Back from the brink
The start of the 20th century ushered in a period of population recuperation, with the number of Māori increasing at each successive census. At the turn of the century, community health programmes implemented by Māori health practitioners such as Māui Pōmare and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) were instrumental in improving Māori outcomes and life expectancy to a level exceeding that at first contact with Europeans.
Growth was stimulated by increased fertility, as the negative effects of introduced diseases and poor nutrition diminished in importance, and mortality levels gradually decreased. Between 1901 and 1945 life expectancy improved slowly but steadily, reaching 49 years in 1945. These improvements were due to a number of factors, notably increased access to paid work and the generous welfare provisions of the Social Security Act 1938.
In 1924 Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) told an audience that Māori ‘no longer accept disease and death with fatal resignation ... in districts where typhoid has occurred, over 2,000 inoculations against the disease have been made. The Tokotoko rangi (“Spear from heaven that sweeps away food and man”) … no longer makes thrusts that go unparried.’1
By 1921 the ratio of Māori to Pākehā was 4.2 to 100. But there were still two regions with dense Māori populations: Northland and the East Coast. In the Hokianga district there were more Māori than Pākehā, and in the Bay of Islands the ratio was 64 Māori to 100 Pākehā. In these areas poor soil fertility or bad roads had impeded Pākehā settlement. In contrast, the ratio of Māori to Pākehā in Auckland was less than one to 100. In the South Island, only Picton and Wairau had densities of more than one to 100.
In 1940 commentators praised the Māori demographic recovery but also underscored the challenges that accompanied accelerated population growth. The persistence of Māori social and economic deprivation was a major issue. In 1945 Māori life expectancy at birth was still 20 years lower than that of Pākehā. Dr Harold Turbott’s study of East Coast Māori communities in the 1930s revealed levels of malnutrition and poverty that were probably pervasive throughout the country. Though Māori living conditions were slowly improving, and mortality gradually declining, there was also a high degree of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Deprived of their once extensive economic base, Māori had to replace traditional hunting, fishing and cultivation activities with alternative modes of survival. These typically involved a mix of subsistence agriculture and seasonal or casual wage labour requiring stints away from home. Jobs in shearing or in meat-work chains could pay well in the peak months but workers and their whānau faced considerable adversity in the off-season, particularly if they had left home cultivations untended.