Race relations in the contact period. 1769-1840


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  • Evidence of Maori Adaptation:

In the early nineteenth century Maori society was characterised by intense tribal competition for resources. Thus Maori society was quickly alive to the possibilities of commerce with Europeans. The new goods, skills and technologies were adapted to fit into the traditional Maori goals.

Maori in localities frequented by Europeans quickly moved from subsistence horticulture and food gathering to agricultural production for the express purpose of trade. Trade with Europeans led to significant changes in the scale of Maori economic activity. These included goods and services which were new to Maori such as potatoes, grain, pigs and prostitutes. There was also a demand for traditional Maori products like flax fibre and artefacts which had to be available in larger quantities. It was not only the Europeans who came to New Zealand’s shores that Maori saw as trading partners; they also took advantage of opportunities in the wider European world and traded produce with New South Wales in the early Contact Period.

Tribal migrations, dislocation and warfare resulted from inland tribes seeking to make contact with coastal Europeans…eg. Tuhoe and Arawa fought their way to the East Coast, Ngati Maniapoto sought access to West Coast harbours.

Some goods had special qualities, possibly because of their physical properties, eg. watches, wax, axes and muskets.
Maori adopted the new food plants for exchange, not for consumption. New plants were of an avid interest for gifting…politics as well as consumption, eg. Marsden’s gifts to Ruatara, King’s gifts to Huru and Tuki.
The colour ‘red’ had a special sacred significance among Maori. Traders soon realised that red blankets sold at a higher premium and were worn on special occasions. Red sealing wax was stolen to be displayed to rivals.
Some contemporaries believed that the arrival of the new less labour-intensive foodstuffs and technologies would improve Maori working conditions. They were wrong. The demand for the new products saw an even greater labour effort by tribes eager to increase their mana. The acquisition and command of the new resources for trade gave chiefs and their tribes their standing in the new culture. Slavery took on a new dimension as tribes faced labour shortages and warfare was undertaken in the pursuit of labour in the form of prisoners-of-war.

Slaves preparing food c.1828

French lithograph, village view, Kororareka 1840

Maori involvement in the new economy:

  • Maori communities supported their women in forming relationships with European men. Prostitution was an accepted medium of exchange.

  • The timber trade in the North Island was undertaken as joint ventures between Maori chiefs and their labour and traders.

  • Maori formed the core of many whaling gangs and crewed both locally and internationally.

  • A number of Maori who travelled abroad and acquired some understanding of English were used by the communities as trade negotiators.

Half-castes in Pomare’s Pah c. 1836
The mutual desire for a ‘workable accord’, and an example of a breakdown of this relationship.
Claudia Orange suggests that the reason for the remarkably good race relations in the Contact Period stems from the desire by both groups to create a mutually beneficial “workable accord”.
After the mistreatment of a Maori crew member of the sailing vessel The Boyd , Whangaroa Maori seeking utu killed most of the 70 passengers and crew, looted and burnt the ship before a cannibalistic feast. It was probably only the third vessel to visit Whangaroa Harbour. A previous vessel had departed leaving a disease which killed many of the local people, making the Ngati Uru to believe that a curse had been place upon them. Whalers avenged the attack (on the wrong group of Maori), leading to many more Maori deaths and sparking inter-tribal warfare in the region. It delayed the establishment of the first Christian mission in New Zealand, and in cementing ideas about New Zealand as the ‘Cannibal Isles’, it also challenged the notion of Maori as the ‘noble race’. The incident also provoked vigorous debate among officials in New South Wales about how to maintain law and order in New Zealand. In response, European shipping avoided New Zealand for a time. Deprived of the goods and opportunities they desired, Maori recognised the interdependent nature of their relationship with Europeans and the need to ensure a ‘workable accord’.

