The Maori are the group of indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand (which they called Aotearoa, or the Land of the Long White Cloud). The Maori have settled on New Zealand for nearly three quarters of a millenium, in their isolation they created their own culture and society. The early Maoris formed tribes - influenced from their earlier Polynesian societies, horticulture began to thrive from the importation of flora, and the infamous warrior culture rose into prominence. The arrival of the British in the 17th century set about great change in every aspect of Maori life, initially the Maori adopted and accepted European culture and the two coexisted peacefully. Tensions over the sale of land however led to conflict by the 1860s; social upheaval, battles and foreign epidemics struck the Maori population and caused their numbers to dindle before a recovery in the 20th century.
Geography and Climate
New Zealand sits southeast of Australia in the South Pacific Ocean. Formed from tectonic movement, much of New Zealand and its surrounding islands are mountainous and volcanic. The landmasses were formed when the continent of Zealandia - formed roughly 83 million years ago - had sank into the ocean 20 million years ago, leaving the highlands above sea level. The North Island is smaller and less mountainous than the South Island, yet it is more marked by active volcanoes; Mount Ruapehu, the island’s tallest peak is itself an active cone volcano, and Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake is a caldera, a feature formed from a collapse of the land due to a volcanic eruption.
Land of the Long White Cloud
Little is known about the Polynesian voyage to New Zealand - the current evidence suggests the ancient Maori first landed and settled on New Zealand at around 1280, and that the heavy presence of female Maori at the time suggests the landing on New Zealand was deliberate.
The Archaic period of the Maori describes the first years of settlement, where the tribes - known to the Maori as ‘iwi’ - settled by the woodlands where several species of moa birds once lived. The Maori hunted the moa to such an extent that the moa became extinct in New Zealand during this time, the Archaic period is also known as the ‘Moahunter’ period for this reason. The Otago iwi became the center of Maori cultural development with most of their settlements established within 6 miles of the coast. Intriguingly the period saw a complete lack of weaponry, instead the Archaic period is known for the creation of “reel necklaces” and the hunting of the local birdlife. Apart from birds the Maori diet was rich in seafood, and despite the low life expectancy of the Maori - around 31-32 years - and the hard life of the frontiersmen, the iwi was capable of supporting their injured and infirm.
By the start of the 16th century the climate had cooled, and around this time a series of large earthquakes struck the South Island. Combined with the extinction of the moa bird, among other food sources, sweeping changes in Maori life developed into the more recognisable customs that defines the Classic period. The Maori created pounamu weapons made from indigenous nephrite jade or bowenite stone in this period. Curved canoes were developed by the Maori, and the fierce warrior culture sprang into action; building hillforts across the islands - the pa, engaging in frequent cannibalism, and controlled some of the largest canoes in history. It was in this moment that contact was first made with Europe.
Last Human Community Untouched
Abel Tasman and Captain James Cook are two of the first explorers to discover and land on New Zealand; Tasman in 1642 and Cook in 1769. Initial contact was problematic and in some cases fatal. In the 1780s the Maori meet whaling crews from Europe and America, some of these crews already held Maori. Some South Island crews were nearly entirely Maori. A trickle of convicts escaping Australia, deserters from passing ships, and Christian missionaries added to the European influence over the Maori. In the Boyd Massacre of 1809 the Maori took hostage and killed 66 people in an act of revenge, the cannibalism of these people caused shipping and whaling companies to be wary and to steer clear from New Zealand in following years.
By 1830 as many as 2000 Europeans were living with the Maori. The Europeans had positions in all parts of Maori society, from slaves serving their masters to high-ranking advisor roles for the iwi chiefs. Some Europeans were prisoners in their new home, others expatriated from their homeland and identified themselves as Maori, they were known to the Maori as Pakeha Maori - literally meaning ‘European Maori’. They were valued as an asset to many iwis as European knowledge and technologies were handed down from Pakeha Maori, most notably firearms. The Maori language was first notated by Thomas Kendall in 1815, five years later Professor Samuel Lee compiled the Maori grammar and vocabulary. The Maori quickly adopted literacy from missionaries. The established colonial government handed free gazettes to the Maori in 1843 called Ko Te Karere O Nui Tireni; it outlined information about colonial law, crimes, explanations and remarks on European customs.
