Story: Intermarriage

Page 2. Intermarriage in colonial society

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Missionary responses

Early missionaries were not always in favour of marriage between Māori and non-Māori. Reverend Henry Williams refused to formalise such marriages, particularly if the woman was unbaptised. Reverend Samuel Marsden opposed Thomas Kendall’s decision to marry Phillip Tapsell and Maria Ringa in 1823, but in 1830 he performed the ceremony for Tapsell’s third marriage, to Hine-i-turuma of Ngāti Whakaue. Marsden later commented, ‘The more Christian customs and manners prevail in New Zealand the more improvement the natives will make in the arts of civilization, and I consider lawful marriage to be of the first importance.’1


Polished Māori

In 1873 the Reverend James Buller foresaw a future when ‘the young Maori lad of the present time shall develop into the polished Maori gentleman of a future day … do you suppose that the fairest of England’s daughters will then refuse to grace with her charms the palatial residence of Maori aristocracy?’ At least one respondent disagreed with this proposal: ‘I, for one, would sooner see any female relative in the grave, than sharing the residence (however palatial) or the attentions (however polished) of any Maori, even though he might be removed by three generations from the cannibalism of his ancestors.’2

Encouraging ‘civilised’ living

Marsden’s view that marriage encouraged ‘civilised’ ways of life amongst Māori was later accepted by colonial officials. In order to encourage legal intermarriage, the Half-Caste Disability Removal Act was passed in 1860. This act removed any legal disabilities for children born of interracial relationships prior to 1860 as long as their parents married. It also ensured that upon marriage to a Pākehā, Māori women retained their rights to land.

Acquiring land

Traditionally, Māori women could inherit land from both their parents. This made them desirable marriage partners for Pākehā hoping to acquire land that its Māori owners were unwilling to sell. These men sometimes abandoned their wives after gaining title to their lands. Gilbert Mair, a resident magistrate and government land agent, became an owner of native reserve land at Ōhope, near Whakatāne, through his common-law wife Anahera Patara. He later sold the land.

Changing intermarriage patterns

After the 1840s Māori women and settlers continued to cohabit, to have fleeting sexual encounters and to marry under Māori custom. Some couples also chose to marry under British law.

Systematic colonisation introduced some changes in intermarriage patterns. More Pākehā women arrived and became available as marriage partners. Some Pākehā men abandoned their Māori wives and children as they sought respectability and entry into colonial society. Marriages between ‘half-caste’ women and settlers took place, and some interracial couples migrated to New Zealand. White women also began to marry Māori men, but not in large numbers. The idea that a Pākehā woman might desire a Māori man was not a widely held view, and inspired derision or anger.

In 1877 the Tuapeka Times commented that in ‘the last ten or twenty years marriages between Europeans and Maoris have not been common, though in former years such cases of miscegenation was pretty numerous in this part of the Colony; in fact, it was Hobson’s choice. European men were far more abundant than European women, and these early settlers had either to wed a dark-skinned daughter of the land or remain in single blessedness.’3 In this period intermarriage continued across all ranks of society, but seemed less common as large numbers of settlers arrived.

Māori assimilation

From the 1870s census officials drew a parallel between intermarriage and successful assimilation. Māori were thought to be a ‘dying race’, and biological assimilation with non-Māori was accepted as their destiny.

Even some prominent Māori leaders of the early 20th century, such as Sir Māui Pōmare, believed intermarriage offered a way for the Māori population to survive. However, they did not agree with officials that intermarriage would lead to absorption and finally the disappearance of Māori. Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck) foresaw ‘a future type of New-Zealander in which … the best features of the Maori race will be perpetuated forever’.4 Māori–Pākehā intermarriage was tolerated, accepted and even celebrated as a force for assimilation and an indication of racial harmony into the early 20th century.

  1. Quoted in John Rawson Elder, ed., The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden, 1764–1838, senior chaplain in the colony of New South Wales and Superintendent of the Mission of the Church Missionary Society in New Zealand. Dunedin: Coulls, Somerville Wilkie and A. H. Reed for the Otago University Council, 1932, p. 487. Back
  2. Grey River Argus, 8 April 1873, p. 2. Back
  3. Tuapeka Times, 4 July 1877, p. 6. Back
  4. Te Rangi Hīroa, ‘The passing of the Maori.’ In Transactions and proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 55 (1924), p. 175. Back
How to cite this page:

Angela Wanhalla, 'Intermarriage - Intermarriage in colonial society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Angela Wanhalla, published 5 May 2011