NZ Race Relations

Page 2 – Overview of Māori and Pākehā relations in the twentieth century

Until 1940, when it stated the New Zealand population, the Official Yearbook always noted the figure was ‘exclusive of Maori’ – as if from some statistical viewpoint there were two separate nations. Maybe it was a hangover from an earlier time when Māori were seen as a race on the verge of extinction; adding them to the population seemed unnecessary. The 1896 census counted fewer than 40,000 Māori, perhaps a quarter of the number who lived here a century earlier. By 1911 there were clear signs of recovery, with 50,000 Māori recorded. But in a total population of just over one million, Māori influence upon the nation's affairs was almost non-existent.

Some of the credit for this recovery in the first decade of the 20th century lay with Māui Pōmare (the first Māori medical graduate), who was appointed the Department of Health's Maori Medical Officer in 1901. He was joined in 1905 by Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck). Campaigns to improve Māori sanitation and health, as well as vaccination programmes, had helped reduce the impact of disease. But Māori housing and health standards remained inferior to those of Pākehā. Infant mortality was high and at birth Māori life expectancy was in the mid-20s – less than half that for non-Māori.

Fast-forward seven decades to 1980 and the Māori population approached 300,000. This recovery had perhaps the single greatest effect on race relations during this period. Increasingly, government policies had to consider Māori needs. Māori also had to find their place in a wider New Zealand society that overwhelmingly reflected the values, needs and practices of the majority Pākehā culture. This encouraged the development and emergence of new leaders and responses. The Treaty of Waitangi, an historical relic for many New Zealanders, now became the basis of debate over New Zealand’s past as well as its future.

The story of relations between Māori and Pākehā in the twentieth century was greatly influenced by events in the 19th century. For an overview of New Zealand in the 19th century go here.

How to cite this page

'Overview of Māori and Pākehā relations in the twentieth century', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 18-Aug-2017