Story: European ideas about Māori

Page 1. Explorers and Māori to 1800

All images & media in this story

Abel Tasman

The first European ideas about Māori derived from Abel Tasman’s unfortunate encounter in Golden Bay in 1642 when four of his men were killed by Māori. ‘Murderers Bay’ became inscribed on world maps, and New Zealand’s people became known as dangerous and violent.

Enlightenment ideas

The next explorers of the land and observers of Māori were imbued with the ideas of the European enlightenment. James Cook, and the French explorers Jean François Marie de Surville and Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne, brought a spirit of scientific observation. On the basis of his experience on his first voyage Cook developed a largely positive view of Māori as ‘a strong, well-made, active people, rather above common size’ and ‘a brave, war-like people, with sentiments void of treachery’.1 The early explorers, especially the French, were also affected by Enlightenment ideas of the ‘noble savage’, inhabitants of a South Seas paradise who had not been corrupted by decadent civilisation.

Learned disagreements

18th century European intellectuals had a range of views about Māori. Voltaire described them as ‘the most barbarous of all barbarians’,2 but the expatriate American thinker Benjamin Franklin described them as ‘a brave and sensible people’.3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the original proponent of the romantic view of the ‘noble savage’, was understandably perplexed after Marion du Fresne’s murder: ‘Is it possible that the good Children of Nature can really be so wicked’.4

The cannibal image

These generally positive views did not last. Following the discovery of cannibal practices and, more seriously, a fatal attack on his men at Grass Cove in the Marlborough Sounds in 1777, Cook came to hold more negative views. The French had a more drastic reversal of opinion when Marion du Fresne and 25 of his crew were killed in the Bay of Islands in 1772. Māori became treacherous ‘ignoble savages’ and notorious as blood-thirsty cannibals. The burning of the Boyd and killing of the crew and passengers at Whangaroa in 1809 reinforced these images.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Anne Salmond, Between worlds: early exchanges between Māori and Europeans, 1773–1815. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 25. Back
  2. Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 308. Back
  3. Quoted in Between worlds, p. 25. Back
  4. Quoted in Bernard Smith, European vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850: a study in the history of art and ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960, p. 87. Back
How to cite this page:

James Belich, 'European ideas about Māori - Explorers and Māori to 1800', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/european-ideas-about-maori/page-1 (accessed 23 September 2019)

Story by James Belich, published 5 May 2011