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by Angela Wanhalla

Intermarriage between Māori and Pākehā has been common from the early days of European settlement in New Zealand. The government encouraged intermarriage, which was seen as a means of ‘civilising’ Māori. However, some people disapprove of intermarriage.

Early intermarriage

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

Intermarriage in colonial society

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

Intermarriage with Asians and Dalmatians

Anti-Asian prejudice

While intermarriage between Māori and Europeans became widely acceptable, late 19th-century scientists theorised that intermarriage with other peoples would create a race of ‘hybrids’ who would inherit the worst features of each ‘race’. Intermarriage between white women and ‘Asiatics’ (Chinese) was particularly feared. Both Chinese and Indian men were known as ‘race aliens’. They were thought to be unwilling to assimilate, to undercut wages because of their frugality, and to have strange customs and immoral habits, especially coveting the wives and daughters of Pākehā and Māori men.

Negative stereotypes


Charles Thatcher, a popular entertainer on the Australian and New Zealand goldfields in the 1850s and 1860s, revealed the anti-Asian prejudice of the time in his song about the marriage of a Chinese gold miner to a white woman.

To look at her, ’twas hard to say
Exactly where her beauty lay
Her complexion was a dirty brown
And she’d lately come from Hobart Town
Smallpox had left big traces there
She’d a snub nose, and deep red hair
But finding fault was not his plan
She was just the girl for the Chinaman.1


Asian intermarriage

Until the mid-20th century, Chinese and Indian populations in New Zealand were largely ‘bachelor societies’ made up mainly of males. They arrived with no intention of becoming permanent settlers, but from 1881 immigration restrictions made it increasingly difficult for them to leave and re-enter the country, or to bring their families to New Zealand.

Asian migrants therefore had little opportunity to meet and marry women of their own ethnic origin. Many eventually married Pākehā or Māori women. Women who chose to enter a relationship with a Chinese man were described as ‘worse than the Chinese themselves – as the vilest of the vile’.2 One Christchurch resident noted in 1886 that the Chinese ‘are supposed to be great admirers of the white girls; occasionally a marriage takes place’, but, unusually, added that Chinese men were said to make ‘very kind and affectionate husbands’.3

Māori and market gardeners

Many Chinese had migrated to New Zealand to work on the goldfields. Once gold returns dwindled, some moved into market gardening on the outskirts of main centres. By the 1920s there was growing public concern for the welfare of Māori women working on Asian-owned market gardens, and Native Minister Apirana Ngata instigated a commission of inquiry into the issue. This found only three ‘legal marriages’ between Māori women and Chinese men and an unspecified number of de facto relationships. It reported, ‘The indiscriminate intermingling of the lower types of races – ie. Maoris, Chinese and Hindus … must eventually cause deterioration not only in the family and national life of the Maori race, but also in the national life of this country, by the introduction of a hybrid race.’4 However, the commission also found that Māori women preferred working for Chinese or Indian market gardeners as they paid better than European employers.

Mate, mate, mate


The poet Kendrick Smithyman was born in Dargaville, and spent summer holidays in the Far North, where he befriended local Dalmatians and Māori. His poem ‘An ordinary day beyond Kaitaia’ includes a punning reference to the three languages of that region:

I write in her dust
On the bonnet of our station wagon
MATE. That will do, for a time.5

In English ‘mate’ can mean a friend, or to marry and procreate. In Māori it refers to death and sickness. In Croatian (the language of the Dalmatian migrants) ‘Mate’ is a common first name, held by many men of Dalmatian descent in Northland.


Dalmatian intermarriage

Another distinctive ethnic minority in the late 19th century was the Dalmatian gum diggers of the Far North. As with the first Chinese and Indians, these migrants from Dalmatia (now part of Croatia) were overwhelmingly male, and marriage to local women, especially Māori, was common. The first recorded marriage between a Dalmatian gum digger and a Māori was in 1891. Another gum digger, Lovro Petricevich, married Makareta Raharuhi of the Ngāti Kurī tribe. Lovro became fluent in Māori, and when he died he was buried on his wife’s marae in accordance with local custom. Their daughter, Dame Miraka Szaszy, was the first Māori woman to graduate from Auckland University College.