Contemporary account of the attack on the ‘Boyd’

The selective acquisition of new skills and goods to pursue traditional goals…the tribal wars.
Tribal warfare… Musket warfare occurred very late in the Contact Period, only after 1812-13. Before contact, Maori warfare had been seasonal, fought in March, with few casualties. Killing in war had always been an epic event, the foundation event for many lineages. The new technology demanded slaves to work to produce goods for exchange. Muskets were adapted to existing chiefly rivalries, and tensions escalated. Warriors had been used to personalised killing, feats of daring and skill. Muskets made warfare anonymous, the killer unknown and anyone could use a musket to kill.
The musket or ‘te pu’ was applied in traditional warfare to achieve an advantage in what Ann Parsonson terms the ‘pursuit of mana’. For instance, the Nga Puhi chief, Hongi Hika, worked to gain an early monopoly of this weapon and a trip to England in 1820 (with missionaries) greatly augmented his supply. He used them to ‘carve out his own niche in the competitive structure’ of Maori society. This had a snowball effect on tribal demand for te pu as tribes realised the necessity of acquiring fire power. By some estimates 80,000 Maori were killed, directly or indirectly, in the 1820-30s. Ultimately, Maori stopped fighting when what Judith Binney calls a ‘balance of terror’ had been achieved.
Maori selected specific aspects of European culture to enrich their own way of life…

European crops and animals…initially for trade, but ultimately for consumption, changing the diet (pigs, potatoes), the work routine, providing surpluses and spare time for other activities (warfare). Horses were in demand.

Metal technology…especially nails, axes, adzes and agricultural tools, later the musket. These products impacted on Maori culture: steel chisels created a renewed interest in carving, steel agricultural tools revolutionised Maori food production. The musket revolutionised Maori warfare, triggered feverish intertribal competition for supremacy and survival and caused a period of extensive migrations. The pursuit of the musket also forced competing tribes to engage in the commodity market rather than in subsistence and self-sufficiency.
Literacy… By the 1830s increasing war-weariness coincided with a keen Maori demand for the skill of literacy. As with other oral cultures in contact with a literate culture, there was a strong belief that written words provided access to Pakeha knowledge. Literacy became an important new way of obtaining mana at the expense of traditional chiefly skills like being a great warrior.
Hongi Hika’s axe c. 1828

New Zealand war expedition c. 1820

  • The pursuit of Europeans as possessions in the quest for mana.

Europeans… An important resource energetically sought by Maori were Europeans who would live under the patronage of a chief. Europeans were sought for the skills they could impart such as agriculture, blacksmithing and animal husbandry and also because their presence in a Maori community attracted trade…other Europeans would come as it was considered safe… a reason for inviting missionaries to settle.

  • The impact of the ‘Mission’ on the Maori.

During the initial period from Marsden’s arrival and Christmas message in 1814 (setting up the Mission’s presence at Rangihoua), and the mid 1820s the missionaries existed in a Maori world on Maori terms. They were dependent upon their hosts for everything…food, land and protection. The missionaries were acutely aware of their position as guests of the Maori and their correspondence is full of their desire for independence from their hosts and their host’s reluctance to take their advice. During this period the incompatibility and personal unsuitability of most of the missionaries and their wives to their new situation negatively impacted on the success of the mission. In the 1820s, Henry Williams and later Bishop Selwyn brought the resolve and discipline needed for the Mission to succeed.

For Maori, the Christian philosophy initially had neither power nor mana. As the culturally dominant group, Maori could get the material goods they wanted from the missionaries (and other Europeans) without adopting their religion. Hongi Hika of Nga Puhi derided Christianity as the religion of ‘slaves and not warriors’. (Hongi had used his trip to England with Kendall (to help create a Maori dictionary) to equip himself with European firearms).
From the Maori point of view, missionaries were there to suit their purposes which were to attract trade, impart skills and enhance their mana. The power balance in the Maori-missionary relationship was commented upon by Francis Hall in 1821: ‘The Natives have been casting Balls all day in Mr Kemps Shop – They come in when they please, and do what they please and take away what they please’. Maori had this power because of the missionaries depended upon them for food and protection. Also missionaries had little understanding of te reo. Their dependency meant that some were forced to repair and trade in guns. Hongi demanded of the Mission that the next missionary sent to him should be able to ‘repair guns’.
The period of the mid 1820s to 1840 saw the first conversions of the Maori to Christianity and by 1840 missions recorded 3,000 baptisms from a probable population of 90,000 Maori. Traditional historiography in the 19th. and early 20th. centuries explained this phenomenon in two ways. It was a triumph of ‘God’s will’ and also a product of Henry Williams’ leadership of the Church Mission Society.


