Early European explorers introduced a wide range of plants. In December 1769, French explorer Captain Jean François Marie de Surville left wheat, peas, and rice in New Zealand. In 1772, Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne planted wheat, maize, potatoes and various kinds of nuts on Moturua Island in the Bay of Islands.
In 1773, British explorer James Cook and navigator Tobias Furneaux planted a number of gardens in Queen Charlotte Sound, with plants such as potatoes, carrots, parsnips, cabbages, onions, leeks, parsley, radish, mustard, broad beans, kidney beans, peas, turnips and wheat. That same year, south of Cape Kidnappers, Cook gave the Māori chief Tuanui roots and seeds, including wheat, beans, peas, cabbages, turnips, onions, carrots, parsnips and yams.
On Cook’s third voyage in 1777, he revisited the gardens sown by his crew and found them completely gone. Of Furneaux’s gardens there remained some cabbages, onions, leeks, purslane, radishes, and a few potatoes.
By 1810, Māori at Foveaux Strait were growing and trading potatoes. These probably came from the Queen Charlotte Sound gardens and were distributed throughout the South Island through Ngāi Tahu networks. In 1820, the Russian explorer Bellingshausen found Māori growing potatoes in Queen Charlotte Sound. Wild cabbage was widespread.
Potatoes were grown at Thames as early as 1801, and traded in the Bay of Islands by 1805. These may have come from Marion du Fresne’s garden in the Bay of Islands – or from potatoes sent by Lieutenant-Governor Philip King of Norfolk Island in 1793.
Cabbage was widespread in Northland by 1807. Māori said that cabbage on the East Coast had come from that gifted by Cook to Tuanui.
Two pigs were gifted to Māori by de Surville at Doubtless Bay in 1769. During Cook’s second and third voyages, a number of boars and sows were released – most in Queen Charlotte Sound, but two breeding pairs were given to the Hawke’s Bay chief Tuanui. Wild pigs, in the South Island at least, may have originated from Cook’s voyages, and are generally known as Captain Cookers.
Cook also released a breeding pair of goats in 1773 and another pair in 1777. In 1773 he gave roosters and hens to Māori near Cape Kidnappers, and left two hens and three cocks in Queen Charlotte Sound. In late 1773, Furneaux’s men observed chickens in the bush laying eggs.
In 1793, Governor King of Norfolk Island gave 12 pigs to Tukitahua, one of two northern Māori chiefs who had been kidnapped and taken to Norfolk Island. By 1795 only one animal was left. King then established relations with the northern chief Te Pahi, and sent a total of 56 pigs in three ships in 1804 and 1805. It is probably from these, and from being gifted between tribes, that pigs became established in the North Island. From 1805 Māori were trading pigs to Europeans.
In 1814 the first cattle and horses were brought to the Bay of Islands by Samuel Marsden. Around 1819, an American whaler introduced a sweet potato variety that was larger than those grown by Māori. Quickly adopted by Māori, it became known as merikana (American). Governor King had gifted maize in 1793, and this was well established by around 1816. Māori roasted it in embers, or fermented the cobs and made cakes.
By 1827 watermelons and peaches were common enough to be traded to Europeans in the Bay of Islands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At first, Māori resisted growing wheat because it required processing, and was very different from their traditional vegetable crops. The northern chief Ruatara, keen to take advantage of the demand for wheat in Sydney, sowed and harvested the first crop in New Zealand in 1813. Others doubted its usefulness, which was not apparent until Ruatara was able to grind the wheat. His successor, Hongi Hika, showed his wheat plantation to Samuel Marsden less than two years later.
Wheat proved a reliable food crop that could be stored for consumption or export.
In the 1840s, the settler population was increasing, and Māori wheat-growing expanded to feed settlers and supply Australia. Growers began to find their hand-operated flour mills inefficient, and from the mid-1840s, tribal groups in the Waikato, Wellington, Taranaki and Whanganui areas began to invest in water-powered mills. Before roads and railways were built, communities inland and on the west coast found it very difficult to transport their produce. Milling the wheat reduced its bulk and weight and made it easier to access the main markets such as Auckland.
Missionaries and other Pākehā promoted wheat-growing among Māori, even in unsuitable locations, for reasons which were symbolic as well as practical. Western ideas linked land rights to its use, and the Bible included references to wheat and metaphors associating ploughs with civilisation. Pākehā also believed that more intensive land use would encourage Māori to establish fixed places of residence and free up more land for settlement by immigrants.
Tribal groups who took up wheat farming or built water-powered flour mills received considerable support. Governor George Grey was keen to help these developments, and provided loans for many North Island hapū (subtribes) to construct mills – usually conditional on their making land available for Pākehā settlement.
Māori recognised that growing wheat and milling flour symbolised peaceful intentions, so many groups who hoped to cement the 1840 alliance with the British Crown were keen to grow wheat. Unfortunately, in 1856 prices for farm produce slumped dramatically, leaving many communities with debts for mills that had lost their value.
Belich, James. Making peoples: a history of the New Zealanders: from Polynesian settlement to the end of the nineteenth century. Auckland: Penguin, 2001.
Best, Elsdon. Māori agriculture: the cultivated food plants of the natives of New Zealand : with some account of native methods of agriculture, its ritual and origin myths. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005.
Leach, Helen. 1,000 years of gardening in New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1984.
Petrie, Hazel. Chiefs of industry: Māori tribal enterprise in early colonial New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006.