Maori history is a story of a brave people who conquered a new often inhospitable world, and who fought bravely against oppression. The following paragraphs describe how the original Maori settlers reached New Zealand and how a unique Maori culture evolved.
New Zealand is made up of two very big islands in the South Pacific. Australia is the nearest neighbor, separated from New Zealand by 1,200 miles of stormy water, the Tasman Sea. The treacherous journey from the nearest populated area made New Zealand one of the last places on the planet to be reached by humans. Polynesian voyagers are believed to have migrated to what is now New Zealand from eastern Polynesia in the latter part of the 1st millennium.
Around 950 AD, Maori legend tells us that Chief Kupe first arrived in New Zealand. He traveled from the mythical homeland Hawaiki in a canoe called the Maataa-hourua. He is said to have landed near Wellington in a place called Whanganui-a-tara and when he first spotted the land he said, "He ao, he aotea he aotearoa" (It is a cloud ..a white cloud .. a long white cloud).
Around 1150 AD Toi and Whatonga followed Chief Kupe to New Zealand.
Maori legend tells us that the first mass arrival of Polynesian settlers was around 1350. This is called the great fleet.
The Great Fleet forms part of the Maori canoe tradition, handed down orally from generation to generation. According to this tradition, the canoes of the Great Fleet arrived from the mythical homeland of Hawaiiki, generally considered as being somewhere in Eastern Polynesia.
The canoes of the Great Fleet were the Aotea, Arawa, Tainui, Kurahaupo, Takitimu, Horouata, Tokomaru and Mataatua.
The first Polynesians settled mainly around the coast of New Zealand, and especially the east coast, which was more hospitable and temperate in climate. The settlers introduced animals such as the dog and the small Polynesian rat.
The Maori quickly discovered that there new home presented many problems, including harsher weather, and the lack of animals to hunt for food. There are no native mammals to New Zealand except for bats and marine mammals.
The Maori survived by fishing and hunting birds. The early Maori settlers discovered that their new home was also the home of many flightless birds, including the Moa. The Moa was particularly abundant in the South Island. There were several species of the bird, ranging from the size of a turkey to over three meters tall and weighing up to two hundred kilograms. The Maori hunted the Moa extensively for food, the bones were also used to create weapons.
The Maori were very isolated on New Zealand for several centuries and therefore developed quite a unique society which was very different from their ancestors on the islands to the north. They spread across New Zealand, forming many clans and achieved spectacular heights in woodcarving, tattooing, and other art forms.
Although Maori culture was a totally stone-age culture until the arrival of Europeans and the introduction of metal, it was highly evolved. The various working materials used before the Maori had access to metal were mainly bird bones, whale bones, ivory teeth, both dog and human bones, and also stone, from the large stone resources which had been discovered further inland within New Zealand.
Even before obtaining European tools the Maori produced works of art which were extremely beautiful and considered very advanced especially when compared to the craftsmanship of other primitive people.
Wars between tribes was commonplace. Fighting usually took place over territory. Maori warriors were fierce in battle and the fate of their enemies, when captured, usually involved being eaten or having their heads shrunk as trophies.
The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman is credited as the first recorded European to document New Zealand in 1642. In 1769 the British explorer James Cook landed on the east coast of the North Island and with remarkable accuracy charted New Zealand. By 1779, the British East India Company had extended their charter to include New Zealand. Following the settlement of Australia, whalers, sealers and explorers began to use New Zealand as a base. In 1792 the first permanent sealing gang lived in Dusky Sound, and by 1800 whalers and sealers (British/Australian and American) were followed by missionaries and traders.
By 1838 Maori were seeking a form of protection from the waves of American and European sailors. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by a number of Maori Chiefs, giving the British monarchy sovereignty over parts of New Zealand. Maori chiefs were told that if they signed the treaty with the queen they would always be able to keep their land. The Maori chiefs thought this was a good treaty because they would be able to keep their land and could live according to their own customs. The Maori also thought that it would be good to have the protection of the British queen from the many lawless traders, sailors, and runaway convicts from the prison colonies in Australia. The promises made to the Maori were soon broken, as ships full of settlers arrived.
In 1845, Hone Heke, a Maori chief, headed an uprising on the North Island. The uprising marked the start of the New Zealand Wars (sometimes called the Land Wars or the Maori Wars). The newly appointed governor, Sir George Grey, defeated Hone Heke in 1846. But racial tensions continued as Maoris still refused to sell their land to pakehas (white people). In 1858, to symbolize their unity, several Maori tribes joined to choose Chief Te Wherowhero as their king. War broke out again in 1860 and spread through much of the North Island. The fighting continued off and on until 1872, when the Maori leader Te Kooti was forced to retreat. He withdrew to a remote area of the island, where the British troops decided not to pursue him.
This was a bad time for the Maori people. They had no resistance against the diseases brought by the British. Weakened by war and disease the Maori population was becoming smaller and smaller. Around 1896 it reached a low point, some estimates say just under 40,000, but these figures may have been exaggerated. However in the twentieth century the birth rate began to climb and today there are over 500,000 Maori in New Zealand.