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Māori–Pākehā relations

by Mark Derby

Pākehā men pursuing whales off the coast of Aotearoa New Zealand in the early 19th century sometimes settled ashore and married into Māori tribes. Whalers were followed by missionaries keen to convert Māori to Christianity. Then organised settlement from Britain began, and relations between Māori and Pākehā soon deteriorated.

Whaling stations – first contact

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.

    • 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
    • Quoted in Harry Morton, The whale’s wake. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1982, p. 167. Back
    • W. H. Dawbin, ‘The Māori went A’Whaling.’ Pacific Discovery 7 no. 4 (1954): p. 19. Back
    • 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

Missions and Māori

In the early 19th century government officials in New South Wales and London, and British missionary societies, were concerned that Europeans visiting New Zealand introduced Māori to prostitution, alcohol, muskets and disease. With the aim of protecting Māori from the worst effects of European colonisation, they decided to set up Christian missions in New Zealand. Māori whalers were among their earliest converts. The Northland chief Ruatara had travelled to London on board a whaling ship and met the missionary Samuel Marsden. As a result, Marsden based his first mission at Ruatara’s community in the Bay of Islands. A later mission was based at Paihia, directly opposite the whaling port of Kororāreka. The contrast between the peaceful and devout mission station and the violent and drunken township led the two communities to be known as Heaven and Hell.

The missionary establishment


Although conversions to Christianity were rare in the early years of the New Zealand missions, other changes of behaviour were noticeable. In 1816, less than two years after Marsden formed his mission at Rangihoua, a helper named Carlisle reported in glowing terms on its impact. ‘Since the formation of the Missionary establishment, the spirit of contention among the different tribes of natives which had formerly been productive of the most calamitous consequences, has so happily declined that barbarous conflicts are no more considered as a necessary policy, and the inhabitants of distant places visit one another, and interchange their wishes of an amicable intercourse.’1 The subsequent outbreak of the musket wars showed this to be an over-optimistic assessment.


Marsden and Māori

Marsden had met many Māori, including Ruatara, before visitng New Zealand, and had a great admiration for them. ‘The Natives of New Zealand are far advanced in Civilization,’ he wrote. ‘They appear like a superior race of Men.’2 The early missionaries learned about the Māori language and culture and acted as mediators between Māori and whalers, and between rival groups of Māori.

For many years Māori regarded the missionaries mainly as a source of trade goods and plants, animals and farming techniques. Marsden estimated that Māori food production increased by 10 times between 1814 and 1819, due to the introduction of iron tools and the market provided by the missions. Because of their overwhelming superiority in numbers and economic and military strength, Māori remained secure in their own religious traditions and beliefs, and for the first 15 years the missionaries made very few converts.

Missionaries’ increasing influence

From about 1830, however, Māori turned to Christianity in increasing numbers. The Musket Wars between tribes, and the even more devastating introduced diseases, may have undermined their confidence in their own gods. The traditional roles of women, slaves and chiefs changed greatly under missionary influence, and the missionaries gained prestige as doctors and teachers. Literacy, in particular, became extremely popular among Māori. By 1842 most Māori aged between 10 and 30 could read and write in their own language, a higher literacy rate than in the non-Māori population.

By 1840 the European minority had great prestige among most Māori, due mainly to the increasing influence of missionaries. This was a key factor in the decision by many chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. In turn, the high regard for Māori held by British political and religious leaders was reflected in the wording of the treaty. Equality between Māori and European was a foundational ideal of the new colony.

    • Quoted in Robert McNab, From Tasman to Marsden: a history of northern New Zealand from 1642 to 1818. Dunedin: J. Wilkie, 1914, p. 203. Back
    • Quoted in Kerry Howe, The quest for origins. Auckland: Penguin, 2003, p. 211. Back

Military conflicts

The two decades after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi were marked more by cooperation between Māori and non-Māori than by conflict. Organised immigration began in 1840 and soon created a scattering of European settlements around the coast. At first these settlements were economically dependent on their Māori neighbours, who provided most of the food for the growing towns while retaining control of their own tribal territories. At a time when the European farmers at Port Nicholson (Wellington) did not own a single plough, the Taranaki people at Waitara had 35 ploughs, 40 carts and a fleet of sailing boats to transport their produce to market.

There were ugly exceptions to the generally good relations of this period, often triggered by questionable land deals. After the Wairau incident of 1843, one government official said that the settlers ‘talk of nothing else but the extermination of the poor Maoris.’1 Two years later, British troops arrived to suppress unrest in the Bay of Islands.

