Māori started the epidemiological transition (in which diseases of old age and lifestyle replace infections as the main cause of death) much later than Pākehā, because of the effects of colonisation on their disease and death rates.
Pre- and post-contact life expectancy
Evidence suggests that Māori life expectancy at the time of Captain James Cook’s visits to New Zealand (between 1769 and 1777) was similar to that in some of the most privileged 18th-century societies. Māori may have had a life expectancy at birth of about 30. After European contact, however, there was a major decline in Māori life expectancy. By 1891 the estimated life expectancy of Māori men was 25 and that of women was just 23.
The Māori population also declined steeply. It is estimated to have been about 100,000 in 1769. By 1840 it was probably between 70,000 and 90,000. At its lowest point in 1896 it was around 42,000.
There is a common belief that musket warfare between 1810 and 1840 caused heavy mortality among Māori. However, war deaths were not great in number compared with the deaths from other causes. From 1810 to 1840 there were around 120,000 deaths from illness and other ‘normal’ causes, an average of 4,000 a year. In the same period warfare caused perhaps 700 deaths per year.
Big and small islands
Although the impact of introduced diseases was severe, Māori were dispersed over a wide area and so were less at risk than Pacific Islanders living on small islands. The first New Zealand-wide epidemic of measles in 1854 may have killed 7% of the Māori population. This is an alarming figure, but far below that for Fiji’s first outbreak, which killed an estimated 20% of their population.
Impact of introduced diseases
Introduced diseases were the major reason for the Māori population decrease. In the 1890s the Māori population had fallen to about 40% of its pre-contact size. Decline accelerated after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 and settlers began to arrive in greater numbers. This influx exposed Māori to new diseases, leading to severe epidemics.
Newly introduced illnesses that were common in Europe, such as measles, mumps and whooping cough, took a terrible toll among Māori, who had no immunity to them. In European populations, such diseases tended to affect mainly children. Among Māori, however, they affected both adults and children, often with devastating results. Introduced respiratory diseases, particularly bronchitis and tuberculosis, also killed large numbers of Māori in the 19th century.
Loss of land
The influx of settlers led to a demand for land, and from the 1840s Māori were under great pressure to sell their ancestral territories. Loss of Māori land – through confiscation following the 1860s wars, Crown purchase and the Native Land Court – led to the displacement of large numbers of Māori. Deprived of their land, tribes were in many instances reduced to poverty, with no option but to live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. Losing land, they also lost access to traditional food sources. Lack of resources, overcrowding and poor diet helped disease to take hold and spread.
Mortality of children and girls
In 1886 over 50% of Māori who died were children. When Whina Te Wake (later Whina Cooper) was born in the 1890s, 25% of Māori girls died before reaching nine months of age, and 50% before they turned seven. In comparison, fewer than 10% of Pākehā girls died before nine months, and only about 15% before the age of seven. Significantly fewer Māori girls survived to childbearing age, limiting future population growth.