Story: Māori–Pākehā relations

Page 1. Whaling stations – first contact

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In the years before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, relations between Māori and Pākehā were based on the Māori people’s complete authority over their own tribal areas. The much smaller numbers of non-Māori could only survive by accepting this authority and finding ways to share the country’s resources. Misunderstandings and cruelty occurred on both sides, but these early encounters were more often friendly, respectful and mutually rewarding.

In 1830 there were probably no more than 300 Pākehā living in New Zealand, among up to 100,000 Māori. A number of ‘Pākehā–Māori’ (Europeans living as part of a Māori community) operated as traders, but many Māori communities, especially in inland areas, had little or no contact with Pākehā. The most significant and lasting contacts between Māori and non-Māori in this period came through the whaling industry.

Trading with whalers

At whaling ports such as Kororāreka (later Russell) in the Bay of Islands, local Māori traded fresh water, firewood, pork and potatoes with the whalers in return for desired goods such as muskets, iron tools, rum and tobacco. The wife of a US whaling captain described Kororāreka Māori in 1830 ‘flocking to the shore, extending their arms to receive the white men from a distant country, bringing with them the fruits of their agriculture in great quantities, at the lowest prices.’1

Ocean whaling

Māori admired the whalers’ strength and courage and were eager to work on whaling ships, while whaling captains and shipowners found that Māori were ‘orderly and powerful seamen’.2 In 1796 at Rio de Janeiro, the British whaler Mermaid employed ‘an Indian of New Zealand who has good knowledge of the coast, and signed him on as pilot and boat-steerer’.3 The tattooed harpooner Queequeg in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick is probably based on a Māori crew member of Melville’s whaling ship Mary Ann.

Another Māori, James Bayley, served as chief mate on the Australian whale ship Earl Stanhope in the 1830s. During deep-sea whaling voyages, Māori travelled around the world. The chief Moehanga was probably the first Māori to reach London, aboard the British whaler Ferret in 1806. During these long voyages Māori learned about European tools and techniques, and new types of plants and animals, and then returned home with them. Some replaced their waka (canoes) with lighter, faster whaleboats.

Pidgin Māori


Many Māori first learned English while working in the whaling industry, and non-Māori shore whalers developed a crude dialect known as ‘whaler’s Māori’. For example, the shore station of Te Awa-iti in Tory Channel was known as ‘Tarwhite’.


Shore whaling

Shore whaling stations had an even greater cultural impact than ocean whaling. At these stations Pākehā and Māori worked alongside each other for years on end. The Ngāti Toa chief Te Hiko operated a six-man whaleboat from Kāpiti Island, crewed entirely by Māori. The shore whaling station at Jacob’s River (Riverton) used a crew of Māori women. Many non-Māori whalers married and raised families with Māori women. Some, such as Phillip Tapsell in Bay of Plenty, who married Maria Ringa, began families whose surnames remain well-known today.

Some Māori were badly treated by ships’ captains, and the government of New South Wales passed laws to protect them. One 1813 proclamation ordered the masters of vessels leaving Sydney to ‘be of their good behaviour towards the Natives of New Zealand,’4 and not to kidnap them or cheat them of their wages. These early laws prepared the way for the Treaty of Waitangi and British annexation of New Zealand.

  1. Abby Jane Morrell, Narrative of a voyage to the Ethiopic and South Atlantic Ocean, Chinese Sea, north and south Pacific Ocean: in the years 1829, 1830, 1831. New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833, p. 36. Back
  2. Quoted in Harry Morton, The whale’s wake. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1982, p. 167. Back
  3. W. H. Dawbin, ‘The Māori went A’Whaling.’ Pacific Discovery 7 no. 4 (1954): p. 19. Back
  4. Quoted in Robert McNab, From Tasman to Marsden: a history of northern New Zealand from 1642 to 1818. Dunedin: J. Wilkie, 1914, p. 162. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Māori–Pākehā relations - Whaling stations – first contact', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011