In the early 1800s government officials in New South Wales and London, and British missionary societies, were concerned that Europeans visiting New Zealand introduced Māori to prostitution, alcohol, muskets and disease. With the aim of protecting Māori from the worst effects of European colonisation, they decided to set up Christian missions in New Zealand. Māori whalers were among their earliest converts. The Northland chief Ruatara had travelled to London on board a whaling ship and met the missionary Samuel Marsden. As a result, Marsden based his first mission at Ruatara’s community in the Bay of Islands. A later mission was based at Paihia, directly opposite the whaling port of Kororāreka. The contrast between the peaceful and devout mission station and the violent and drunken township led the two communities to be known as Heaven and Hell.
The missionary establishment
Although conversions to Christianity were rare in the early years of the New Zealand missions, other changes of behaviour were very noticeable. In 1816, less than two years after Marsden formed his mission at Rangihoua, a helper named Carlisle reported in glowing terms on its impact. ‘Since the formation of the Missionary establishment, the spirit of contention among the different tribes of natives which had formerly been productive of the most calamitous consequences, has so happily declined that barbarous conflicts are no more considered as a necessary policy, and the inhabitants of distant places visit one another, and interchange their wishes of an amicable intercourse.’1
Marsden and Māori
Marsden had met many Māori, including Ruatara, before arriving in New Zealand, and had a great admiration for them. ‘The Natives of New Zealand are far advanced in Civilization,’ he wrote. ‘They appear like a superior race of Men.’2 He and other early missionaries learned about the Māori language and culture and acted as mediators between Māori and whalers, and between rival groups of Māori.
For many years Māori regarded the missionaries mainly as a source of trade goods and plants, animals and farming techniques. Marsden estimated that Māori food production increased 10 times between 1814 and 1819, due to the introduction of iron tools and the market provided by the missions. Because of their overwhelming superiority in numbers and economic and military strength, Māori remained secure in their own religious traditions and beliefs, and for the first 15 years the missionaries made very few converts.
Missionaries’ increasing influence
From 1830, however, Māori turned to Christianity in increasing numbers. The musket wars between tribes, and the even more devastating introduced diseases, may have undermined their confidence in their own gods. The traditional roles of women, slaves and chiefs greatly changed under missionary influence, and the missionaries gained prestige as doctors and teachers. Literacy, in particular, became extremely popular among Māori. By 1842 most Māori aged between 10 and 30 could read and write in their own language, a higher literacy rate than in the non-Māori population.
By 1840 the European minority had great prestige among most Māori, due mainly to the increasing influence of missionaries. This was a key factor in the decision by many chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi. In turn, the high regard for Māori held by British political and religious leaders was reflected in the wording of the treaty. Equality between Māori and European was a foundational ideal of the new colony.