Since the 1950s the nature of the Maori response to Christianity has been debated by the historians Harrison Wright, JM Owens and Judith Binney. A key point on which they differ is the extent to which Maori chose Christianity.

    • Harrison Wright, writing in 1959, argues from a eurocentric point of view. According to him, te pu and crisis like European diseases rsulted in Maori confusion and a lack of confidence in their own culture. He sees this, combined with more effective missionary strategies, as the impetus for Maori becoming Christian – almost by default.

    • JM Owens, writing in 1968, also argues from a eurocentric point of view. He emphasises that as missionaries achieved greater independence from their hosts, they also achieved success in their primary objective – Maori conversions to Christianity. This success derived from the leadership qualities of Henry Williams, missionaries’ increasing knowledge of te reo Maori, their ability to trade independently using their own vessel the ‘Herald’, their emphasis on Maori literacy and the printing of religious tracts in Maori (Colenso: mission printer). As a result, Owens argues, Maori experienced a ‘cumulative awareness’ of Christianity and accepted this religion.

    • Judith Binney, writing in 1969, argues from a basis of Maori as decision-makers. She sees Maori as actively choosing Christianity. Weary of war, many liked the imaged presented by the missionary peacemakers of Christ as Prince of Peace. Moreover, in seeking mana through the acquisition of literacy skills from the missionaries, many responded positively to the Christian ideas in the books they studied.

There are several common pieces of evidence that appear to contradict the Acculturation Theory. Revisionist historians deal with them in the following ways:

  • Muskets

Once muskets were introduced into traditional Maori warfare, tribal survival depended on their acquisition and use. For a period during the 1820s, musket warfare decimated the Maori population - by some estimates 80,000 died. However, as the revisionist historian Judith Binney argues, by the late 1830s a ‘balance of terror’ led Maori to abandon this means of pursuing mana.

  • Alcohol

Alcohol was initially spurned by Maori as ‘waipiro’ or ‘stinking waters’. Later, it had a negative impact on some of the communities who used it. For instance, birth and infant mortality rates were adversely affected. Revisionist historians point to the number of communities who subsequently to steps to control their members’ access to alcohol.

  • European diseases

According to the demographer Ian Pool the sudden increase in Maori mortality that occurred with European contact was the result of introduced diseases on an ‘immunologically virgin’ population. These diseases included influenza, chicken pox, measles, veneral diseases and whooping cough. Many communities who had never witnessed a European were decimated by measles and influenza in the first decade of the nineteenth century, often through contact with a person who was returning from trading. Veneral diseases were a consequence of the booming sex trade which was occurred in the Bay of Islands in the 1830s, whereby Maori used the sexual services of their women folk as a medium of exchange. (2 weeks services equalled one musket).

Revisionist historians point out that despite this apparent ‘fatal impact’ Maori were still culturally and numerically dominant during the early contact period.

  • Examples of Maori adaptation to Christianity.

Christianity, like commerce, was adapted into Maori ways of life as part of the wider process of acculturation.

  • Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi Te Waharoa of Ngati Haua converted to Christianity in 1836 and founded a Christian community at Tapiri, near Matamata. By 1846 he was the head of the Ngati Haua and had created an effective system of local government adapted from the Ten Commandments. Wiremu Tamihana would play a pivotal role as Kingitanga’s most effective commander in the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s.

  • Papahurihia was a religious movement that emerged in the Hokianga district in the 1820s. Its leader, the prophet Te Atua Wera, combined elements of Christian teaching with existing Maori beliefs. It is an example of an adjustment or acculturation cult. Such movements are common when one culture is subject to sudden and extensive change as a result of meeting another. Papahurihia was evidence of Maori adapting Christianity to the context of their own lives in an attempt to accommodate such a period of extreme change.

