Only five generations ago, cannibalism was practiced throughout New Zealand when Maoris existed in a particularly violent society before Europeans arrived and introduced a civilized way of living.

Captain James Cook and his crew always suspected the Maoris were cannibals. On the 16th of January 1770, in Queen Charlotte Sound, the English explorers came across two Maoris who had just eaten human flesh because one of them gave Cook the remains of a man’s forearm. They then made Cook and his men understand with basic signs that a few days earlier they had taken, killed and eaten the crew of another tribe’s canoe.

On December 17th, 1773, on Cook’s return visit to New Zealand, crewman Jack Rowe led an expedition ashore to collect food. The men on the ship waited for them to return, growing more and more worried as night approached. In the morning, a second group led by James Burney went ashore to find them. They soon found a Maori canoe and the remains of what they hoped was a dog. When Burney came in for a closer look he was horrified to find a human hand among the torn flesh. It was tattooed “TH”—the initials of Thomas Hill, one of the men who had gone ashore the previous day. Burney and his men ran for their lives as hundreds of Maoris ran out from the bush to taunt them. To his horror Burney saw a group of natives devouring the flesh of Rowe and his men and feeding their entrails to the dogs.


By the mid-19th century, European civilisation was rapidly developing new technologies to make life better for everyone. Steamships had already been crossing the Atlantic between Britain and the USA for 40 years when on the 10th January 1863, the London underground opened between Paddington and Farringdon serving six intermediate stations. It was a time when new inventions were rapidly changing the lives of Europeans. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Maoris were still living in a primitive state – and eating each other! They had no written language, only speaking a basic version of Austronesian, a language used across South East Asia at the time.

Missionaries arriving from about 1814, such as schoolmaster Thomas Kendell, learned many of the words spoken by Māoris and he introduced the Latin alphabet as a means to create a written version of their language. In 1817, Ngapuhi chief Titore, and his relative, Tui, sailed to England. They visited language professor Samuel Lee at Cambridge University and assisted him in the preparation of a grammar and vocabulary for a Māori language.


The Boyd massacre occurred in December 1809 when Ngāti Pou Maoris killed and ate between 66 and 70 European crew members from the British ship Boyd. This was the highest number of Europeans killed by Māori in a single event in New Zealand.

Some cannibal feasts assumed gigantic proportions. It has been recorded that in 1822 Hongi’s army ate three hundred humans after the capture of a rival tribe’s fort near present day Thames. The ancient practice of cannibalism was the most hideously savage feature of Maori warfare. It was not meat-hunger; it was a battle-field rite. Maoris believed it was no use beating your enemy unless you killed him, and no use killing him unless you also ate him. Enemies were often captured and later eaten because of a minor transgression. The horrid practice was also to send a warning to other tribes. If you want to punish your enemy killing them was not enough. If you can chop them up and eat them and turn them into excrement that is the greatest humiliation you can impose on them.

In 1836, during the Rotorua war, sixty men were cooked and eaten in two days. In 1842, Taraia, with forty picked warriors surprised the fort in Tauranga and killed or enslaved its people, of whom two were eaten. As late as 1868, at the end of an inter-tribal fight, a dead Maori who had been buried, was dug up. His body was cleaned and then cooked and eaten by a rival tribe. This act of cannibalism was reported during a meeting of the Maori Land Court in Wanganui that year.

These grizzly native tactics of war terrified the British. Maoris would cut out the heart of the first soldier they killed and cannibalize the others. The eating of white mens’ bodies not only satisfied racial revenge; but also—in Maori eyes—destroyed the prestige of the white man; it ruined their mana as men and as warriors.

Maori cannibalism has largely been ignored in history books because it is an inconvenient truth that doesn’t paint the Maoris in a favourable light. Infanticide was also widely practised because tribes wanted men to keep the warrior numbers up and mothers often killed their female daughters by smothering them or pushing a finger through the soft tissue of the skull to kill them immediately.

We have to thank the work of British missionaries who eventually convinced the Maoris that cannibalism was not a practice to be proud of and by the dawn of the 20th century the uncivilized actions of the New Zealand Maoris had been largely extinguished.

Ceidrik Heward

Speak Your Mind