NZ History Revised 3. Maori Population Recovery After 1840

… inter-tribal warfare took many lives and produced a shortage of young and females, assuring a population decline for further generations.

Colonisation the reason for Maori population decline?

By John Robinson

The Maori population declined considerably during the first period of colonisation: by one third between the first census count in 1847 and the end of the century.

The claim has been made that, because they were at the same time, the decline must have been a consequence of that colonisation, and that many wrongs were done that must now be apologised for, and atoned for.

That simplistic argument does not tell of the cause of that decline, of when and why it began.  There is no explanation of just how those “wrongs” may have had such a significant impact on population.

Population decline 1840s to 1880s

An analysis must start with the available data.  The graph below displays census measurements, making use of revised data provided by Nancy Pearce in a 1952 Victoria University MA thesis.

I have read that thesis carefully and agree with her adjustments.  I have also considered, and rejected, further adjustments suggested by demographer Ian Pool in his 1991 book, Te iwi Maori.  They are unclear and unjustified.

I do not include the very low and inaccurate 1896 census figure of 39,854.  This was revisited by Statistics New Zealand and the 1945 table of census counts includes an estimate of 42,113 for that year.

The rate of decline was greatest at the beginning of the period, and the decline had ended by the mid 1880s, not much more than 40 years after the Treaty of Waitangi.

Shortage of women and girls

The cause of that decline is found in the early census data, which showed a considerable shortage of young people, a lack of women (the breeding stock) and a shortage of girls to provide the mothers of the future.

Without enough women there could not be sufficient births, and without enough girls there would be a further shortage of women when that cohort came of age. 

The key to population dynamics through the next generation was already determined, and the decline was guaranteed.

I carried out some simple model experiments (reported in The corruption of New Zealand democracy, a Treaty industry overview) to test the hypothesis that the population decline was an inevitable consequence of the demographics, and not dependent on some other influence.

The first failed as a reported value of 20% young in 1847 could not lead on to the 1874 census value.  A check showed that the authors of the paper that I had relied on had made a mistake and the corrected value of 25% fitted the measured decline.

Pool’s discussion, and his comparison with United Nations research, pointed to the same conclusion.

Population recovery needed a couple of generations

The time lag is central to our understanding.  Any increase in births, and survival of female babies, will have a limited impact on numbers until girls have grown to maturity, to provide the later breeding stock.

Missionaries are key sources of early 19th century history

Recovery from the observed demographic deficit would necessarily take a couple of generations.  This is what happened, and the decline had slowed by 1886, and ended by 1891, with growth thereafter.

The same demographic deficit, the shortage of young and of females at all ages, was found in a number of regional surveys carried out by missionaries around 1840.  This allows a population estimate back to 1840.

The logic here is simple. The available evidence, comparing early missionary measures in the years around 1840 and the 1857 census, suggests that the age and gender makeup of the Maori population changed little across that period.

The rate of decline in the years following 1840 is then assumed to have been similar to that observed between the first two censuses of 1857 and 1874.  The Maori population in 1840 was about 71,600.

Inter-tribal warfare decimated female numbers

The original cause of that demographic deficit must be found in a previous period (simply put, cause precedes effect) – in the decades of savage inter-tribal warfare that preceded the Treaty, and were put an end to by colonisation.

A careful analysis of those battles, and the probable deaths, has been provided by Auckland University Professor of History, James Rutherford.

Rutherford lists 633 battles with estimates of deaths in each.  The totals are 26,840 almost certain killed and 35,400 probable killed, with 8,200 probable captured.  To this may be added those killed, and eaten, soon after; Tamihana Te Rauparaha estimated 1,600 killed in battle and 3,500 women and children slain thereafter in his father’s wars. 

Social disruption and poor diet meant fewer births, and thus a shortages of young people.

The cause of the significant gender differences, with fewer girls than boys, fewer women than men, is female infanticide, which was widely reported at the time.

Estimating the 1800 population

An estimate of the 1800 population can be obtained by a count-back, taking account of both the decline due to a shortage of young and of females, and the deaths in battle.  I have used Rutherford’s “probable killed” (for each 5-year period), which may underestimate the total.

The resulting total population decline of around 66,000 is close to Rutherford’s estimate of 65,000, suggesting a Maori population of 137,500 in 1800.

The next graph shows the result of those calculations back in time.  This analysis suggests that inter-tribal warfare took many lives and produced a shortage of young and females, assuring a population decline for further generations.

Inter-tribal war and infanticide

This analysis is unpopular.

Demographer Pool refers to infanticide as “another pervasive myth”, which he dismisses, as the comments of “literate European visitors (who)  suffer(ed) from their social construction of reality”. 

In actual fact, there are very many reports from both Europeans and Maori, of what they saw and of discussions with Maori practitioners of infanticide.

Pool similarly dismissed the impact of war as over 100,000 persons could have been expected to have died over this 30-year period in the ‘normal’ course of events, with or without wars. 

This strange argument is nonsense, yet Pool’s ‘analysis’ has formed the basis of most subsequent research.  Note that the deaths were of women and children as well as warrior men.

Estimates in recent publications unsubstantiated

Many different, and divergent, estimates are quoted in recent publications.  There are frequent claims of a population loss of 20,000 due to the wars and, similarly, of a population of 100,000 when Cook first arrived, dropping by that 20,000 to 80,000 in 1840 – all unsupported by any analysis.


The Treaty effectively ended inter-tribal war

These estimates provide a picture of a sudden decline that started just when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, apparently driven by some (unstated) wrongs of colonisation, when in fact widespread war ended with many peace treaties among Maori tribes, who were themselves driving the change.

One recent publication, although making reference to Pool as a source, takes a different path.  In their ‘authoritative’ 2014 “The healthy country? A history of life & death in New Zealand”, Woodward and Blakely display an 1840 value of 110,000, dropping to 100,000 in 1846 (I have no idea of where that came from).

They also postulate a truly dramatic decline following the Treaty, of over 50,000 (46% of the Maori population) in 17 years.

Those two alternative pictures, which are illustrative of the plethora of claims in the literature, are shown, along with my estimates starting with 140,000 in 1800, in the graph below.

(The Woodward and Blakely claim is shown in the solid line starting in 1840.)

A logical sequence of articles

The second article of this series described the insecurity of tribal life. (Scroll down to August 14)

This third has shown how that insecurity, which exploded with the particularly savage intertribal wars of the early nineteenth century, slashed the population and assured a further population decline for following generations.

The next articles follow the lives of key actors in the drama of Maori cultural revolution, whose actions determined the course of early New Zealand history.


A great article by John Robinson.

It reminds me that October 28 has been set aside for white New Zealanders to hang their heads with shame and for Maori to cry “CLAIM” marking what they are calling “The Land Wars”.

These battles were actually rebel Taranaki and Waikato tribes rising up against the sovereignty of New Zealand. Between 1843 and 1872 a total of about 2,100 Maori lives were lost in these treasonous uprisings. About 800 Europeans also lost their lives.

When those events are compared to the 633 significant battles and 35,400 deaths over a similar period of about 30 years of intertribal warfare they pale into insignificance. The ensuing Maori society in shock and the subsequent attributing of this shock on white colonisation is perhaps the biggest revision of our history we have seen in New Zealand.

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Thank you for the great series John Robinson, it is a shame more history truths are not published in the media