French lithograph of Maori village in Bay of Islands, 1840


Up until 1839, Britain showed great reluctance to formally annex (control) New Zealand. However, in 1840 the British Crown entered into a treaty with the indigenous people of New Zealand whereby this land became a British possession. The Treaty (of Waitangi) required Maori to cede ownership of the land while at the same time confirming Maori property rights and British citizenship. Some have viewed British control of New Zealand as inevitable, but this was not the official British view of the relationship through 39 of the first 40 years of the nineteenth century.

The case for Britain not formally owning New Zealand:

  • Britain recognised that New Zealand was an independent territory. Imperial statutes in 1817, 1823 and 1828 confirmed that New Zealand lay outside Britain’s jurisdiction…escaped convicts from British penal colonies in Australia could not be apprehended here.

  • The resources of New Zealand could (and were) being exploited without owning the land.

  • British colonial policy was undergoing reconsideration in the 1830s… in the light of the uneconomic nature of most colonies. This review of the advantage of imperialism was brief as is evidenced by the Opium Wars of 1839-41 which coincide with the annexation of New Zealand.

  • Humanitarianism in 19th. century Britain had abolished slavery, emancipated Catholics and was attempting to consider the social abuses of industrial society (penal reform, child labour…a time when Charles Dickens is bringing social ills to public attention. Humanitarians believed British ownership would be the prelude to intensive migration and could negatively impact on the welfare of the Maori.

  • Race relations had been remarkably peaceful in the first 70 years of contact. This was because of the racial relationship depended on the ‘workable accord’ …the numerically and militarily dominant Maori dictating the terms with a numerically small group of Europeans.

In the 1830s the number of European settlers was growing and a series of events would challenge and review the ‘workable accord’.

The case for Britain formally annexing New Zealand:

  • The vast majority of European settlers in 1840 were British and Captain Cook had proclaimed British ‘ownership’ in 1769.

  • New Zealand had a close relationship with the British colonies in Australia.

  • Humanitarians in Britain argued that only British sovereignty over New Zealand could quarantee protection for the Maori from exploitation from unscrupulous settlers.

  • The missionaries by the late 1830s had been in New Zealand for two decades and were the only organised settler organization with ships, properties, a printing press and a clear goal. They had powerful supporters in England in humanitarian, clerical and official circles. Until 1838, they had the monopoly over evangelism in New Zealand. Missionaries kept up a constant flow of correspondence with England seeking greater British influence over New Zealand. They genuinely wanted to protect their native converts, they wanted to protect their position in the rapidly changing New Zealand of the 1830s which saw French and American interests arriving here from 1838 on, and the arrival of French Catholic priests caused great consternation among the Anglican mission.

  • The missionaries encouraged the Maori to look to Britain for protection and assistance. The Elizabeth Affair was highlighted by the missionaries and British humanitarians of the need for formal British intervention.

The Elizabeth Affair… In 1830 Te Rauparaha of the Ngati Toa hired Captain Stewart and his ship “Elizabeth” to convey his taua for a surprise attack on the Ngai Tahu at Kaiapohia Pa on Banks Peninsula in payment for a cargo of flax. This ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy of Te Rauparaha was successful. In response, the Ngai Tahu survivors attempted to take Stewart to court in New South Wales. Their unsuccessful attempts exposed Britain’s inability to control its citizen’s actions in New Zealand.

a memorial to the 1830 Ngai Tahu victims of Te Rauparaha

  • In 1772 the French ship La Favourite”s captain, Marion du Fresne and a number of his crew were killed and eaten while visiting the Bay of Islands. In response the survivors killed many Maori and destroyed three villages. Over five decades later, the appearance of another French La Favourite sparked Maori fears of further French utu.

