With the current New Zealand government’s interest in promoting the Maori language in many areas from education to the media and even entertainment, I thought a blog tracing the history of European contact with Maoris was timely.

As the sun set on the 18th of December 1642, two waka carrying Maoris from the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri tribe approached the two Dutch ships Heemskerck and the Zeehaen which had anchored near the north-western tip of the South Island. The ships were commanded by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and this was the first known occasion when Māori encountered Europeans.

The leader of the Māori group blew on a shell trumpet to challenge the intruders. The Dutch ship replied with their own trumpets. The next day, a waka carrying 13 Maoris were invited onboard and were shown gifts by the Dutch explorers but they returned to shore somewhat bewildered by the appearance of these strange white men. Seven more wakas then approached the ships. A small Dutch rowing boat, which was passing a message between the two ships, was rammed by one of the wakas and its occupants attacked and four of the Dutchmen died. As the ships prepared to set sail, 11 canoes approached and were fired on, possibly causing injuries. As a result of the incident, Tasman never landed on New Zealand shores, and named the place Moordenaars Baij (Murderers Bay). This was an unfortunate first meeting between the natives of New Zealand and the European visitors.


Maoris didn’t see any more Europeans for another 127 years when, on the 8th October 1769, James Cook and his men landed in a bay near present-day Gisborne. The fertile land surrounding the wide bay was home to four tribes of Māori. At first, they took the ship to be a floating island or giant bird. Unfortunately, Cook’s relationship with them got off to a disastrous start when  tribal leader, Te Maro, was shot and killed by one of Cook’s men. It seems likely that the local people were performing a ceremonial challenge, but the Europeans believed they were under attack. Another fracas occurred in which the Rongowhakaata chief Te Rakau was killed by the Endeavour’s company, and others wounded. This time it seems likely that Māori were attempting to exchange weapons, but this was misunderstood. Later that day Endeavour crewmen captured the occupants of a fishing waka, with the intention of taking them on board and gaining their friendship. Further Māori deaths occurred during this incident and three youths were taken captive but were later returned to shore.

During these first difficult days in Gisborne, another important encounter took place, when the Tahitian priest Tupaia came ashore from the Endeavour. Tupaia had been taken on board the ship while in Tahiti and had proved himself a useful mediator between the Tahitians and the crew. Tupaia, who had learnt some English, was able to translate spoken exchanges between European and Māori. He also recognised Māori customs and could discuss complex subjects with them. The Endeavour would afterwards be remembered by Māori as ‘Tupaia’s ship’. The Tahitian priest had more influence on them because they regarded him as a tohunga from Hawaiki. On the other hand, the Maoris had little regard for Cook and the other non-Polynesians on board the British ship.


Despite Tupaia’s mediation and translation skills, Māoris didn’t understand the significance of Cook’s arrival. While back home in England, the British viewed Cook’s discoveries as momentous, for many Māori the visit was only a brief interlude in their normal course of life. Once their initial astonishment had passed, they dealt with the European newcomers much as they dealt with Māori of other tribal groups. Captain Cook sought to avoid conflict with local Māori as he travelled along the coast, and Tupaia played an increasingly important role as a cultural go-between. But misunderstandings over trade and protocol were common; two more Māori were killed in confrontations at Mercury Bay and the Cavalli Islands.

An important element of Cook’s expedition of discovery was to cultivate friendship and form alliances with the inhabitants of any new land he discovered. He is often credited with showing forbearance, restraint and understanding. Even so, while he made every effort to avoid bloodshed, Māori were killed on both his first and second voyages to New Zealand.


While Captain Cook was exploring New Zealand, other explorers were travelling around the coast and meeting with Māori. Many of these early encounters didn’t go well. In 1769, French captain Jean Francois Marie de Surville took savage reprisals on Māori who had found a small boat he had lost in storms. In 1772, Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne spent five weeks in the Bay of Islands repairing his ship. His initial encounters with Māori were friendly, and the expedition left an extensive record of Māori life. But du Fresne and two dozen of his crew were killed in mid-June, possibly for violating tapu or because Māori feared the establishment of a permanent settlement. In reprisal the French killed up to 250 people.

At the start of the 19th century, whalers, sealers, and missionaries came to New Zealand. These Europeans had considerable contact with Māori, especially in coastal areas. They traded extensively with the Maoris, and some Europeans lived among them. The contribution of guns to Māori intertribal warfare, along with European diseases, led to a steep decline in the Māori population during this time. By the 1840s European settlers began arriving and establishing towns around the country. Although their traditions and culture were vastly different to the Maoris, the two learnt to live together.

A lot of emphasis is currently being placed on the Maori language and it being used to name many government departments. The language is also being encouraged to be spoken by non-Maori New Zealanders with limited success.

Ceidrik Heward

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