The descendants of Dalmatians and Māori remain proud of their mixed cultural and linguistic heritage. In March 2010, the 11th annual Tarara Day was celebrated in West Auckland, jointly organised by Te Waipareira marae and the Croatian Cultural Society. ‘Tarara’ is the Māori term for people of Dalmatian descent.

    • Quoted in James Ng, Windows on a Chinese past. Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1993, p. 242. Back
    • Windows on a Chinese past, p. 243. Back
    • ‘Hopeful,’ ‘Taken in’: being a sketch of New Zealand life. London: W. H. Allen, 1887, p. 83. Back
    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives 1929, G-11, p. 5. Back
    • Kendrick Smithyman, ‘An ordinary day beyond Kaitaia.’ Poetry New Zealand 1 (1971), p. 88. Back

20th-century intermarriage

Māori urban migration

Māori migration to the cities began in the early 20th century and continued through the 1960s. Māori came into much greater contact with non-Māori and intermarriage increased accordingly. Officials argued that the rate of ‘miscegenation’ (a negative term for marriage between races) was an accurate measure of the success of assimilation and integration policies. The 1936 census report found that ‘the extent of miscegenation is increasing at a fairly rapid rate. It seems clear that in a few generations the European and Maori divisions of the population will have blended to a very large degree’.1 A 1968 study of ethnic intermarriage found that from 1890 to 1960 there was an overall strong increase in ‘outmarriage’ (marriage with another race) by Māori.

Māori with Māori

In 2010 Māori Party MP Hone Harawira caused controversy when he remarked that he would not feel comfortable if one of his seven children came home with a Pākehā partner. Ngāi Tahu leader Tahu Potiki commented that while his Pākehā mother’s parents had been very accepting of her choice of a Māori partner, his father’s sister had not been allowed to marry a Pākehā – or even a Māori of another tribe. Potiki said he had ‘deliberately sought a partner from within the tribe and I would be very pleased if my children did the same. Such connections are very satisfying and remain important to Maori even in this 21st-century world.’2

Opposing intermarriage

Some sections of society resisted intermarriage. Samuel Goldstein, Auckland’s rabbi from 1880 until the 1930s, refused to marry a member of his congregation to someone of another faith, and excluded from his synagogue anyone married to a non-Jewish partner. His successor, Rabbi Astor, established a Jewish cultural, social and recreational group to discourage assimilation and intermarriage, which he believed would weaken New Zealand’s small Jewish community.

In 1990 the New Zealand Chinese historian Bickleen Fong said, ‘I would prefer that my children marry Chinese … In marriage, it is better to marry within your own racial or cultural class to minimise family conflict. It was just taken for granted that I should marry a Chinese. It is not the skin colour or racial difference, but the cultural dissimilarity.’3

Intermarriage into the 2000s

From the 1950s new migrant groups from Europe and Polynesia settled in New Zealand, followed by Asian migrants in the 1980s and 1990s. Their relationship patterns reflected New Zealand’s increasingly multi-cultural character. The children of mixed marriages were themselves more likely to intermarry.

As the pool of individuals with mixed ethnicity increases, there is a greater chance of marrying someone with mixed ethnicity. Intermarriage also potentially provides the children of such unions with a greater choice of which ethnic group, or groups, to affiliate with. Sir Tipene O’Regan, the son of a Pākehā father and Ngāi Tahu mother, said, ‘I learnt very early that coming from two cultural streams doubled your cultural potential, it doubled your sense of identity and it didn’t divide it in half.’4

  1. Maori census, 1936, introductory notes, p. iii. Back
  2. ‘Skin colour veils identity.’ The Press, 6 August 2010, (last accessed 19 October 2010). Back
  3. Quoted in Manying Ip, Home away from home: life stories of the New Zealand Chinese women. Auckland: New Women’s Press, 1990, p. 123. Back
  4. Quoted in Carol Archie, Skin to skin. Auckland: Penguin, 2005, p. 207. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Angela Wanhalla, 'Intermarriage', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Angela Wanhalla, published 5 May 2011