Story: Taupori Māori – Māori population change

Page 2. Decades of despair, 1840–1900

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A ‘dying race’

The Māori population continued its downward spiral in the wake of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, reaching a low of about 42,000 in 1896. Population decline and racist ideologies combined to fuel forewarnings about Māori extinction. In 1856 physician and politician Dr Isaac Featherston said it was the duty of Europeans to ‘smooth down … [the] dying pillow’ of the Māori race.1

The belief that Māori would eventually die out reflected colonial sentiment that indigenous peoples would not survive European conquest and disease. In 1881 the prominent scientist Alfred Newman pronounced that ‘the disappearance of the race is scarcely subject for much regret. They are dying out in a quick, easy way, and are being supplanted by a superior race.’2 In 1891 Māori cabinet minister Sir James Carroll rebuffed the extinction theory and predicted that Māori population decline would be arrested through economic self-development.

Swamped by Pākehā

The scale and pace of colonisation increased rapidly after the Treaty. In 1840 the ratio of Pākehā to Māori was about one to 40. By 1860 the groups had reached parity and Pākehā dominance was ensured by sizeable inflows of British migrants until the mid-1870s, swamping Māori. After 1874 Māori were less than one-tenth of the national population, and this remained the case for a century.

Land loss

The rapid growth of the Pākehā population was the key to the demographic marginalisation of Māori – but depended on the alienation of Māori land. By 1860, 65% of land had passed out of Māori ownership. During the wars of the 1860s ‘rebel’ tribes that opposed the Crown had vast tracts of land confiscated by the government. Māori land continued to be alienated through legislative mechanisms (such as for public works), especially before 1906, but even as recently as the 1960s.

Mountain men

In 1874 there were 120 Māori males to every 100 Māori females. Modern demographers suggest such imbalances can occur in populations experiencing high mortality rates. In 1881 the scientist Alfred Newman made the unlikely suggestion that the pattern was due partly to the supposed fact that ‘male children predominate in mountainous countries’ and that it was only recently ‘that the Maoris have dwelt on the plains’.3

Mortality and life expectancy

Land alienation had long-lasting negative effects on Māori health, particularly for children. In any given region land loss was followed by a marked increase in child mortality rates, which took several decades to reverse. In the 1880s Māori mortality was well above Pākehā levels – and significantly higher than it had been before contact with Europeans. The average life expectancy (in years) of a newborn Māori girl in the 1880s was in the low 20s. By comparison, a newborn Pākehā girl could expect to live more than 55 years. Mortality was still heavily concentrated in childhood – of Māori girls born in the 1890s, 40% died before their first birthday.


In the mid-19th century Māori fertility also decreased. This was a result of high rates of miscarriage due to new communicable diseases, the impact of malnutrition on conception, and the introduction of sexually transmitted diseases. At the century’s end, Māori had developed some degree of immunity to European diseases.

  1. Quoted in Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), ‘The passing of the Maori.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 55 (1924), p. 362. Back
  2. Alfred K. Newman, ‘A study of the causes leading to the extinction of the Maori.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 14 (1881), p. 477. Back
  3. ‘A study of the causes leading to the extinction of the Maori,’ p. 474. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Tahu Kukutai, 'Taupori Māori – Māori population change - Decades of despair, 1840–1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

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