Māori resist land sales

As the number of colonists, mostly from Britain, increased, the Māori population declined because of the impact of introduced diseases. By 1858, non-Māori outnumbered Māori. The newly arrived settlers were eager to acquire Māori land and often viewed its owners with contempt. In the 1840s, an English immigration agent described the Māori of the day as a ‘dirty, squalid, unimprovable and intolerably ugly generation … the sooner they were all transplanted to the happy hunting-grounds, the better it would be for universal humanity’.2

During the 1850s, some tribes sold land willingly and continued trading with Europeans  but other Māori began to fear the loss of their customs, territory and mana. The Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) arose to resist large-scale land sales. Its followers regarded their king as equivalent to, but not a challenge to, the queen in England.

New Zealand Wars

This uneasy truce disintegrated in the late 1850s and war broke out in Taranaki in early 1860, then elsewhere in the North Island. Māori fought alongside, as well as against, Pākehā, and warm friendships developed between the British and settler troops and their ‘friendly Māori’ allies. The courage and skill of the ‘rebel’ Māori also aroused the admiration of their opponents. However the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s represented, overall, the lowest point in the history of New Zealand’s race relations. More than 2,000 Māori and more than 500 Europeans were killed, and several million hectares of land was confiscated in Waikato, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty. These losses crippled large sections of the Māori people and created grievances that lasted more than a century.

South African War

After the land wars large areas of the North Island, in particular the King Country and the Urewera, remained under Māori control, but most Māori accepted the authority of the settler-dominated government. When the war in South Africa (1899–1902) broke out, some Māori  tried to enlist in the New Zealand contingents. The British government declared that indigenous troops should not be deployed against Europeans and Māori were officially barred from enlisting, although some did so under European names.

First World War

During the First World War, the New Zealand government actively enlisted Māori for the war effort. The Māori response followed the geographical pattern of the New Zealand Wars. ‘Rebel’ tribes such as Waikato opposed conscription, but tribes that had supported the government in the land wars signed up willingly. A Māori Contingent suffered many casualties at Gallipoli and was re-formed as a Pioneer Battalion to undertake labouring tasks on the Western Front.

Mana wahine


Women as well as men felt the change that the Second World War brought to relations between the races. A shortage of manpower allowed women into occupations and roles formerly closed to them. On the East Coast, elderly Māori women stood to speak on marae. Younger Māori women moved to cities and worked in factories alongside Pākehā women. Often the two peoples were in close contact for the first time.


Second World War

Māori gained much greater respect from Pākehā during the Second World War, when 28 (Māori) Battalion earned a reputation as one of the most courageous and effective Allied infantry units. Individuals such as Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu VC and Colonel Pita Awatere were regarded as heroes by all New Zealanders, and race relations improved significantly. After the war, Māori veterans successfully challenged official discrimination in the provision of welfare benefits, rehabilitation and housing.

In subsequent foreign wars and peace-keeping missions, Māori troops have continued to distinguish themselves at all levels of command, from Corporal Willie Apiata, who won a VC in Afghanistan in 2004, to Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae, who was Chief of the Defence Force and then governor-general.

    • Quoted in John Miller, Early Victorian New Zealand, a study of racial tension and social attitudes, 1839–1852. London: Oxford University Press, 1958, p. 78. Back
    • Quoted in Keith Sinclair and Wendy Harrex, Looking back: a photographic history of New Zealand. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 34. Back

Sport and race

From early colonial times Māori competed keenly against Europeans in a variety of sports. Horse racing was the first sport to gain widespread popularity. Rugby eventually became the favourite sport for men of both races, and for much of the 20th century the rugby field was the one arena of national life in which Māori and non-Māori met on equal terms.

First Māori rugby players

The first Māori known to play rugby was Wirihana, who appeared for Wanganui Country in 1872 in a 20-a-side game against their urban counterparts. When the first national team toured New South Wales in 1884, its members included Jack Taiaroa (Ngāi Tahu) and Joseph Warbrick (Ngāti Rangitihi). After one match a Sydney newspaper described Taiaroa as ‘the hero of the day’.1 Joe Warbrick and four of his brothers took part in the first overseas tour beyond Australia, the Natives Tour of 1888–89. The first official New Zealand rugby team in 1893 was captained and coached by Tom Ellison of Ngāi Tahu and Te Āti Awa. He designed the black uniform with silver fern that is still worn by today’s All Blacks.

George Nēpia

After the triumphant 1905–6 All Black tour of Britain, France and North America, when Southland Māori Billy Stead was vice-captain, rugby became far more popular in New Zealand. Until after the Second World War it was the only winter game available to boys in most New Zealand schools. By the 1920s, Māori footballers had developed the country’s distinctive fast, open style of play.

