How have Māori been depicted in our culture for the past two centuries? Philip Matthews took a cold, hard look at our media, arts and entertainment, and it wasn’t pretty.
It has been three months since National Geographic took the brave and unusual step of owning up. In a special issue dedicated to race, the long-running magazine confessed to what had been in plain sight all along: the magazine had reinforced racist and colonial attitudes. For example, when it devoted a special issue to Australia in 1916, it told readers that Aboriginal Australians were “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings”.
The magazine would regularly depict “natives” as “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages – every type of cliche,” editor in chief Susan Goldberg wrote.
National Geographic is hardly alone, but its influence on generations of readers was greater than most. Its confession prompted a question: what images of M ori have been perpetrated by our news media and entertainment and culture industry, in books, news stories, cartoons, songs, TV shows and movies? Should we be just as sorry as National Geographic? The short answer is yes. What follows is a survey of more than 200 years of racism disguised as news and entertainment in which M ori were routinely depicted as lazy, dishonest, primitive, drunk, stupid, violent, and greedy. All incorrect uses of M ori language have been left as they were.
THE 19TH CENTURY
Lazy, degraded, warlike and so on. Scholars have not settled the question of how widespread cannibalism was among pre-contact M ori, but all agree it must be understood as a consequence of tribal battle. Cannibalism remained a P keh obsession until well into the 20th century. In other ways, M ori fit the European checklist of savagery, with some missionaries shocked by their “heathen” natures, but other writers would come to praise the M ori as a better class of savage than most and despite the warrior stereotypes, M ori Studies and Anthropology professor Dame Anne Salmond has found many examples of M ori men being seen as “kind, loving and devoted to their children”.
A myth grew during the 19th century that M ori had killed and eaten the “inferior” Moriori, who survived only on the Chathams, or so the story went. This was sometimes used to justify the subjugation of M ori by P keh . By the century’s end, it was assumed that M ori were a dying race.
“The inhabitants of these islands… appear to me to be descended from a once powerful people… Here gradually degenerating into barbarism, from a high state of civilisation… they ultimately passed to the last stage of moral degradation.”
John Liddiard Nicholas, from Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, 1817.
“Oh what a wretched spot is a heathen pa, human excrement and filth in every direction so that it is almost impossible to avoid treading in it – wretchedness in every form, women all but naked with their heads and bodies smeared with ochre and oil, shrieking or crying and dirty children running about in a state of nudity all combine to form as wretched a whole as can well be imagined.”
Missionary Richard Taylor.
“The Maori, however educated… is a Maori still. He has received a kind of rough polish, which only deceives the unobservant; but beneath this varnish he is a cunning, scheming, deceitful savage… In the attempt to govern the natives we have made a false start. He was treated as if his mental constitution and moral nature were identical with our own race. The reverse of this being the case, we have signally failed.”
The Southern Cross newspaper, 1865.
“They [the Moriori] are far inferior to the Maoris physically, and, I should say, mentally too... I saw Moriori settlements far behind any pa I had ever seen. The poor creatures have a squalid, wayworn look, and almost excite one’s pity; but I am afraid they are thoroughly lazy and indolent.”
Rev PC Anderson in The New Zealand Herald, 1882.
“Time was not at all precious to the Maori. He squatted in the sun, wrapped up in mat or blanket, smoked his pipe, or had a comfortable doze; while his pig, tethered by a rope of flax, grunted and winked, and grubbed up and chumped the young roots of the fern.”
From Our Maoris by Lady Martin, 1884.
“The Maori boys and girls between the speeches sang English glees and catches with great spirit. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the New Zealanders, when properly taught, had much musical talent and very good voices.”
“We should remember that Roman colonists must have found the Briton as rough and unwashen and self-willed and prejudiced as the Maoris, and that it has taken more than a thousand years to bring us to our present form of civilisation.”
“Where once the swarthy chief held savage sway, / The sun of progress sheds his brightest ray.”
Thomas Bracken from the poem “Jubilee Day”, in Musings in Maoriland, 1890. A poet and politician, Bracken also wrote God Defend New Zealand.
“The great body of the Europeans throughout the colony now regard the natives with indifference. They do not pretend to understand the native character. They do not trouble themselves to entertain anticipations of their advancement to civilisation. They look upon them as an obstacle to the spread of settlement, and so far a drawback to the colony.”
