Story: Intermarriage

Page 1. Early intermarriage

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Tribal society

Intermarriage is usually defined as a relationship between partners of different races, languages or ethnicities. If it is also defined as marriage between members of different tribal groups, then it has been a widespread and important aspect of Māori life since pre-European times. Marriage had important social, political and economic functions in tribal Māori society, and any action that could upset a betrothal, cause political strife or upset finely balanced relationships was frowned upon. Amongst high-ranking Māori families, intermarriage between tribes was used to forge political alliances, make peace deals and unite resources.

Sacred marriage

Hokianga trader and settler Joel Polack denied that Māori women often worked as prostitutes. He felt that people who had not spent long in New Zealand had unjustly reported ‘that [Māori women’s] favours may be obtained at the premium of any paltry trinket: such observations are without foundation. The favours of a married woman in New Zealand are fully as difficult of attainment as in any part of the world, the punishment of death being awarded as the penalty for an infringement of the nuptial bond, which is held by these people in as sacred a light as in the most civilised states.’1

First European contact

Relationships between Māori and non-Māori appear to have been common from the earliest contacts between the two peoples. Crews of visiting ships formed liaisons with local women, generally on Māori terms and following Māori customary practices. Sailors usually restricted their relationships to unmarried women on shore under the supervision of the community, sometimes providing them with dresses and other goods. Missionaries later described these relationships as prostitution, though some of them were probably a form of ‘temporary marriage’. The relationships between sailors and Māori women were frequently affectionate and some men chose to desert the ship for their partner.


From the 1790s a small number of men jumped ship in New Zealand and lived with Māori. They were known as Pākehā–Māori, and were welcomed into Māori communities because they offered access to European knowledge and skills, and could act as mediators. Intermarriage, often with the daughter of a chief, was a common feature of their life in New Zealand, mainly because it tied them to a patron and gave them protection.

Whalers and traders

Intermarriage was a necessary aspect of the trading era because it ensured political, economic and social survival for newcomers. For Māori, intermarriage with Europeans – then a very small minority – posed less of a risk than intertribal marriage. Marriage to a whaler or trader meant land and any future children were retained by the community, while the tribe gained a member. Marriage placed duties, expectations and obligations upon a whaler or trader. They were expected to maintain honour, provide hospitality, act in a manner appropriate to a member of a high-ranking or chiefly family, and bring wealth and prestige to the community.

First official marriage

Ngāpuhi woman Maria Ringa and the Danish whaler and trader Phillip Tapsell were married at the Bay of Islands in 1823 by missionary Thomas Kendall. It was the first formally recognised marriage between Māori and newcomer in New Zealand. However, it did not prove lasting – the new Mrs Tapsell left her husband on the day of their marriage. He later married two more high-born Māori women in succession.

‘Till death do us part’

Marriages between the races were not always stable. However, marriages contracted in the whaling and trading era were largely monogamous and enduring, whether they were church-sanctioned or followed customary Māori practices.

  1. J. S. Polack, New Zealand: being a narrative of travels and adventures during a residence in that country between the years 1831 and 1837. Christchurch: Capper Press, 1972 (originally published 1838), p. 369. Back
How to cite this page:

Angela Wanhalla, 'Intermarriage - Early intermarriage', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Angela Wanhalla, published 5 May 2011