Kōrero: European ideas about Māori

Whārangi 5. The Aryan Māori and other stereotypes

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

The Aryan myth

The most remarkable and influential European racial stereotype was the ‘Aryan Māori’. The Aryan myth claimed that thousands of years ago, a proto-European master-race emerged somewhere between the Caucasus and northern India. It later migrated mainly to Europe, which it dominated and energised. Britons, Germans and Scandinavians were always included in definitions of Aryan; Celts also usually made the cut, and so, sometimes, did other Western European peoples. Aryanism could also include non-European peoples, such as the northern Indian elite. Aryan or Caucasian (a broader term embracing all or most Europeans) origins for the Polynesians were suggested from the mid-19th century and widely accepted in the first half of the 20th century.

Edward Tregear

The key publication was Edward Tregear’s The Aryan Maori (1885), which claimed that Māori were of pure Aryan descent and that the British colonisation of New Zealand was therefore a family reunion. Tregear’s linguistic scholarship was laughably naïve, and some laughed at it at the time. But this did not prevent the idea of the Aryan or Caucasian Māori catching on. By 1912, there was ‘a general consensus of opinion that the Māori ... are a Polynesian, that is originally an Aryan race’.1

Cultural nationalism

For Pākehā, Aryanism laundered Māori culture into a form suitable for adoption, providing New Zealand with an instant culture – a romantic prehistory, distinctive symbols and a landscape already encrusted with stories and names. For writers such as James Cowan, Māori became brown-skinned Britons. Māori were an island people, great explorers and navigators, fierce fighters in war, lyrical poets. ‘A people’, Cowan wrote, ‘whose love of the sea and pride in deeds of battle show strangely close affinity to some of the dominant traits of the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic race’.2 ‘Maoriland’ was a common alternative name for New Zealand between the 1890s and the 1940s.

Not marble but bronze


In 1907 Johannes Andersen published Maori life in Ao-tea. He hoped the book would provide details of Māori myth and tradition which, like Greek or Norse mythology, might inspire New Zealand poets and artists. He wrote: ‘The dusky skin has been urged as an objection to artistic treatment: but if marble be unsuitable, is there not bronze?’3


Once it was clear that Māori were not dying out, Aryanism implied they were no threat to New Zealand racial unity in a dangerous world. It also revived the ‘whitening Māori’ idea, and the legend of New Zealand as a paradise of racial harmony, featuring Pākehā as the world’s best managers of natives.

New Zealand racism

There are multiple ironies in New Zealand Aryanism. First, this ideology was actually amongst the harshest of all racial myths. Indeed, the best-known advocate of Aryanism was Adolf Hitler. This led to a noticeable shift from ‘Aryan Māori’ to ‘Caucasian Māori’ in the 1930s, and the memory of New Zealand’s Aryanism was suppressed.

New Zealand Europeans were not less racist than other settler societies, but they partially exempted Māori from their racism. In 1898, in the first edition of his influential history of New Zealand, The long white cloud, William Pember Reeves wrote that Māori were probably descended from ‘a people called Aryans … like our own Anglo-Saxon race’. ‘The average [New Zealander],’ he continued, ‘regards a Mongolian with repulsion, a Negro with contempt, and looks on an Australian black as very near to a wild beast; but he likes the Maoris, and is sorry that they are dying out.’ In the 1924 edition he changed the last phrase to ‘and treats them in many respects as his equals’, but did not delete or modify his references to the other races.4

Māori Aryanism

Another irony is that some Māori accepted the Aryan Māori myth, notably the great anthropologist Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), author of Vikings of the sunrise. He believed that Polynesians were ‘of Caucasian descent and quite distinct from the negroid division of mankind’.5 This was understandable in the circumstances – being Aryan was at least one up on being a dying race. But it did mean that Pākehā and Māori could join forces in being racist towards other peoples, such as the Chinese.

A positive effect?

The ‘Aryan Māori’ idea may actually have made a positive contribution to New Zealand race relations. If Māori were virtually Europeans, and Pākehā liked to boast about their world leadership in race relations, then they could not treat Māori too badly, at least while someone was watching. So, with help as well as hindrance from racial ideas, the race-relations legend grew its own kernel of truth.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Max Herz, New Zealand: the country and the people. London: T. Werner Laurie, 1912, pp. 23–24. Back
  2. James Cowan, The Maoris of New Zealand. Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1910, p. 8. Back
  3. J. C. Andersen, Maori life in Ao-tea. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1907. Back
  4. William Pember Reeves, The Long White Cloud (Ao Tea Roa). London: Horace Marshall and Son, 1898, p. 57; William Pember Reeves, The Long White Cloud (Ao Tea Roa). London: George Allen and Unwin, 1898, 3rd edition, 1924, p. 62. Back
  5. M. P. K. Sorrenson, ed., Na to hoa aroha: from your dear friend: the correspondence between Sir Apirana Ngata and Sir Peter Buck, 1925–50, 3 vols. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986–1988, Vol. 2, 1930–32, p. 78. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

James Belich, 'European ideas about Māori - The Aryan Māori and other stereotypes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/european-ideas-about-maori/page-5 (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā James Belich, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011