Between 1805 and 1840 however, the purchase of muskets by iwis with European contact upset the balance of power, leading to a period of violent inter-tribal warfare known as the Musket Wars. The powerful iwi destroyed their weaker foes and drove the rest out of their homelands. From 100,000 in 1800 the Maori population is said to have dropped between 20% and 50% by 1843; a census in 1856-7 reveals the population then to be 56,049, this is during a time of relative stability in Maori life. However the Musket Wars were not the only contributing factor to the mortality of Maori then, European diseases such as influenza and measles killed an unknown number of Maori, contributed largely by new European settlers who had not performed recent health checks. Pakeha Maori Te Rangi Hiroa documented a respiratory epidemic the Maori called ‘rewharewha’. He recorded that “almost everything, except plague and sleeping sickness have taken their toll on Maori dead.”
British Treaty with Aotearoa
As the colonies spread further in the 1830s and missionaries became more active, and a growing lawlessness in the colonies themselves, the British Crown accepted requests from missions and chiefs to intervene. However some escaped convicts, seamen, gunrunners and Americans sought to actively work against the British, spreading rumours to the Maori of mistreatment and oppression. Chief Tamati Waka Nene was angry at the colonial government’s disinclination to stop gunrunners from selling weapons to rebels. The French had also begin to take interest in acquiring New Zealand for themselves, they sent French missionaries to spread anti-British sentiment. Despite this Queen Victoria sent Captain William Hobson to negotiate terms for a treaty between Britain and New Zealand. Arriving on February 1840 Hobson set about establishing a treaty with the chiefs of the North Island - the Treaty of Waitangi. Ultimately 500 chiefs and a small collection of Europeans signed the document, only a few chiefs refused to do so, affected by France’s interests these few were Catholic chiefs. The treaty gave the Maori the rights of British subjects as well as a guarantee in tribal autonomy in exchange for British sovereignty.
Even today dispute over the exact terms of the treaty remains, due largely to the Maori translation of the document, translated by Henry and William Williams. Their imperfect Maori and a lack of exactly similar words in the Maori lexicon handicapped them to create an imperfect representation of the terms. Despite this though relations between Britain and the Maori were largely peaceful; the Maori set up shops and businesses, selling and exporting foods and product domestically and internationally. This would not last though, tensions rose as disputes over land purchases and an attempt by the Maori to create what some saw as a rival to the British royalty system led to the New Zealand wars in the 1860s. The wars began when rebel Maori attacked isolated settlers in Taranaki, the major conflicts though were against British forces - including levied troops from Australia and few allied Maori - against numerous Maori iwis opposed to the land sales. While the wars in fact resulted in few deaths on either side of the conflict, the colonies confiscated land as punishment from what were seen as rebellions, in some cases from iwis which took no part in any of the conflicts, though they were almost instantly returned again.
The Native Lands Acts of 1862 and 1865 established the Native Land Court, a specialized court that dealt with the ownership of Maori land. This also allowed Maori to sell their lands to both colonial government and private settlers. Subsequent transactions saw nearly all Maori lands sold by 1890, although over time some of these lands were returned to them.
Population Decline and Revival
During the late 19th century, the Maori population started to considerably decline as European colonists settled in New Zealand. In 1840, the population of New Zealand was estimated between 50,000 and 70,000 Maori and 2,000 Europeans, but by 1950 the European population exploded tenfold. In the 1896 census, the Maori numbered 42,113 and paled in comparison to the now more than 700,000 European colonists present on New Zealand. At the same time, it was observed by Professor Ian Poole that female Maori children had a very high chance of death before the age of one. Despite this and the fears that Maori would simply be absorbed into the European populace, the population decline would come to an end in the following decades into the 20th century. By the late 1930s the Maori population was well over 80,000. Many Maori who intermarried with Europeans, and their children, would continue to identify as Maori and keep their culture alive for generations to come. The Maori would also give rise to several successful politicians and a political party, the Young Maori Party, whose goal was to improve the lives of the Maori by blending with European culture while still keeping traditional practices and art alive.
Maori troops took part in both world wars. A pioneer battalion of nearly 3,000 Maori and Pacific islanders were deployed in Egypt and later the Gallipoli peninsula during World War I. Upon their return to New Zealand after the war, the country was struck by a devastating influenza outbreak that killed 4.5 times more Maori than those of European descent. When World War II began, Maori were exempt from being conscripted into the military, but many still enlisted voluntarily. The 28th Maori Battalion consisted of about 3,600 men over the course of the entire war fighting in North Africa, Italy, Crete, and Greece, proving to be formidable soldiers that earned the respect of both Allied and Axis commanders. Over 12,000 other Maori soldiers served among the New Zealand forces outside of the 28th Battalion during the war.