  • In response to the clamour from missionaries about the Elizabeth Affair the British authorities in 1833 decided to place a British Resident in New Zealand. He expected to have considerable authority, but in reality he was to function as ‘kaiwhakarite’ – a race relations conciliator. It didn’t help that he did not have a good relationship with his immediate superior, Governor Bourke of New South Wales.

James Busby 1801-1871 Baron de Thierry

  • Maori were actively trading in Sydney in their own ships. These ships were arrested in Sydney for failing to fly a national flag. Busby responded by having a number of designs created for the northern chiefs or the ‘United Tribes of New Zealand’ to choose one. The British Crown’s recognition of this flag was a further step in their recognition of New Zealand’s independent status.

  • In 1835, a French aristocrat and adventurer announced that he was planning to become the ‘Sovereign Chief of New Zealand’. Baron de Thierry claimed to have purchased a large proportion of New Zealand. France was busy recreating its empire… in North Africa (Algeria) in the 1830s and in the Pacific (Tahiti and New Caledonia) in the early 1840s.

Busby encouraged Maori to formalise their relationship with the British monarch. He initiated a ‘Declaration of Independence’, a document signed by 34 northern chiefs of the United Tribes of New Zealand. It called on King William IV to be the Protector of their country’s independence. Busby was able to persuade the chiefs to take this action by publicising de Thierry’s pretensions to make ‘his’ lands in the Bay of Islands into an independent state. Busby played on the fear of French colonial interest in New Zealand. Britain formally acknowledged the Declaration, thereby accepting Maori sovereignty.

The British had made sure that Busby was unable to act independently. He had no military, naval or civil backing to enforce his authority. Maori called him the ’man-o-war without guns’.

  • The worsening law and order situation was highlighted by kidnapping of Betty Guard and others after their ship was wrecked on the Taranaki coast. Her rescue involved the Royal Navy (HMS Alligator) and took many months, by which stage she had married her Maori protector. Busby was not involved in these events.

Both Claudia Orange and Peter Adams see this failure of Busby’s role as an important step to annexation because it necessitated further formal action.

  • Between 1835 and 1838 the British Government tried to address its responsibilities in relation to New Zealand. It sought advice from Busy and Captain William Hobson whom it despatched to assess the situation (his visit coincided with the so-called ‘Girls War’ in the Bay of Islands between two rival tribes). Their recommendations, plus the powerful humanitarian lobby fuelled by the Church Missionary Society, led the British to conclude that further intervention was necessary…

  • In December 1838 Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State for the Colonies, who favoured a limited colony of 2-3 districts, sought Hobson’s appointment as Consul (to initiate the process of annexation).

  • In August 1839 Hobson was despatched to New Zealand via Sydney to ‘to treat with the aborigines…for the recognition of Her Majesty’s Sovereign authority over the whole or any parts of those Islands which they may be willing to place under Her Majesty’s Dominion’. Lord Normanby, Glenelg’s successor, showed a significant shift in policy… immediate annexation by consent… of all of New Zealand. Normanby was concerned by:

  • Bishop Pompallier’s presence and the appointment of an American consul in New Zealand.

  • Land sharks from New South Wales making questionable purchases in New Zealand, eg. in Owairaka.

  • The need to protect Britain’s growing financial investment in New Zealand…250,000 pounds worth in 1840, much related to the Royal Navy.

  • The activities of the New Zealand Company and the Wakefields caused the Colonial Office to act with immediacy. The Company was the creation of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and he believed that planned migration organised by an investment company benefited the migrants, those who stayed behind and brought a financial return for the investors. The Company sent off its first two ships also in August 1839. They believed they had purchased 20 million acres from the Maori. These settlers carried with them the expectation of British sovereignty. This expectation was very different to previous settlers who had sought an accord with Maori. This new group were less likely to do so, or to allow that Maori rights had to be respected.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield 1826

crew of HMS Alligator rescuing Betty Guard Bishop Pompallier

in 1835

Thus by 1840 the annexation of New Zealand had, for the British, become a necessity. For Maori this was to prove, in Peter Adam’s words, a ‘fatal necessity’.
(copyright efp gardner 2007)

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