Tahuhu Korero

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Tāhuhu Kōrero


This page offers some of the history of New Zealand, from a Māori perspective.


New Zealand

Legend holds that the islands of New Zealand were first reached by Māori navigators around 950 A.D. The most notable of these sailors was Kupe. 

Because the island appeared enveloped in a long cloud, he call it Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, the name the Māori still use for New Zealand. 

Kupe returned to his home island group Hawaiki--most likely the Marquesas, Southern Cook Islands, Society and Pitcairn Islands. 

Although there may have been a few spotted migrations over the centuries, nothing much happened until food shortages on Hawaiki forced a major migration about 1350. The Hawaiki natives used the travel documents written by Kupe four hundred years earlier to guide them to New Zealand.

Because of this migration, the Māori are the accepted tāngata whenua (host people/indigenous population).



Dutchman Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand for Europe in 1642. However, James Cook's arrival in 1760, is generally considered to mark the arrival of Europeans.

At the time of Cook's arrival, the Māori were a hunting/gathering society. The had begun agriculture, planting primarily yams and taro. The Māori had a complex social structure of tribes, sub-tribes and clans, and a stratified society of nobility, priests, commoners, and slaves (usually captured war enemies). Loyalty to tribe and family was paramount. Genealogy primarily delineated social status although a person could rise in rank and standing by exceptional merit, skill, or accomplishment. The power of the chiefs was not absolute, and they needed to consult other tribal members on important issues.

Food scarcity at the time of Cook's arrival had created a culture of intertribal warfare. Villages had moved from unfortified to fortified, with palisades, watch towers, and protective trenches. Many Māori had moved inland, expanding their search for food. Shortages forced them to claim land boundaries and tribal territories. They became masters of strategy and war.

While an increasing population may have exacerbated their problems, studies of changing weather patterns suggest that a drop in temperatures world-wide, caused massive flooding, cyclones, droughts and major forest fires that destroyed the forest habitat of many of the birds and animals the Māori subsisted on, and created the scarcity and brought about the fierce competition found by Cook. The weather, not the Māori as was generally assumed, was the primary force that caused the degradation of the environment that lead to the food shortages. (Long term studies of a present-day tribal society engaged in similar warfare, the Yanamamo, suggests that violence among peoples is a result of shortages and not any innate aggression or predisposition.).

The arrival of the Europeans was, as with all indigenous peoples, disastrous for the Māori. Traded muskets for native artifacts, particularly the war club meres. Armed with muskets the warring Māori drastically depleted their own population. The Europeans also introduced alcohol and prostitution. 

The Māori at the time practiced cannibalism on slain enemy, believing they could ingest their power or mana. They believed the decapitated head aided fertility. Those heads became a such a novelty in Europe that Māori chiefs often decapitated slaves just for the heads.

But easily, the most devastating import to New Zealand was the diseases the Māori had no immunity against. Influenza, small pox, tuberculosis, German measles, typhoid, and whooping cough virtually destroyed the people. When Cook arrived it is estimated that 100,000 to 250,000 existed in about 50 tribes. By the turn of the century the number of Māori dropped to a critical low of 40-45000. Today only about 15% of New Zealanders are Māori.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The barbarism, cheating, and stealing of the white Europeans (Pakeha) toward the Māori reached such heights that by the time the missionaries arrived in 1814 they lodged protests in both London and Sydney on behalf of the Māori people. The clash of different cultures, lying and cheating practices of the invaders, and misunderstanding resulting from private land sales lead to the formation of the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty was formed for the protection of the Māori. 

In exchange for recognizing the sovereignty of the British Crown, the Māori would receive all the rights and privileges of British subjects. The Queen would guarantee the Māori the right of possession for the forest, fishing grounds, and lands they already owned.. The document also meant to have all land sales brokered through the British Crown.

The Treaty was signed on February 6, 1840, at Waitangi, by Captain Hobson and about 50 Māori Chiefs and is still the primary document the Māori still use today to redress grievances with the New Zealand government.

However, at the time, the treaty did little to help curb the misunderstandings. Written in jurist English, the treaty was not understood by most Māori or translatable into their language. Reaction of the Māori was to unite against the Pakeku, stop the sale of land, and appoint Potatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato to be King. Not exactly the reaction the government nor the increasing number of land hungry settler had wanted or anticipated, the actions effectively halted the sale of lands and assimilation of Māori people into the general population.

Frustrated by their inability to legitimately purchase land, settlers often ignored or circumvented the treaty, justifying their actions by saying that the Māori were not an internationally recognized nation and had no authority to sign any treaty. Government moved to override the treaty and sanctioned private land sales. The abuses and violations of the treaty became so great that in the 1860s war, so widespread that it is often called the New Zealand Civil War, broke out. Whole villages were wiped out. The government used the insurrection as exactly the excuse it needed to confiscate land, including Tapu (sacred) lands, promised never to be touched. This era in New Zealand history is considered the low point in Māori relations.

However, successive governments in both Great Britain and New Zealand have upheld the treaty and the rights of the Māori it intended to protect. With the advent of the Waitangi Tribunal, recent claims to it have resulted in some lands being returned to Māori, control and financial compensation given for others. The work of the Tribunal is ongoing.

Nowadays, Māori and pakeha live peaceably together.


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This page last updated 06/07/2003 02:11:44 AM


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