Since the beginning of the new millennium, the position of Maori within wider New Zealand society has continued to be a contentious topic, and one which contains both tales of triumph and adversity. Disputes which arose as a result of the differing interpretations of the Treaty of Waitangi continue to be a prominent issue both in New Zealand politics and in the judicial system, with a dedicated permanent commission of inquiry established to resolve disputes between Iwi and the New Zealand Government. Multiple political parties have been established around the premise of Maori rights, which alongside dedicated Maori seats in Parliament seek to ensure that Maori have involvement in the government.
Outside politics, Maori culture has also seen a revival in recent years. Many Maori words have been adopted into New Zealand English, with words such as Pakeha (meaning a New Zealander of European ancestry) and Ka Pai (used to express approval of something) are as widely known as any English word amongst the New Zealand population, and are used in everyday English to create a form of the language unique to the island nation (although English words still vastly outnumber Maori ones.) Te Reo Maori is taught in many primary and secondary schools, often alongside Maori cultural activities known as Kapa Haka (which involve learning Maori waiata, or songs, as well as traditional Maori performance activities such as poi or Haka.) Some aspects of Maori culture have been adopted by wider New Zealand society as a representation of the whole country, with often cited examples being Te Rauparaha's Haka, Ka Mate, frequently performed by the All Blacks (New Zealand's Rugby Union team) and the Maori waiata Pokarekare Ana, written during or shortly after World War One by a Maori soldier. Maori is one of three official languages of New Zealand, alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language, one of the core reasons for its prevalence in schools. Many place names also have Maori names alongside their English ones, such as New Zealand's highest mountain Aoraki / Mt. Cook, or the popular tourist destination of Piopiotahi / Milford Sound. Similarly, both main islands of New Zealand have official Maori names alongside their English ones, Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu for the North and South Islands respectively.
However, the Maori population remains to an extent marginalised in New Zealand society, and is often over-represented in crime statistics and under-represented in school achievement rates. While only 14% of New Zealand's population identify as Maori, saome 50% of the prison population is Maori. Maori also have higher levels of substance abuse and addiction than Pakeha, and on average have a life expectancy roughly 7 years shorter than that of Pakeha. These are but a few of the issues faced by the modern day Maori population, and which they continue to face on an everyday basis.
The Maori were not the first humans to settle in New Zealand. Previous Polynesian explorers had arrived and settled, known as the Moriori, and had formed a peaceful society. They were later driven from the mainland by Maori settlers, and were exiled to the Chatham Islands until Maori raiding parties came to their last stronghold and eliminated them.
When the British settlers came to New Zealand and asked the indigenous Maori who was the greatest chief in New Zealand, they would likely have told responded with Te Rauparaha, nicknamed the “Napoleon of the South” due to his immense military accomplishments. This fearsome chief was undoubtable worthy of this title, given his tactical mind and cunning strategies which empowered his tribe to win over others during the Gunpowder Wars, which devastated so many others. Altogether a fantastic military leader and a diplomatic genius, Te Rauparaha was what the Maori needed during the time of turmoil brought about by the advent of British colonialism into the south Pacific, given he managed to prioritise both his tribe and the Maori as a whole against the impending British storm. To this end, Te Rauparaha’s immortal war dance - the Haka - lives on as an integral part of the modern-day nation of New Zealand’s culture.
Te Rauparaha was born in the 1760s into the Ngāti Toa iwi, in the northern part of the North Island. He was short among the members of the iwi, but was very strong and gained a reputation as a great warrior. He rose into the iwi's greatest chief and war leader because of his aggressiveness in fulfilling the iwi’s interests. His main enemies during these early conflicts were the Waikato, with which they had been at war with since the late 1700s. He led war parties, taking revenge for Ngāti Toa died, and on one occasion, killing a Waikato chief. In 1819, he joined a war party that reached the southern part of the North Island. This might have inspired him to send the Ngāti Toa on a fighting retreat south to the southern part of the North Island when the iwi was under straining under pressure from Waikato tribes in the north.
