NZ in the 19th century

Page 2 – Overview of NZ in the 19th century: 1800-40

New Zealand in 1800 was a Māori world. Māori society was based on hapū and iwi and organised and maintained by a number of core beliefs. These pre-determined how Māori interacted with Europeans and determined Māori expectations from contact. Any talk of ‘New Zealander’ in the first half of the century was in reference to Māori only.

Māori society was on the cusp of massive change. The population in 1800 was an estimated 100-120,000. The European population, a largely transient mix of whalers, sealers and traders, generally numbered in the hundreds. The inter-tribal Musket Wars of the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s had a devastating impact on the Maori population. As many as a fifth were killed and many thousands captured by rival tribes. Despite this when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 the Māori population of between 70-90,000 still comfortably outnumbered the non-Maori population of around 2000.

'Europe explodes outwards'

In December 1769 Captain Cook and the French explorer Jean-François-Marie de Surville unknowingly passed within a relatively short distance of each other during a storm off Cape Maria van Diemen, Northland. They were the first European visitors to New Zealand since Abel Tasman's brief encounter in 1642. New Zealand's isolation was at an end. By 1830 a thousand European ships would visit New Zealand shores.

Europe's ‘explosion outwards’ during the 18th and 19th centuries reached New Zealand in three distinct waves. Before 1840 Europeans arrived here in their hundreds. During the 1840s and 1850s it was now in their thousands, and from the 1860s in their tens of thousands. Fatal-impact theorists spoke of non-European worlds crumpling ‘under the weight of expanding Europe’. As the Māori population fell to a little over 40,000 by the end of the century, there was talk of 'smoothing the dying pillow' as the seeming inevitabilty of the end of Māori civilisation played out. Māori (and many other indigenous peoples impacted by European colonisation) showed greater resilience than Fatal-impact theorists would have us believe. James Belich described Māori as ‘the great survival story of modern times’.

Initial contact was largely confined to the Far North or isolated parts of the ‘Deep South’. The heavily populated interior had little or no contact with Europeans before 1840. Early contact was often ‘strained through Sydney first’. This was not simply a case of one-way traffic. Māori were exposed to the wider world as crew on ships operating between Port Jackson (Sydney) and the Bay of Islands or through trade operations in New South Wales. In 1820 the powerful Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika and the young chief, Waikato, accompanied the missionary Thomas Kendall to Cambridge, England to assist with the compilation of a Māori dictionary. Hongi was more interested in using the trip to acquire muskets. He met King George IV and was presented with a number of gifts, including a suit of armour. Most of these were traded in Sydney on the way home for 300 muskets. He wisely kept the‘coat of mail’ which later saved his life when he was hit twice by musket shots

Māori response to contact

Māori responded to contact with Europe largely on their own terms. This agency was demonstrated by their willingness and ability when it came to seeking out trading opportunities with the various sealers, whalers, traders and missionaries who arrived during the opening decades of the 19th century. Māori were receptive to many of the new ideas that came with contact. Literacy introduced by the Christian missionaries became an increasingly important feature of Māori society during the 1830s.

Intermediaries or kaiwhakarite - people from one culture who lived with the other culture - were important in bridging the cultural gap. They played an important role in establishing and maintaining trade networks. Europeans, whether they were seeking to make a profit, os save souls - sometimes do both - realised the value of establishing positive relationships as quickly as possible. Intermediaries, whether Māori or Pākehā smoothed the way. Relationships with Māori women offered a degree of protection, as Pākehā were less likely to be attacked if women were present. Māori were also aware of the potential benefits of establishing relationships with Europeans. Women were used to attract and keep a Pākehā in the community, making contact with other Europeans likely. As hapū and iwi sought to gain an advantage over their rivals, acquiring a European trader became a matter of mana as much as economics.

Britain's first steps

By the early 1830s the missionaries were increasingly calling on Britain to formally intervene in New Zealand affairs. The major point of contact at Kororareka (Russell) had earned a reputation as a ‘Gomorrah, the scourge of the Pacific’. To ‘save Māori’ required official support, but Britain was reluctant to intervene. Colonisation was an expensive business. It was also argued that as New Zealand did not exist as a sovereign state any formal arrangements were difficult. Any official interventions were limited to preserving order so that British trade and industry could develop.

New Zealand increasingly came to the attention of a wider humanitarian movement which had gathered momentum in Britain. Concerns were expressed about the impact of colonisation on indigenous people. It was argued that more explicit support for Christian and European civilisation would negate the harmful effects that often came with unrestrained colonisation. Like many things at the time, Christianity – in the form of the Church Missionary Society – came to New Zealand via Australia. While James Belich described the Christian missionaries as the 'agents of virtue in a world of vice', the missionaries were not immune to moral blemish themselves.

These men and women went to extraordinary lengths to bring Christianity and 'civilisation' to Maori. The early years were largely unsuccessful for missionaries in terms of saving souls; as points of contact for trade as well as a source of new ideas, missionaries had a profound impact on many Maori communities. Their introduction of the written word and the development of a written Maori language represented a massive change.

In 1833 Britain made what could be described as its first tentative steps towards closer engagement in New Zealand with the appointment of James Busby as the first official British Resident to New Zealand. Despite the title Busby was given little official support. He had no means of enforcing his authority. Any assistance he needed was to be obtained from Governor Bourke of New South Wales, who was equally reluctant to spend any money or time on New Zealand affairs. Māori, in recognising Busby's lack of real power and influence referred to him as 'Man-o-war without guns'. Undeterred, Busby set about tackling what he viewed as the 'frontier chaos' afflicting New Zealand. His role in orchestrating the selection of New Zealand's first official flag as a recognisable symbol of identity in 1834 and the1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand created some sense of soverignty that it was argued opened the door to more extensive negotiations with Māori. The 34 northern chiefs who signed the Declaration called upon King William IV of Britain to become their 'father and protector'.

By 1837 the British Colonial Office was becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of unregulated colonisation in New Zealand, especially land transactions that defraudedMāori. In mid-1839, a naval officer, William Hobson was appointed as consul to New Zealand. He was instructed to obtain sovereignty over all or part of New Zealand with the consent of a sufficient number of chiefs. New Zealand would come under the jurisdiction of the governor of New South Wales.

The British Crown was not alone in turning its attention to New Zealand. In May 1839 a commercial venture under the auspices of the New Zealand Company was preparing to send the Tory to New Zealand. The company representatives on board were to purchase land, acquire information about the country, and prepare settlements for the emigrants the Company was busily recruiting. Through the purchase of land at Port Nicholson (Wellington) the company paved the way for its plans and the first shiploads of company emigrants left for New Zealand in September 1839. 

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How to cite this page

'Overview of NZ in the 19th century: 1800-40', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Oct-2018

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