Pigs and potatoes were initially the most important food sources brought by Europeans.
Māori quickly adopted the potato, as it resembled kūmara (sweet potato) and could be grown in a similar fashion. British navigator James Cook had used the word ‘coumalla’ (kūmara) to introduce potatoes to Māori in Queen Charlotte Sound.
More importantly, potatoes tolerated cooler conditions, and could be produced in areas like Foveaux Strait and the Urewera where kūmara would not grow. They were reliable and high-yielding, and quickly became a key crop. Also, kūmara cultivation was subject to tapu (ritual restrictions). At first, these were sometimes also applied to potatoes – but generally, growing potatoes was seen as noa (non-sacred or ordinary), and could be done by women or slaves, allowing communities to increase production.
Before the arrival of pigs, kurī (dogs) and kiore (Polynesian rats) were the only mammalian sources of meat. The superiority of pigs – ‘fast-breeding, fast-growing, omnivorous lodes of rare protein’ 1 – was obvious.
Will that be pigs or potatoes?
From 1814 to 1827, the price of a musket fluctuated from 150 baskets of potatoes and eight pigs to 200 baskets of potatoes or 15 pigs, finally settling at 120 baskets of potatoes or 10 pigs. In the 1840s the price of a horse was 40 pigs. One schooner cost Bay of Plenty Māori 500 pigs.
A new currency
Tribes often made gifts of valued items, probably helping them to spread. Pigs and baskets of potatoes quickly became a standard form of currency.
From 1803, Māori were reported trading in potatoes, pigs, maize and other foodstuffs. However, after Māori attacked the sailing ship Boyd at Whangaroa in 1809, killing most of the passengers and crew, many Pākehā were unwilling to trade with Māori. This did not change until Samuel Marsden established the first mission station in the Bay of Islands under the protection of Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara in 1814. Ruatara was keen to grow wheat to feed his own people and as an export crop. Māori gardens in the Bay of Islands increased spectacularly in size from 1814, to provision visiting ships. Growers focused on new crops, especially potatoes.
Potatoes, muskets and warfare
From about 1818 the expansion of potato farming coincided with a growing demand for iron goods – especially muskets. Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika had returned from England and Sydney with a substantial supply of these weapons, giving him a strong military advantage over other tribes.
Potatoes provided surplus food that could feed tribes when travelling – although only limited amounts could be taken on long-distance raids. They were also important for buying muskets. Muskets had a great impact on Māori warfare. Warrior chiefs like Hongi Hika and Te Rauparaha acquired large numbers of slaves to increase their cultivations or dress flax for sale.
Hui and hospitality
At large 19th-century hui (gatherings), pigs and potatoes became an essential part of the hākari (feast). One hui in 1881 had ‘a wall of 2,756 kits of potatoes, topped with 500 dried sharks, stretched for nearly a quarter of a mile, with several hundred pigs’. 2
A number of types of potatoes which were introduced early became strongly associated with Māori, and are now known as Māori potatoes. In the 20th century pigs and potatoes remained important for hospitality. Pūhā and pork bones, a well-known Māori dish, is often served with potatoes.