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An Introduction to the Maori
Maori History
This page provides an introduction to early Maori History. The early history is not well documented and relies largely on the word of mouth accounts handed down from generation to generation within each tribe because there was no written maori language until the coming of the first missionaries at the start of the 19th century.

New Zealand was the last place in the world to be settled by humans and its isolation and freedom from human interference came it a unique natural environment. The first settlers in New Zealand were the Maori who came from Polynesia. Their arrival from their homeland of Hawaiki is celebrated in myths and legends carried down by word of mouth through successive generations. The Polynesians were master navigators, using the stars, the direction of sea birds in flight, cloud patterns and the colour of the water as guides to make journeys throughout the Pacific Ocean. The great navigator, Kupe was the probably the first man to sight New Zealand around 950 AD and then returned home to tell of his findings. He named the country he discover the Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. A few centuries later, around 1350 AD, a great migration of people from Kupe's homeland of Hawaiki, following his navigational instructions, set sail for New Zealand. They came in seven great migratory canoes, Waka, built to withstand heavy seas and able to carry many people and their possessions over great distances. Present-day tribes still trace their origins to the various canoes and their descendants will still take you to the very spot described by tradition as the first landfall.

The earliest landfall may have been in the South Island (Te Waipounamu) but, according to tradition, many exploratory journeys were made and the majority of first settlers made their homes on the east coast of the North Island (Te-ika-o-Maui), many on the shores by the entrances of rivers. They developed a culture distinct from the rest of the Pacific since the long distances and treacherous ocean conditions discouraged return voyages. Their way of life was initially based round fishing, hunting, bird snaring and gathering, The population rapidly increased in the these ideal conditions and eventually food became in short supply as supplies of birds such as the, now extinct, giant flightless Moa were decimated and their supply had to be supplemented by some settled agriculture (notably of the kumara, or sweet potato, which they had carried from the islands). This lead to larger areas of land being needed for planting and there was a need to procure defined areas of land as families had now become small tribes. Eventually this lead to feuds and sometimes war between the tribes. The Maori villages quickly adapted to the defending styled environment, building palisades, watch towers and digging trenches around the new styled forts and fortified villages called Pa.

Maoris can all trace their descent back to the arrival of the first waka from Hawaiki. The word "waka" can mean "canoe" or "descendants from a canoe" depending on context. The settlers from each waka separated into "iwi" (tribes), being descended from each individual crew member. As the numbers grew and they spread out over the land a complex social structure developed with iwi (tribes) hapu (sub-tribes) and whanau (extended family units) able to trace their ancestry right back to the crew members of the original seven canoes. The social structure was further divided by rank. Life in each Pa was centred round the Marae, a meeting place where the tribe's ancestral spirits resided. Although there is longer a place for the Pa the Marae still remains the main focus for ceremony and community identity for Maori.

During the next few hundred years the Maoris made huge changes to the environment, many of the local birds, such as the moa, were hunted to extinction and large tracts of forest were burned. Whether by accident, to flush out there quarry for hunting or for planting of crops such as kumara, 40% of the eastern forests had disappeared by the time Pakeha arrived. The Maori turned increasingly to fishing and gathering shellfish.

The next major change was the coming of the Pakeha. The first visit was by Abel Tasman but it fell to captain Cook to explore and map New Zealand in a series of three journeys. The first contacts were marred by occasional misunderstandings of the customs and rituals leading to violence with significant numbers killed on both sides. Despite this Cook gained considerable respect for the "Noble Savages" and was happy to trade but his reports back to England did not encourage immediate colonisation - that fell to Australia.

Pakeha exploitation started as sealers and whalers hunted their prey off the coasts of South Island and forestry started to exploit trees such as the Kauri. Small towns such as Kororareka, (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands sprang up for trade and provisioning from the Maori. The missionaries arrived at the same time and had a major influence on the Maori over the next decades. Much of the activity at this time was centred in the Bay of Islands and Kororareka became to be the main port and whaling station in New Zealand - it was known as the hell hole of the Pacific with low bars and more run by ship jumpers and convicts. There were interesting tensions between the tribes, the missionaries and the settlers and the inhabitants of Russell which lead towards the Treaty of Waitangi - the founding document for New Zealand.

The pressure on the Maori largely came from the missionaries and in England from the Aboriginal Protection Society but it took the threats of a French invasion to led to Great Britain reluctantly into becoming involved and offering first protection then Sovereignty via the Treaty of Waitangi. This was signed in 1840 by a considerable number of influencial Maori chiefs at a Hui at Waitangi The treaty was then taken round the country and signed by many most of the remaining influential chiefs.

The Treaty of Waitangi is a masterpiece of conciseness with only a few paragraphs and is closely modeled on the Magna Carta. Unfortunately some of the concepts did not translate well, for example their is no concept of sovereignty in Maori culture and this aspect was neglected in the translations. You can see the original English, the original Maori version and the translation back into English along side each other at Te Papa and it is obvious that problems would surface. It would seem the missionaries, who were advising the Maori and who were the only people with a full grasp of the language and culture (which they were of course trying to change) must bear much of the responsibility for this.

The Treaty had major consequences on the development of New Zealand and the Maori and is a continuing story with, hopefully, a happy ending.


It is worth making the point that it is difficult to do justice to Maori Culture without being fluent in the language and having been immersed in the culture. There are words and concepts which have no direct translation and are difficult or, arguably, impossible to grasp. For example, in the early days, sovereignty was a concept without any counterpart in the Maori language or culture and the Maori concepts of Tapu and Noa are difficult for many Pakeha to understand even today. If I have inadvertently, or through ignorance, made errors or omissions in any of my sections covering Maori culture, legends and protocol please let me know - any corrections, comments and input will be very welcome.

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