Story: Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce

Page 2. European contact

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During the earliest period of contact with Europeans, the Māori workforce adapted but did not fundamentally change. Māori continued to work communally within their whānau, directed by kaumātua, or in their hapū directed by rangatira.

Trading with Pākehā

As Māori sought European technology, including firearms for warfare, they adapted their economy to supply and trade goods required by Pākehā.

Kauri spars were required by visiting ships for repairs, and large amounts of dressed flax were exported to Australia. Flax collection and working had traditionally been done on a small scale for clothing, baskets and mats, but it now became a feat of mass production. All hands were required to get massive shipments ready on time. A tonne of processed flax might purchase a single musket.

Potatoes were also traded with Pākehā – around 1814 one musket cost 150 baskets of potatoes. During the planting, care and harvest of kūmara, restrictions due to tapu sometimes limited women’s involvement. But potatoes were generally grown without the same tapu aspects, so the entire process could be done without the participation of men, and in some areas women and slaves took over production.

Māori in the European workforce

One of the earliest attempts to integrate Māori into the European workforce was a complete failure. In 1793 Northland chiefs Tuki Tahua and Ngāhuruhuru were kidnapped and taken on board a ship at the request of Lieutenant Governor Philip King of Norfolk Island.

King hoped he would be able to get them to demonstrate the techniques for manufacturing flax. However, the Norfolk Island flax was poor and the men, in any case, knew very little of flax techniques – Tuki Tahua was a tohunga, while Ngāhuruhuru was a warrior.


Very early in the 19th century Māori men started working individually aboard ships, particularly whaling vessels. A Māori crew member was working on a whaler as early as 1804. One whaling vessel was reported in 1826 as having 12 Māori crew, who were described as ‘orderly and powerful seamen’.1 In 1838, during the whale-boat races at Hobart, one-third of the whalers present were Māori.

Sex trade

At the time of first European contact, a trade in sex began. Apart from the case of a puhi (a woman required to remain chaste for a diplomatic marriage), sex before marriage carried no stigma for Māori women. Sometimes sex with European men was seen as part of an extension of traditional hospitality. In other cases, sex with sailors was like a temporary marriage where women chose to have sex with a single partner during a ship’s visit, and both they and the tribe received some goods in return. There were also cases where prostitution was forced upon Māori women by men of their tribe, often with multiple partners, and the women received no material benefit from the encounters.

Cross-cultural mediators

European traders were important mediators between Pākehā and Māori. They often became integrated into the Māori community and workforce through unions with Māori women. Most trading, timber and whaling stations – and individual traders – soon became linked to Māori through marriages.

Many early whalers, including Dicky Barrett, Phillip Tapsell and Jacky Love, married into Māori families. Manuel José had five successive marriages within Ngāti Porou, while Poverty Bay trader Thomas Halbert married six different women from East Coast tribes.

  1. Quoted in Harry Morton, The whale’s wake. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1982, p. 167. Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te rāngai mahi – Māori in the workforce - European contact', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010