Story: Hōkakatanga – Māori sexualities

Page 2. Early Māori sexuality

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Māori sexuality on European arrival

When Europeans arrived in New Zealand they found that Māori views of sexuality were different from Western ideas of the time. Māori chiefs would often have more than one wife. Except for puhi (high-born women set aside for a political marriage), sex before marriage carried no stigma. English and French explorers tried to make sense of the culture they saw. For example naturalist Georg Forster, who was on British explorer James Cook’s second voyage, said, ‘Their ideas of female chastity are, in this respect so different from ours, that a girl may favour a number of lovers without any detriment to her character; but if she marries, conjugal fidelity is exacted from her with the greatest rigour.’1 French explorer Julien Crozet said, ‘[Māori] gave us to understand by signs that we must not touch the married women, but that we might with perfect freedom make advances to the girls.’2 Many explorers, sailors and even missionaries had sexual relationships with Māori. When Cook first arrived in New Zealand sexual activity between his crew and local Māori, both women and men, was a feature of these early encounters.

Children born outside marriage were still considered part of their tribe. Māori whānau continue to play an important role in ensuring that children are raised in close proximity to whānau members to ensure the transmission of ancestral knowledge, whakapapa, tikanga, and te reo Māori.

Historical examples of same-sex relationships

Joseph Banks, a scientist on board Cook’s ship the Endeavour, recorded that one of the sailors had been with a Māori family and had paid them to have sexual relations with a young woman. The ‘young woman’ who retired with him turned out to be a boy. He returned and complained and was given another ‘young woman’ who turned out to also be a boy. When he complained again the family laughed at him. Banks was not sure whether this was evidence of homosexuality, or sharp trading.

There are a number of recorded examples of new settlers cohabiting in same-sex relationships with Māori. The most well-documented example is the Reverend William Yate, an English missionary, who lived with his male companion for two years in the Māori village of Waimate, before being expelled to England for homosexual behaviour. His relationship seems to have been accepted by the Māori community but it was frowned on by his religious peers. An investigation into allegations that Yate had engaged in sexual acts with Māori youths illustrates that there was a more open attitude by Māori to sexuality. Richard Davis observed that ‘[they] showed no shame. They simply declared that they were unaware of any sinfulness in such practices and that Yate had not initiated them.’3

European influence

While on one hand the arrival of Europeans introduced prostitution to New Zealand, it also led to a change in Māori sexual attitudes due to the imposition by missionaries of a code of behaviour based on Victorian concepts of morality. This led to the active promotion of the belief that sexual behaviour should occur between a man and a woman within the parameters of marriage, and that it should be for the purposes of procreation.

These ideas led to active attempts to change Māori culture. Sexual organs in carvings were often covered over or removed. Waiata and karakia, which often had explicit language in them, were often bowdlerised. Despite the openness with which Māori talked about sexuality, the Williams Māori-language dictionary only gave the meaning of sexual terms and body parts in Latin. For instance, the definition for ure (penis) was given as ‘membrum virile’. Europeans collecting Māori traditions often censored them. John White, a collector of numerous Māori traditions and stories, noted, ‘Nearly all my best tales are tainted with indecency’.4

  1. Quoted in Anne Salmond, Between worlds: early exchanges between Maori and Europeans, 1773–1815. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 76. Back
  2. Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 376. Back
  3. Quoted in Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, ‘He Reka Ano – same-sex lust and loving in the ancient Māori world.’ In Outlines: lesbian & gay histories of Aotearoa, edited by Alison J. Laurie & Linda Evans. Wellington: Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand, 2005, p. 7. Back
  4. Quoted in John O’Leary, ‘“Tableaux of queerness”: the ethnographic novels of John White’, (last accessed 2 March 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Clive Aspin, 'Hōkakatanga – Māori sexualities - Early Māori sexuality', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 March 2023)

Story by Clive Aspin, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 Jan 2019