Story: Taupori Māori – Māori population change

Page 1. Population changes, 1769–1840

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Early population estimates

The population of 18th-century Māori provides an important baseline for surveying Māori population change. Of the many estimates made by European observers, British navigator James Cook’s 1769 suggestion of 100,000 Māori is the most realistic. It fits with feasible growth rates, using a range of likely Māori settlement dates and founding population numbers drawn from paleontological evidence. A much higher population would only have been feasible if Māori had arrived well before 1250–1300 AD (when they are thought to have arrived), or were far healthier than skeletal remains suggest.

Population-change model


The demographic transition model has four stages. Stage one is characterised by high birth and death rates, creating a relatively stable population. In stage two mortality rates fall and the population experiences rapid growth. A drop in fertility rates signals entry into stage three. The final stage sees a return to relative stability, with mortality rates close to fertility levels and no natural increase. In 2010 the Māori population was in the third stage.


Demographic transition

In 1769 Māori were at the first stage of what demographers call the demographic transition – a four-stage model describing how populations change as they modernise. In the first stage, high births and deaths, combined with vulnerability to natural events such as famine, produce a relatively stable, young population. The life expectation of a newborn Māori baby at the time of Cook’s visit has been estimated at about 30 years, similiar to the average in Western Europe at the time.

Patterns of growth and decline

Before 1800 the combination of high fertility and relatively high mortality kept natural increase – the excess of births over deaths – in check. Mortality levels increased after European contact, setting in motion a radical population decline that reverberated throughout the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1860 the decrease was steep. In 1840 the Māori population was 70,000 to 90,000, and by the time of Francis Fenton’s 1858 census Māori numbered around 60,000 – just three-fifths of the population at the time of Cook. Though rapid, the decline was less steep than in the small islands of the Pacific.


The key factor driving Māori population change in the first part of the 19th century was exposure to introduced diseases. Māori were extremely vulnerable to the ravages of new diseases such as influenza and measles. The effects were swift and severe, but potential devastation was averted by low population densities and residence away from most of the disease-ridden coastal ports. Māori were also quick to accept introduced livestock and crops, notably pigs and potatoes, which reduced their exposure to malnutrition, thus limiting the risk of infection.



In 1839 Bay of Islands settlers agreed to set up an institution to care for the burgeoning offspring of Māori and Pākehā unions. Sydney newspaper The Colonist reported that ‘[t]he Maori-pakians (as we have heard these children called) are likely to turn out a lively, active, and intelligent race; they may form a bond of friendly feeling between the European colonists and the aborigines.’ 1 The facility was never built.


Musket wars

The intertribal musket wars of 1810–40 had a lesser impact than disease on Māori mortality. Muskets were notoriously inefficient weapons except when used Napoleonic-style with lines of infantry marching toward each other. The estimated deaths from all causes in that period for Māori were 120,000 (4,000 annually), not much higher than that expected for a population exposed to newly introduced diseases. Of the total deaths, perhaps 700 per year were due directly or indirectly to warfare.

  1. The Colonist, 12 October 1839, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, 'Taupori Māori – Māori population change - Population changes, 1769–1840', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 27 Sep 2018