Kōrero: European ideas about Māori

Whārangi 2. Biblical ideas, early 19th century

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

From about 1800 Europeans began to settle in New Zealand. Most were Christian and from 1814 they included missionaries. Such settlers still believed literally in the Bible. The Earth was thought to be 6,000 years old; all animals were descended from the pairs saved on Noah’s Ark; and all humans were descended from the sons of Noah: Japheth (Europeans), Shem (Asians) and the benighted Ham (Africans). The rise of science and the exploration of fresh parts of the world made these views harder to sustain. It was not easy to imagine the tuatara and the platypus skipping off the Ark, two by two; or that the offspring of Shem had diversified into Chinese, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Polynesian and American Indian in a mere 6,000 years.

Scale of civilisation

Alongside these biblical views, Europeans believed in a scale of civilisation, or a great chain of being, with themselves on top. In this, they were no different from the Chinese. As explorers revealed new peoples, Europeans increased the range of their scale of civilisation, and suggested numerous rungs on it: from super-civilised and progressive Western Europeans through semi-civilised and unprogressive Chinese and Indians to higher ‘savages’ such as Tahitians and lower ‘savages’ such as Aboriginal Tasmanians. Racial theories emerged, and perceptions of non-European peoples were increasingly influenced by racial stereotypes. The question remained as to whether these racial distinctions were inherent – perhaps ‘savage’ peoples could be civilised?


Until the 1850s, the key debate among European racial theorists was between monogenists, who believed that all humans were descended from one Adam and one Eve, and polygenists, who believed that the major races were separate species, descended from different Adams and Eves. Monogenists accepted most aspects of biblical orthodoxy. Some, such as Archbishop Richard Whately, a mentor of Governor George Grey, argued that savages had degenerated from a higher state. Most argued that they had failed to progress, but could progress and should be helped to do so. Such views were behind the British abolition of the slave trade and a surge of missionary activity from the 1790s.

Māori potential

Because of their immediate interest in European objects and ideas, and their status as agriculturalists rather than mere hunter-gatherers, Māori were seen as exceptionally good prospects for conversion and civilisation by missionaries and governments. From the 1830s, Māori did engage with Christianity, and New Zealand was trumpeted as a great evangelical success, a proof of monogenism. Helped by George Grey’s self-serving propaganda about his peaceful subjugation of Māori, observers as early as 1847 were concluding that: ‘Their change from barbarism to Christianity has been rapid; and it has also been complete, and will prove permanent.’1

White Māori


The career of the Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara seemed to prove that Māori would be quickly ‘civilised’. As a young man he visited England, became fluent in English, and wore European clothes. John Nicholas, who accompanied Samuel Marsden when he set up his mission at Ruatara’s place, Rangihoua, in 1814, wrote of him: ‘His deportment was dignified and noble … not disfigured with the disgusting mark of the moko … His complexion was not darker than the natives of Spain and Portugal, and in general the lineaments of his countenance assumed the European character.’2 Ruatara died aged 28 in 1815, probably a victim of a European disease.


The monogenist-missionary idea of the ‘whitening Māori’ lost ground during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, then revived in new forms from the 1880s. Because monogenists believed that all humans were potentially equal, in one sense they were not racist at all. But they judged ‘progress in civilisation’ strictly by European standards, so they were cultural racists rather than genetic racists. In practice, they saw equality for savages as something very far in the future.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. George French Angas, Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1969 (originally published 1847), p. 338. Back
  2. John Liddiard Nicholas, Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand. London: James Black and son, 1817, 23–25. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

James Belich, 'European ideas about Māori - Biblical ideas, early 19th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/european-ideas-about-maori/page-2 (accessed 23 September 2020)

He kōrero nā James Belich, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011