The Ngāti Toa conquered people and land as they went, allowing Te Rauparaha to build up his forces.The campaign ended with the Ngāti Toa conquering the southern part of the North Island, occupying strategically important Kapiti Island and using it as a base. A coalition of mainland tribes fought back, and tried to retake their land. The Ngāti Toa, rallied, managed to hold their newly conquered territory, defeating their enemies at the Battle of Waiorua.
Wars of Expansion
When Te Rauparaha ruled from Kapiti, he able to control the flow of firearms and ammunition, ensuring that his allies and captured peoples stayed loyal to him. In 1827, he led a raid across the Cook Strait to the South Island, taking several prisoners in a raid at the mouth of the Wairau river. A year later, he attacked the Ngai Tahu, a iwi on Queen Charlotte Sound and the dominant iwi on the South Island, taking a hundred prisoners. In 1830, he returned on board a European ship, hidden in the bottom. When Ngai Tahu leaders tried to buy guns from the ship's captain, he and his warriors jumped out of the bottom and captured the chiefs. In 1831, he returned for the final time and captured several settlement and sent some men loyal to him to rule the South Island. By the mid-1830s he had de facto control of the southern part of the North Island and the northern part of the South Island. He wished to conquer the rest of the South Island, but the Ngai Tahu had gotten guns and were able to defend themselves against him.
The British Settlers
In 1839, he sold the New Zealand Company vast tracts of land for a permanent European settlement. In 1840, he and many other leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi, hoping the British would recognize his conquests. Alarmed by the amount of British settlers coming to New Zealand, he tried to stem the flow. This led to his arrest in the Wairau Affray, where settlers tried to take Ngāti Toa land with fraudulent documents. He was freed and declared innocent, infuriated the settlers.
In 1846, the British were at war with many of Maori tribes, and although Te Rauparaha had declared neutrality, the British caught him supplying weapons to the Maori and he was arrested again. He urged the Ngāti Toa not to take revenge and was allowed by the British to return in 1847. He ordered the construction of a church for his local pā, which combined European and Maori architecture, and it was also the first church ever built by the Maori. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the church completed, dying on 27 November 1849.
Verdict of History
Te Rauparaha managed to maintain the lands of the Maori people as a whole, while expanding the lands of the Ngāti Toa itself, even with the chaos that followed with the advent of both the British and the introduction of their weapon, the musket. He was considered an excellent warrior, commander, and conqueror. Te Rauparaha’s military prowess could well have brought British rule to an end in New Zealand had it been for changes in the way the war played out; however, mistranslation in the Treaty of Waitangi cost him not only his title, but the sovereignty of his lands. The subsequent influx of British settlers brought his his rule to an end, given his relative inability to resist the colonial rule. Overall, Te Rauparaha is considered one of the best leaders the Maori ever had, with his dance - the Haka - forever immortalizing him in the hearts of New Zealanders, his mana living on to this day within the very fabric of New Zealand’s culture. Without Te Rauparaha, the current state of New Zealand would be a very different place - though whether for the worse or for the better is impossible to say.
The Maori were some of the most feared warriors in all of Polynesia. They decorated their faces in a series of intricate and frightful tattoos, describing in detail their many accomplishments in battle. Before a skirmish would actually begin, each side would take part in an elaborate war dance called Haka, which would pantomime the fate awaiting the enemy soldiers should they fail. It was hoped that the dance would intimidate their opponents into quitting the field and admitting defeat, saving both sides a lot of time and energy.
The Maori were also well known for their cannibalistic tendencies - slain warriors were eaten in order to capture their fighting spirit and power. Not only was this one of the only sources of protein on the islands, but it was done out of respect for the defeated warriors.
While almost any Maori village could be called a pa, today the word has come to refer to fortified hilltop villages almost exclusively. Ringed with palisades and terraces, these monumental structures announced the military power of a rangatira and his iwi to the world. Pa were built in strategic places throughout an iwi’s territory, in order to best guard its fertile lands. A simple pa might consist only of a single palisade, while a more complex pa would consist of multiple rings of palisades, earthen ramparts, ditches from which to defenders can mount ambushes, kumara patches, food storage areas, wells, underground passages, and decorative entryways. During the Musket Wars, a new type of pa was developed - the gunfighter pa. These forts were usually simpler than the older varieties, but could be constructed in a matter of days. The Gunfighter pa provided greater defense against attackers wielding firearms, as well as allowing defenders to the full advantage of their own muskets.