The first people in New Zealand engaged in economic activity, producing and consuming for their own needs. Neither Māori nor their Polynesian ancestors practised commercial market transactions. They were involved in gift exchanges, where the people who were transacting were more important than the goods being exchanged. There were some barter transactions, exchanges made without the use of money. The basic Māori economic unit – the hapū – was largely self-sufficient. There was specialisation of activity (division of labour) inside the hapū.
Māori lived in a subsistence economy, but they were not generally poor, and they used their surplus time for leisure, sport and warfare, and for making elaborate artefacts. We cannot measure their output, but their life expectation was similar to that of Western Europeans in the 16th century, and it seems likely their real incomes – the resources they were able to exploit – were similar too.
Early Māori plundered some natural resources, such as moa and seals. Over time they adopted more sustainable practices.
19th-century Māori economy
Māori were adept at bartering with the first Europeans. They quickly developed commercial relations, as they were eager for European goods such as guns and metal tools. Many early European settlements initially depended on Māori for food, and tribes supplied visiting traders with provisions for their ships, and timber and flax for export.
Traders were crucial intermediaries between tribes and the European commercial world. A number of early traders cemented their relationships with local Māori by marrying the chief’s daughter. In Kāwhia in 1828 John Rodolphus Kent married Tiria, daughter of the powerful Waikato chief Te Wherowhero, and for the next few years took cargoes of the tribe’s flax, pork, potatoes and spars across the Tasman. Similarly in the Coromandel the American William Webster married the daughter of Te Horetā of Ngāti Whanaunga, and embarked on a career trading tobacco and spirits for maize and preserved pork.
By the 1850s there were Māori commercial enterprises, often with their own boats for transporting produce to urban markets. They were less successful from the 1860s. This was partly because the European towns became more self-sufficient – some say the settlers deliberately discouraged Māori supply – and also because of confiscation of fertile lands. In addition some stocks were fished out, the fertility of the land was eroded, and weeds took over the fields.
Māori found it difficult to participate in the wool economy which was the staple of the late 19th century, in part because they lost land, but also because most Māori lived north of Lake Taupō where sheep farming was not successful, except on the East Cape.