Story: Te reo Māori – the Māori language

Page 3. The spread of English, 1840s to 1900

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From the 1840s to 1900 te reo Māori remained the language of communication within Māori communities. As European settlement continued, the use of English spread, but only in European communities. There was occasional crossover between the two languages relating to trade, education, work or government activities.

Native Land Court

The Native Land Court was set up in the 1860s, with Pākehā judges assisted by Māori assessors. In the proceedings Māori generally spoke in te reo, while minutes were usually written in English. Many of the judges had knowledge of Māori language and culture.

Parliament and legislation 

In 1858 the Native Districts Regulation Act and the Native Circuit Courts Act were the first government acts to be printed in Māori. In 1865 standing orders of Parliament provided that petitions in te reo needed to be translated into English as well, and that bills ‘specially affecting’ Māori should be translated and printed in Māori. In 1868, with newly elected Māori members of Parliament, a guide to basic parliamentary practice and certain papers were translated into Māori. In 1880 Parliament’s standing orders were printed in Māori and an interpreter was appointed, increasing to three interpreters later in the decade. Each year from 1889 to 1910 a series of acts relevant to Māori were printed in te reo.


While missionary schools had operated in Māori through necessity, this soon changed. George Grey introduced the Education Ordinance 1847, which required that education be carried out in English. This was followed by a proliferation of legislation and education policy that had a colossal negative impact on the Māori language. The supposed civilising mission of schooling openly promoted the devaluing of te reo. For example, the aim of an 1890 policy was to ensure that children whose first language was Māori would have it replaced by English by the time they left school.

The adoption in the early 1900s of the ‘direct method’ (where the teacher avoids using the learner’s native language) signalled a means to an English-speaking end. From the late 1850s the Pākehā population was greater than the Māori population. Numbers of Māori continued to fall, and non-Māori no longer saw any need to learn Māori.

Māori literature

In the 19th century much oral literature was written down. In 1853 Ko nga moteatea, me nga hakirara o nga Maori was published, containing a number of traditional waiata (songs). In 1854 Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Maori, a series of traditional Māori stories in te reo, was published.

In 1858 Robinson Crusoe was published in a Māori translation . In 1878 Sir George Grey organised the translation of Thomas Bracken’s hymn ‘God defend New Zealand’ into Māori. Starting with Te Karere o Nui Tireni in 1842, many Māori-language newspapers were published. Initially these were government-sponsored, but later some were published privately by Māori.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, 'Te reo Māori – the Māori language - The spread of English, 1840s to 1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2015