Great George


The noted historian, politician and diplomat William Pember Reeves was a star cricketer and also played one rugby match for Canterbury. Half a century later he wrote a poem celebrating George Nēpia’s skills as All Blacks fullback:

Kia toa, New Zealand. See
Nepia guards the gate.
A rock and a house of defence is he
A tino tangata great.2


George Nēpia became a national hero after his performance in the triumphant 1924–25 All Blacks tour to the northern hemisphere. He had begun playing rugby as a boy in Wairoa, with a horse paddock for a field and a cap for the ball. He was regarded as the greatest fullback of all time, but could only afford to join a New Zealand Māori tour to Australia in 1935 because Māori leader Apirana Ngata gave him three suits to wear. Ngata was convinced that Māori participation in rugby, as in warfare, enhanced his people’s esteem among Pākehā.

Māori and apartheid rugby

Nēpia missed the 1928 tour to South Africa when he and other Māori were excluded from the first racially selected All Black team. The South African team first visited New Zealand in 1921, and when it played New Zealand Maoris in Napier, the crowd’s response led a South African reporter to write that he could not understand why a white man would cheer for a Māori team. The Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union responded that the writer ‘does not know or understand how highly the Maori race is regarded by his fellow Pakeha citizens’.3 Despite this high regard, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union excluded Māori from teams touring South Africa until 1970.

All Blacks haka

The haka, the feature of New Zealand rugby best known internationally, was first performed by the touring Natives team in Surrey, England in 1888. It was only performed overseas until 1975, when Scotland was greeted with a haka in Auckland. During the 1985 All Blacks tour of Argentina, team members Hika Reid and Buck Shelford made sure that, for the first time, the whole team knew the words and the correct actions. In 2005 the All Blacks performed a new haka, ‘Kapa o Pango’, before a test match against South Africa in Dunedin.

    • Quoted in Malcolm Mullholland, Beneath the Māori moon: an illustrated history of Māori rugby. Wellington: Huia, 2009, p. 4. Back
    • George Nepia and others, I, George Nepia: the autobiography of a rugby legend. London: London League, 2002, p. 151. Back
    • Beneath the Māori moon, p. 39. Back

Māori urban migration

At the beginning of the 20th century New Zealand was, in effect, two separate countries. The non-Māori population lived mainly in cities and towns and received the great bulk of national and local government services. Māori New Zealand was almost entirely rural and, until the late 1930s, received lower welfare payments than non-Māori. Because Europeans in the main centres seldom came into contact with Māori, there was little friction between the two peoples.

‘World’s finest race relations’

Pākehā claimed that New Zealand had the finest race relations in the world, and that the Treaty of Waitangi was the fairest treaty ever made by Europeans with a native race. In 1903, Bay of Plenty MP William Herries told Parliament that he looked forward to 100 years in the future, when ‘we shall have no Maoris at all but a white race with a dash of the finest coloured race in the world’.1

Māori political leaders

The few Māori well known to Pākehā in this period were mainly political leaders such as James Carroll, Apirana Ngata, the Kingitanga leader Te Puea Hērangi and Māui Pōmare of Taranaki. They represented a people whose numbers were so reduced that many thought they were doomed to extinction. Official policy towards Māori in the early 20th century has been described as ‘a kind of benign segregation’.2 Pākehā claimed that Māori were being assimilated into their society, yet Māori maintained separate military, religious, sporting, welfare, land development, educational and cultural organisations.


This situation changed dramatically during and after the Second World War as Māori moved from the countryside to the cities to find paid work. In the 50 years between 1936 and 1986, the Māori population changed from 83% rural to 83% urban, one of the fastest rates of urbanisation in the world. As a result, many Pākehā came into close contact with Māori for the first time.

Leading by example

As Māori poured into the cities during and after the Second World War, the traditions and customs they had developed in rural communities changed suddenly and dramatically. One early internal migrant was Miraka Szaszy, a Far North woman of Dalmatian and Māori descent. She was a founder of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, set up in 1951, which aimed, in part, to promote understanding between Māori and European women. Szaszy believed Māori women living in a new society needed to take on new leadership roles. She provided an example in her own life, becoming one of the first Māori women to graduate from university.

Social problems

The speed of this transformation created many social problems. Many Europeans did not want Māori neighbours, and suburbs such as Ōtara in South Auckland and Porirua East in Wellington changed from predominantly Pākehā to almost entirely Māori (later joined by other Polynesian migrants). Many Māori experienced discrimination in finding accommodation and employment, and were refused service in hotel bars. They had less education and fewer skills than the majority population and, especially with worsening economic conditions in the 1970s, were more likely to be unemployed.

