, this ideology was actually amongst the harshest of all racial myths. Indeed, the best-known advocate of Aryanism was Adolf Hitler. This led to a noticeable shift from ‘Aryan Māori’ to ‘Caucasian Māori’ in the 1930s, and the memory of New Zealand’s Aryanism was suppressed.

New Zealand Europeans were not less racist than other settler societies, but they partially exempted Māori from their racism. In 1898, in the first edition of his influential history of New Zealand, The long white cloud, William Pember Reeves wrote that Māori were probably descended from ‘a people called Aryans … like our own Anglo-Saxon race’. ‘The average [New Zealander],’ he continued, ‘regards a Mongolian with repulsion, 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.’ In the 1924 edition he changed the last phrase to ‘and treats them in many respects as his equals’, but did not delete or modify his references to the other races.4

Māori Aryanism

Another irony is that some Māori accepted the Aryan Māori myth, notably the great anthropologist Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), author of Vikings of the sunrise. He believed that Polynesians were ‘of Caucasian descent and quite distinct from the negroid division of mankind’.5 This was understandable in the circumstances – being Aryan was at least one up on being a dying race. But it did mean that Pākehā and Māori could join forces in being racist towards other peoples, such as the Chinese.

A positive effect?

The ‘Aryan Māori’ idea may actually have made a positive contribution to New Zealand race relations. If Māori were virtually Europeans, and Pākehā liked to boast about their world leadership in race relations, then they could not treat Māori too badly, at least while someone was watching. So, with help as well as hindrance from racial ideas, the race-relations legend grew its own kernel of truth.

    • Max Herz, New Zealand: the country and the people. London: T. Werner Laurie, 1912, pp. 23–24. Back
    • James Cowan, The Maoris of New Zealand. Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1910, p. 8. Back
    • J. C. Andersen, Maori life in Ao-tea. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1907. Back
    • William Pember Reeves, The Long White Cloud (Ao Tea Roa). London: Horace Marshall and Son, 1898, p. 57; William Pember Reeves, The Long White Cloud (Ao Tea Roa). London: George Allen and Unwin, 1898, 3rd edition, 1924, p. 62. Back
    • M. P. K. Sorrenson, ed., Na to hoa aroha: from your dear friend: the correspondence between Sir Apirana Ngata and Sir Peter Buck, 1925–50, 3 vols. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986–1988, Vol. 2, 1930–32, p. 78. Back

Modern racial stereotypes

From the 1940s the negative example of Hitler’s Nazism and the effect of modern genetics undermined racial theories in New Zealand, as elsewhere. However, many of the stereotypes which had been legitimised by racial theory continued.

For whom?

Māori had their own opinion of European ideas about them, pungently expressed in this song by Tuini Ngāwai:

Te mātauranga o te Pākehā
He mea whakatō hei tinanatanga
Mō wai rā, mō Hātana
Kia tūpato i ngā whakawai
Kia kaha rā.

European knowledge
Is implanted, as an embodiment
For whom, for Satan
Be wary of its beguiling
Be strong.

The anti-capitalist Māori

One common stereotype was of the Māori as unable to cope with the demands of the modern urban way of life. In the early 20th century, James Cowan, reflecting the romanticism of the painter Charles Goldie, preferred the ‘blanketted tattoo-spiralled old warrior’ to the modern Māori, ‘who as often as not wears tailor-made clothes of the latest pattern and whirls to the races in a motor-car’.1

As increasing numbers of Māori moved to the city in the years after the Second World War, views about Māori inability to deal with the demands of an urban capitalist life resurfaced. There were several elements to this:

  • the view that Māori were easily captured by the bright lights and consumer delights of the city, and wasted their money on gambling and drinking and flashy clothes
  • the idea that Māori did not understand the moral principles of financial responsibility and were inclined to favour friends and family
  • the stereotype of Māori as lazy, slovenly and inefficient, and not able to cope with the strict time demands of the capitalist world.

In many respects these images were an updating of the old polygenist view that Māori were inherently uncivilised and would soon revert to the ‘call of the pah’.

Māori words

The use of Māori as an adjective in 20th-century New Zealand revealed deep suspicions of Māori. They included:

‘Maori time’, in which things were done according to people’s desires, not the clock
a ‘Maori day’ – a ‘sickie’
a ‘Maori holiday’ – the day after payday
‘Maori PT’ (physical training) ‘meant no more and no less strenuous exercise than lying on the flat of his back on bed’.2

Once were warriors

Another persistent stereotype was the martial Māori, a natural warrior, which has arguably been internalised in Māori male conceptions of their own masculinity. Māori were excellent fighters in 19th-century wars and the achievements of 28 (Maori) Battalion in the Second World War reinforced this stereotype. This was more a matter of brains and courage than instinct or culture, and the view that Māori society before European contact was unusually warlike is contestable. Once were warriors, but once were also farmers and fathers.

To those who looked askance at Māori gangs or commented on the levels of Māori domestic violence, the image of the fighting Māori also had very negative connotations. Alan Duff’s novel Once were warriors (1990) and the subsequent film (1994) became a dominant symbol of this negative stereotype.

Noble savage

There was also a revival of the ‘noble savage’ as a way of critiquing contemporary Pākehā society. This took a number of forms. The poet James K. Baxter, who took the Māori version of his name, Hēmi, saw Māori communalism as an alternative to the harshness of Pākehā urban society, which he thought created battered homeless people.

Some environmentalists contrasted the exploitative attitudes of Europeans in their use of the land with Māori kaitiakitanga, the ethic of guardianship and conservation, which was claimed to govern traditional Māori attitudes to the natural world. There was considerable romanticism in some of these views. Māori environmentalism, for example, is sometimes overstated – Māori after all hunted the moa to extinction.

As in previous centuries, ideas about Māori in the 21st century are more revealing of the needs of Pākehā society than accurate depictions of Māori culture and society.

    • James Cowan, The Maoris of New Zealand. Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1910, p. 7. Back
    • Francis Jackson, Passage to Tobruk: the diary of a Kiwi in the Middle East. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1943, p. 105. Back

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How to cite this page: James Belich, 'European ideas about Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by James Belich, published 5 May 2011