The Effects of European Contact on Maori Society.


18th Century scientist Charles Darwin developed the theory of Survival of the Fittest - this idea was based upon the notion that stronger species of plant life would thrive at the expense of weaker species; these weaker species would as a consequence die out. This theory, known popularly as Darwinism, was adapted and applied to interaction between different races of people. Social Darwinism, as it was called, claimed that superior races of people would thrive at the expense of weaker races.

Since the British considered themselves as the most superior, many believed that contact with indigenous races such as Maori would ultimately lead to the destruction of the weaker Maori race. This became known as Fatal Impact and was accepted as being scientific fact for a considerable period of time.

Historians however have re-examined this idea as it relates to Maori and now conclude that rather than Maori being swamped by a superior culture and unable to cope, they in fact were remarkably resilient; Maori were able to pick and choose many aspects of European culture and add or adapt it to their own. In this respect we can see clearly that Maori were resourceful and adaptable. This idea has been given the term Acculturation.

Acculturation suggests that rather being passive receivers of European culture, Maori were in fact active seekers of it. In other words Maori initiated much early contact. They sought this contact because it brought them Mana; European goods such as muskets, nails, cloth etc. added to the tribes mana in their eyes and those of their rivals. The historian James Belich argues that to have a ‘tribal Pakeha’ earned considerable respect - he describes this using the analogy of having a “Pakeha parked in the tribal garage”; in other words like having an expensive car - a sign of wealth and prestige (eg Mitsubishi Dimante’s!)

It is against the background of Fatal Impact and Acculturation that we need to consider the impact European contact on Maori in the early nineteenth century.

It is also important to note that the idea of superiority was based on a very British perspective - they perceived their culture, and indeed that of Europe, to be the height of civilization. They can be seen as viewing their relationship with Maori from a Eurocentric point of view; certainly they were more technologically advanced. However deciding which culture was superior in social structure/organisation etc. is simply a matter of opinion. Contemporary views were that the Pakeha were civilized, while the Maori were ‘savage’ and were in desperate need of civilizing - converting them to European culture.

See Belich p 125 The Myths of Empire

Europe’s ethos of expansion developed into a mythology of empire.

Before the rise of science Europeans believed literally in the bible. However scientific discovery and exploration led to a challenging of long held beliefs. To counter this challenge a mythology of racial and race related European superiority, and European destiny was developed.

Europeans were viewed as being superior, both culturally and technologically. This helped them come to terms with the fact that other people and places existed outside of the ‘religious’ world they knew of, and taught them that their destiny was to spread their ‘superior’ culture and technology. Europeans assumed Empire – the spreading of Europe to the world – was inevitable. This spreading of Empire would be achieved through a combination of mechanisms:



Fatal Impact