Changing customs

The government made little effort to help urban Māori adapt to this different way of life. They were expected to learn English and to abandon or alter their own customs. Māori had to find ways to hold hui where no meeting houses were available, to decide whether to hold tangi in their homes or back on rural marae, to learn how to make a hāngī in the backyard, and to cooperate with people of other tribes. Many younger urban Māori no longer based their cultural identity on their home marae and their whakapapa. Although some succeeded within the Pākehā-dominated education system, many others became school drop-outs, psychiatric patients, drug users or gang members.

In the late 1960s, a new generation of urban Māori, including some of those who had earlier gained educational qualifications and status, began to draw public attention to Māori issues for the first time in a century. New institutions such as urban marae and pan-tribal Māori organisations helped Māori to live in cities without abandoning their own culture.

    • Quoted in Michael King, The Penguin history of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 2004, p. 441. Back
    • James Belich, Paradise reforged: a history of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the year 2000. Auckland: Penguin, 2001, p. 206. Back

Māori renaissance

From the late 19th century, Pākehā included Māori traditions, customs and images in displays of New Zealand’s distinctive national identity. Cultural and trade exhibitions featured Māori performers and art forms from the 1880s, and Māori traditional life was a key attraction at the country’s main tourist destination, Rotorua. From the 1900s, Māori carving became accepted as a symbol of New Zealand. Important foreign visitors received a formal Māori welcome.

Māori population recovers

Some European representations of Māori, such as C. F. Goldie’s portraits or Elsdon Best’s writings, showed a nostalgia for a noble race that was presumed to have vanished or to be dying out. However, the Māori population increased twelvefold during the 20th century, and in 2018 Māori were 16.5% of the total New Zealand population. This remarkable recovery strengthened Māori demands for more equal treatment by state agencies. From the late 1960s Māori activists such as the young, urban-based Ngā Tamatoa movement, as well as more traditional Māori groups such as the Kīngitanga, called for the right to live as Māori within New Zealand society. The Pākehā anti-racist movement supported these calls.


British historian Simon Schama was struck by the relations between Māori and non-Māori when he visited New Zealand in 2010. ‘Maori, and the descendants of intermarriages that go back deep into the 19th century, are to be found in every leading walk of life in the country. Of course there have been serious problems of unequal social opportunity, of street gangs. But if there is anywhere in the post-colonial world where two cultural worlds truly live an engaged life alongside each other, it’s in New Zealand.’1


From the 1970s, New Zealand made a steadily stronger commitment to biculturalism – the idea that the Māori and Pākehā cultures could exist on equal terms. Major policy changes to reflect biculturalism were made by government departments and other state agencies. One of the most noticeable changes was made by the education system in response to declining use of the Māori language, which was in danger of disappearing by the 1970s. In response, initiatives such as kōhanga reo (Māori-language pre-schools), kura (schools) and wānanga (universities) were set up to revive the language.

Waitangi Tribunal

Perhaps the most lasting and influential change was made by the Waitangi Tribunal, set up in 1975 to investigate recent (and from 1985, historical) breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. Some historians believe that its research, and the settlements to Māori that resulted from claims, changed the face of New Zealand by setting a framework for the present and future relationship between the two treaty partners.

The new world

Many New Zealanders learned about a Māori world largely invisible to them through the works of Māori writers such as Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace. Early short stories by both writers appeared in the 1970s in Te Ao Hou (the new world), a magazine published by the Department of Maori Affairs.

Changing attitudes to relations between Māori and Pākehā were evident among the public as well as within official agencies. The 1974 funeral of Prime Minister Norman Kirk included traditional Māori mourning ceremonies. The Māori land march of 1975, led by the formidable Te Rarawa elder Whina Cooper, brought Māori political issues to the centre of national life, where they have remained. In 1984 Te Māori, a major exhibition of traditional Māori arts and culture, toured museums in several large US cities, gaining more overseas attention than any previous New Zealand exhibition.

The 1980s onwards

Since the 1980s, changes in the relationship between Māori and Pākehā have been major and irreversible. Māori have become highly visible in all aspects of New Zealand life, and open about, and proud of, their cultural identity. The Māori language is increasingly learned and used by non-Māori as well as Māori. Although Māori are still under-represented in professions and over-represented in prisons, specialist media such as Māori Television (set up in 2004, renamed Whakaata Māori in 2022) and successful individuals such as singer Anika Moa and netball player and coach Noeline Taurua have transformed the image of Māori in the minds of non-Māori.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Māori–Pākehā relations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011