Story: Ideas about Māori origins

Page 4. 1880s–1970s: Moriori origins; the Great Fleet

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Early ideas about Moriori

From the mid-19th century large numbers of moa bones were discovered alongside human tools. This raised questions about whether the moa had been exterminated by Māori, or by pre-Māori people. If the latter, who were these people and what happened to them?

One answer was offered by the geologist Julius von Haast. He concluded that those who had hunted the moa belonged to pre-history and were a Palaeolithic people. Percy Smith’s Great Fleet story neatly offered an explanation for what happened to them and when: New Zealand was first populated by a primitive, nomadic, moa-hunting people (the Palaeolithic Moriori), before being replaced by a superior, agricultural people (the Neolithic Māori).

Justifying colonisation

From the time of Captain Cook it was widely believed that the peoples of Polynesia were dying out as a result of Western contact, although there was no agreed explanation for this.

In the second half of the 19th century Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution provided such an explanation – that the ‘weaker’ races, and notably the Polynesians, were doomed to extinction by immutable natural laws. In the case of Māori, the census of 1896 showed their numbers (42,000) to be the lowest since colonisation began. That Māori had caused the extinction of the Moriori (the people thought to be living in New Zealand before Māori), and were now in turn being supplanted by European colonists was nobody’s fault, but simply the way it must be. The Great Fleet theory legitimised European colonisation and the possibility of Māori extinction. The artist Charles Goldie’s portraits of Māori commonly depicted them wistfully contemplating and accepting their own passing.

Aryan destiny

S. Percy Smith’s Great Fleet narrative must also be seen in the wider context of Aryan theory. His story told of a long and adventurous past for both Māori and Pākehā migrants, linked to a distant but common ancestry. But the real triumph was that the next migrants to New Zealand – the European settlers – were making a great new country not only for themselves, but for humanity. These Britons of the South believed that they were a reinvigorated version of their Old World forefathers. In the Liberal era of the late 19th century, New Zealand was seen as the world’s social laboratory, the very birthplace of the 20th century.

The Great Fleet becomes legend

Smith was ably supported by other key gatekeepers of Māori knowledge, notably Elsdon Best, who enhanced the story of the Moriori, their inferiority, and their Melanesian origins. The idea of the Great Fleet was accepted by Māori and Pākehā. Even the Māori scholar Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), who claimed he had special insights into Māori history because of his ‘Polynesian corpuscles’, nevertheless argued that Polynesians were Aryans who might have originated in the Middle East and most likely did live somewhere in India. Throughout his life he was an ardent supporter of the Great Fleet theory. He also generally supported the story of discovery by the earlier Polynesian explorers Kupe, Toi and Whātonga, but did not accept that there were pre-Polynesian Moriori in New Zealand.

Smith’s narrative became a legend. Until the 1970s, it was a feature of Māori and Pākehā learning and enshrined in New Zealand’s wider culture.

How to cite this page:

K. R. Howe, 'Ideas about Māori origins - 1880s–1970s: Moriori origins; the Great Fleet', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 May 2022)

Story by K. R. Howe, published 8 Feb 2005