The Māori economy in the 19th century. – Aotea Store

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The Māori economy in the 19th century.

What probably isn’t recognised is how strong the Māori Economy was in the 19th Century. Particularly prior to the land wars of the 1860’s.

Aotearoa in 1800 was a Māori world. Any talk of New Zealanders in the first half the century meant almost exclusively Māori. At the beginning of the century the total population was 100,000 - 120,000. By 1815 the approximate number of Europeans in New Zealand was Barely 200 and by 1840 had only risen to 2,000.

The Māori economy reflected Māori society which was based on iwi, hapū and whānau and maintained through Tikanga. Hapū operated as the organising system for tribal enterprises with economic decisions made by the hapū rangatira. At a whānau level, kaumātua were the principle agents of change and developments relating to whānau activity. Tohunga ahurewa were relied upon for matters pertaining to spiritual life of the wider iwi.

Prior to European arrival the Māori economy had a strong focus on horticulture and fishing and was primarily a subsistence economy. Kāinga and pā were often built close to water on north-facing hill slopes to provide better opportunities for horticulture and access to fishing and shell-fish beds. Other economic activity included trading in preserved birds, and forest products, matā (obsidian) for weapons and implements, pounamu (greenstone), prized for its hardness in cutting tools and its ornamental appearance. The Tikanga (correct practice) of kohā (gift-giving) was an essential or foundational aspect of trade.

The earliest European activity was driven by the sealing and whaling industry which quickly became highly lucrative based on the demand for whale oil and seal skins. Some Māori joined crews and also travelled to Australian ports where they learnt about European technology and aspects of social and cultural life of the time. By the time sealing in New Zealand was collapsing due to overhunting, the whaling industry was still growing and by 1839 there were about 200 whaling ships operating in New Zealand waters with both Māori and Pākehā crews. Most of the interaction was concentrated in the far north and Deep South of the country with the Bay of Islands as the most populous and busiest site of trading activity between Māori and Pākehā. By 1830 there could be as many as 30 ships with up top 1,000 men in Kororāreka (Russell) creating opportunities for trade but also a lawless environment leading to significant tension between Māori and Pākehā.

Māori were quick to take advantage of other opportunities for expanding their own livelihoods and trade with the arrival of animals, plants and items brought to the country by Europeans. Māori started growing new foods such as potatoes soon after their arrival which, along with pigs and other foods were used as currency in the early 19th century preceding a monetary system. In some place Māori developed huge plantations of potatoes for sale to Pākehā. The timber industry for masts and spars, for which kauri proved ideal. This led to the development of the kauri timber industry and Māori participated in this enterprise throughout the 19th century.

The arrival of settlers brought about a new phase of co-existence between Māori and Pākeha as they developed new alliances and trade relationships. This could be strengthened through intermarriage which was sometimes seen as positively increasing mana and wealth. For example, Tiria, the daughter of Ngāti Mahuta chief Te Wherowhero, married the English Trader, John Kent who was able to link iwi with overseas ports for their goods. At this stage, Europeans were still heavily dependent on Māori economically.

The two decades between 1840 and 1860 were referred to as the golden years. The widespread purchase of milling equipment contributed to a boom in Māori agriculture meeting the growing demand from increased population. Between 1840 and 1850 European population had grown from 2,000 to 22,000. Places like New Plymouth, Whānganui, Auckland, Nelson, and Wellington were hungry for goods and Māori supported them with a growing coastal trade. In Auckland a daily sight was many waka pulled up on the beaches laden with vegetables and fish. In Auckland alone 36 of the 51 ships registered were licensed to Māori.

Another area of Māori economic development in the middle of the 19th century was the brand-new business of commercial bee-keeping. When, in 1839, Mary Bumby transported two hives of honeybees to Aotearoa. By the 1860s, considerable quantities of honey were being sold by Māori who were the first to commercialise beekeeping in New Zealand.

After the years of growing Māori enterprise, the later decades of the 19th century saw the Māori economy weakened through a number of developments impacting negatively on Māori prosperity, autonomy and well-being.

After 1860, the impact of the exponentially growing settler population and their desire for land combined with the colonial government’s determination to assert authority meant that Māori were now struggling to participate in the economy rather than leading. The collapse of the flour and wheat market was felt hardest by Māori because they lacked economic diversification. The huge increase in the non-Māori population (in the 1896 census it had grown to 703,000) increased tensions and the shift in power between Māori and Pākehā.

Governor William Hobson had express instructions to “protect Māori from being defrauded on land sales by European investors” and Governor George Grey established a policy of public and private loans to Māori for the purchase of ploughs, mills and small vessels. However, the colonial office cared most about supporting settlers with land to develop the new colony. A succession of land confiscations took place during the New Zealand Wars that deprived Māori of a substantial portion of their economic base. The wars were times of economic depression. The withdrawal of the King Movement into Te Kuiti, deep in the King Country, after the Waikato War in many ways symbolises the way Māori lost access to economic routes that had been busy and active in times of prosperity.

At the end of the century, a new generation of Māori leaders emerged. James Carroll, Āpirana Ngata, Te Rangihiroa (Peter Buck) and Maui Pomare were all equally at ease with both Māori and Pākehā people and te Reo Māori and English. They moved fluently between the two worlds as a result of high education. At the beginning of the 20th century Ngata as Native Minister began implementing land development, management and consolidation schemes for Māori that sought to make Māori rural communities economically viable once more. However, this was only partially successful given everything had already been lost by Māori.

It is only in the latter part of the 20th century, and incredibly in the 21st century, that the full potential of the Māori economy which flourished for a while in the previous century has again come to the fore. Māori have been able to rebuild their resource base again through the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal claims. Passed in 1975, the Treaty of Waitangi Act gave iwi the opportunity to have claims to wrongfully lost land and resources investigated. The Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act was passed in 1985, extending the arm of the Tribunal to look at any land seizure claims going back to 1840. The ongoing work of the Tribunal plays a big role in reclamation of the Māori world. In contemporary New Zealand, Māori are active and successful in all parts of economic and cultural life.

Despite ongoing and troubling inequities in health and income for Māori, the positive and significant impact of Māori contributions to both the economy and broader life of Aotearoa is increasingly recognised and valued by many New Zealanders.