Story: European ideas about Māori

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.

Story by James Belich
Main image: French portrait of Māori man and boy

Story summary

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The first European ideas about Māori formed when four of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s men were killed in an encounter with Māori in Golden Bay in 1642. ‘Murderers Bay’ appeared on world maps.

In the 1700s explorers such as James Cook brought ideas of scientific observation. They saw Māori as strong, brave and active, but this view began to change, especially when Europeans were attacked and killed.

Biblical ideas

Most Europeans who settled in New Zealand in the 19th century were Christians and believed in the Bible. They thought the world was 6,000 years old, and that everyone had descended from Noah’s three sons: Europeans from Japheth, Asians from Shem, and Africans from Ham.

Because Māori were interested in European ideas and objects, missionaries thought they would be very good converts to Christianity and European civilisation.

Not all Europeans thought that Māori and other non-European races had descended from Adam and Eve. Some thought that different races had separate beginnings, and that Māori were savage and would always be inferior to Europeans, even if they adopted European ways.


Charles Darwin believed that living things competed for resources, and the successful ones survived, leading to species changing over time.

Some people applied this idea to humans. They thought that when Europeans (who were supposedly superior) came into contact with inferior races, those races would die out. The belief that Māori were a dying race continued even when the Māori population was growing.

Aryan Māori

In 1885 Edward Tregear wrote that Māori, like Europeans, were part of the Aryan race, which was superior to others. The idea that Māori were Aryans led to better treatment for them. Many people held this view until the 1940s, when the Nazi belief in a superior Aryan race made the idea unpopular.

Racial stereotypes

Although many people no longer believed theories about Māori origins, racist stereotypes of Māori continued. They were described as lazy, and not really able to cope with city life.

Māori were seen as warriors, and Māori soldiers in the Second World War were thought of as brave and exceptional fighters. But alongside this idea was a more negative one of violence within some Māori families.

There are also positive stereotypes of tribal life. Some environmentalists see Māori as natural conservationists.

How to cite this page:

James Belich, 'European ideas about Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

Story by James Belich, published 5 May 2011