The New Zealand Herald, 1897.
“The seamy side of Maori life, as of all savage life, was patent to the most unimaginative observer. The traveller found it not easy to dwell on the dignity, poetry, and bravery of a race which contemned washing, and lived, for the most part, in noisome hovels... Though a cannibal feast was a rare orgie, putrid food was a common dainty. Without the cringing manner of the Oriental, the Maori had his full share of deceitfulness. Elaborate treachery is constantly met with in the accounts of their wars. If adultery was rare, chastity among the single women was rarer still.”
William Pember Reeves in The Long White Cloud, 1898.
“The average colonist regards a Mongolian with repulsion, a Negro with contempt, and looks on an Australian black as very near a wild beast; but he likes the Maoris.”
William Pember Reeves.
“The poor creatures have a squalid, wayworn look, and almost excite one’s pity; but I am afraid they are thoroughly lazy.”
THE 20TH CENTURY
At the start of the century, the image of M ori as a dying race was reinforced by P keh artists such as CF Goldie and Gottfried Lindaeur. Art historian Leonard Bell explains in his book Colonial Constructs that they gave “pictorial expression” to “the standard European view of traditional Maoridom as either of the past or something the last remnants of which were about to vanish for all time in the face of European progress”. That “The New Zealand Herald in 1907 could comment casually on the few ‘last specimens’ of a ‘vanishing national entity’ suggests what a popular commonplace the notion of vanishing Maori was,” Bell writes.
But rather than decline, M ori populations began to grow again and as M ori became more urban, stereotypes moved out of the past and into the present. By the late 20th century, the so-called “grievance industry” created by the Waitangi Tribunal and Treaty claims had become a more topical target.
“The people of New Zealand were very much concerned with where the Maoris came from, but were not so much concerned as to where they were going to. ‘Yes,’ remarked the speaker, ‘we are a dying race and the question arises: Is another race doomed to extinction before the cruel march of civilisation.’”
The Poverty Bay Herald, 1900.
“Sir Walter Buller stated that in Capt. Cook’s time there must have been 100,000, and at the period of the first colonisation of New Zealand about 70,000, but now there are only between about 30,000 and 40,000 Maoris. In 1856 Sir Isaac (then Dr) Featherston said ‘the Maoris are dying out fast, nothing can save them; our plain duty as compassionate colonists is to smooth the dying pillow of the Maori; then history will have nothing to reproach us with.’”
The Southland Times, 1900.
“It is perhaps not so well known as it should be that the Maoris were not the first inhabitants of New Zealand – they were preceded by a race known as the Morioris, who are represented in recent times by the Chatham Islanders... They were inferior to the Maoris in physique, less civilised, poorly armed, and at one time classed as Melanesians or Asiatic Negroes.”
The Clutha Leader, 1903.
“They built no huts, and were content with the most meagre shelter afforded by miserably constructed lean-to hovels. Without fixed abode, they wandered about almost aimlessly, and camped where night overtook them... It has been remarked by more than one authority that in features they strangely resembled the Jewish type.”
The Press covers the Moriori, 1904. “Maoris are dying out fast, nothing can save them; our plain duty as compassionate colonists is to smooth the dying pillow of the Maori.”
“It is true that the Maoris were cannibals. It is true that war was their chief occupation and recreation, but they retained a measure of culture which has never been equalled by any primitive dark race of the world.”
Frances Del Mar in A Year Among the Maoris, 1924.
“To sum up: in conditions of steady, continuous work, demanding strength, endurance, and steady application, the Maori is not the equal to the European settler. The discipline that produces these qualities is the product of more advanced civilizations, and is not a feature of the lower planes of civilization.”
Elsdon Best in The Maori as he was, 1934.
“It is unquestionable, I think, that a great many of the Maori people voted Labour because of what they hoped to get from social security.”
Sidney Holland, Leader of the Opposition, 1947.
“Had there been an abundance of meat available it is possible that there might not have been any room later for white people, but a continual diet of fish with only an occasional Moa entree is sufficient reason to turn anyone cannibal.”
Carl V Smith in From N to Z, 1947. “Although the Maoris did not seem averse to marrying some of the tangata whenua women, they
Early 20th century commentators believed Maori¯ people and culture were disappearing. Charles Goldie’s The Widow from 1903, below right, evoked his “nostalgia for a dying race”.