10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight

Shannon Quinn - June 24, 2018

No nation has tried to take over native nations quite like Great Britain, who spread their English colonies all over the globe. While many native civilizations put up a good fight, the native Maori people of New Zealand just may have been the most difficult culture for the English to take over. Before setting foot on the shores of New Zealand, explorers had no idea that they were about to come face-to-face with tribes of warrior cannibals.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Burning of The Boyd. Credit: Teara.govt.nz

Both men and women had tattoos all over their bodies that had been carved into the skin, and they carried severed human heads on sticks as trophies from their conquests. Without a way to properly communicate with one another, simply appearing on the shores of New Zealand was interpreted as a threat. Despite the fact that they had superior weapons, the Europeans were so terrified of the Maori, it took over 200 years for them to begin settling proper colonies in New Zealand. Even then, there were several incidents of mass murders, battles, and trade wars.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Illustration of what the Maori warriors looked like from the Dutch perspective. They called the area “Murderer Bay”. Credit: TheProw.org.nz

The First Encounter at Golden Bay

In 1642, Abel Tasman was the commander of the powerful Dutch East India Company. He heard rumor of a huge uncharted island country near Australia called “South Land” that was never inhabited by Europeans. He sailed two large ships named The Heemskerck and The Zeehaen to the location of this mysterious island. When they found New Zealand, they anchored their ships near a cave. Unbeknownst to them, the cave was part of a Maori legend where a giant lizard monster called “Ngara Huarau” was said to be contained. Every Maori knew to keep away from the cave. They believed that if any humans got too close, the monster would come out and eat everyone.

The morning after the Dutch crew anchored their ships to shore, a group of Maori natives rowed a small boat towards the Heemskerck and Zeehaen, and blew a horn. Since the Maori had never seen white men before, and they were anchored so close to the dreaded monster’s cave, some researchers believe that they must have thought that Europeans were evil spirits, and the horn was meant to scare them off. Abel Tasman was completely naive to their culture, of course, and he thought that playing the horn was some kind of friendly musical exchange, so he asked some of his crew to play musical instruments. Little did he know that responding to a horn call with more horns was like saying, “Bring it on.”

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Painting of Maori boat approaching a European ship. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Based on the Maori men’s reaction, he realized what he had made a big mistake. Confused and scared, Tasman ordered his crew to set off their canons into the air. This scared the Maori men in the boat, and they rowed back to shore. Word quickly spread about the foreign invaders among the rivaling Maori tribes, and they all decided to ban together to fight this new common enemy.

The next day, a group of Maori people was standing on the shore with knives and waving. This should have been an obvious sign of hostility, but a handful of men rowed out on their small boats again towards the Dutch ships. When they started waving, they interpreted this as a friendly gesture. The crew of The Zeehaen began to encourage the Maori to come on the ship. Meanwhile, the crew of The Heemskerck could see the guys with knives on the shore, so they rowed a boat over to their friend to let them know it wasn’t such a good idea to allow them onto the ship. When they began to row back, the small Maori boat rammed into them, and they began clubbing the Europeans, aiming for their heads and necks.

The survivors had to jump off of the boat and swim towards the bigger ship, and the sailors started to shoot their guns at the Maori men who were killing their comrades. After recovering the bodies of the dead Dutchmen, they decided to call it quits. Not only were the Maori crazy dangerous, but they were also running out of food and water.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Illustration of Captain Cook witnessing human sacrifices by the Maori warriors. Credit: rmg.co.uk

The Maori Ate Men From James Cook’s Crew

After over one hundred years of hearing about these terribly frightening natives, an English explorer named James Cook decided to give it another go. Maybe he believed that the stories about the natives were over-exaggerated. He felt that he had the confidence to do a much better job than the Dutch had ever done. He sailed a ship called “Resolution” to New Zealand. A second ship called “Adventure” had gotten separated from them during a storm, but it would take six days for them to catch up to Cook and his crew.

A man named Jack Rowe left with a small group of men on a boat to shore, in order to search for some food and water to bring back to the ship, but they never returned. Another man, named James Burney, went on a rescue mission with a couple of other volunteers. They were cautious, sneaking around as not to be found.

They found a Maori canoe near the shore, and inside of it was blood, a shoe, and remnants of meat. There were also roughly 20 baskets that were filled with freshly cooked meat, ready to be delivered to various parts of the village. They hope that this was dog meat, but when they recognized the cooked tattooed flesh of Thomas Hill, it confirmed their worst fear. They were cooking and eating dismembered body parts. As they peeked through the trees, they could see the native people cooking human body parts over the fire, and feeding their internal organs to the dogs. At the time, they had no way of knowing that this was the “whāngai hau” ceremony, which is a custom for Maori people to eat their enemies, because they believed that there would consume the power of that person’s spirit, as well as the spirits of their ancestors.

Burney and his men didn’t waste any time running for their lives, and The Maori started to chase them. Rowe’s crew shot at the tribe and smashed the canoes on the shore so they could not follow them to their ship.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Maori tribal warriors incorporated guns into their traditional fighting style during The Musket Wars. Credit: New Zealand Historical Society.

Pakeha Maori and the Musket Wars

Giving your enemies guns doesn’t sound like the smartest idea in the world, but that is exactly what happened in the 1800s. After the New Zealand colonies had been established, white prisoners from Australia chose to escape and start a new life with the Maori people. Many of them even got married and adopted their customs. These people were known as the Pakeha Maori. Once they became good friends, the Pakeha Maori began to smuggle guns into the tribes.

For so long, the English had the upper hand in battle, because they were the only ones with guns. Now, they had those weapons as well. However, instead of banning together to use these guns against the English, they decided to use them to settle tribal disputes. Over the course of thirty years, the Maori people slaughtered one another in what is now remembered as “The Musket Wars“. At the time, their total population was about 100,000 people, and this war killed 18,000. To make matters worse, European diseases were beginning to spread throughout the country, and Maori people were dying due to a lack of immunity.

A tribal leader Hongi Hika was considered to be the man who started the Musket Wars. He was incredibly terrifying and would strike fear into the ears of his enemies by threatening to kill and eat their entire family. He was so determined to win against his tribe’s rivals, that he helped guarantee the European’s safety in exchange for more guns and ammunition.

In 1820, Hongi Hika agreed to go to England in order to help them write an English-Maori dictionary. In reality, he was on a secret mission to take as many guns as he could, because he heard a rumor that The Tower of London was filled to the brim with weapons. He met King George IV, who gave him a suit of armor as a gift. On his way home, he traded all of the King’s gifts in exchange for- you guessed it- more guns. By the year 1830, there were so many guns in the country, that Hongi Hika no longer had the upper hand among the Maori tribes. They eventually had to call a truce.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Photograph of General Horatio Gordon Robley’s Maori head collection, which he later sold to The Museum of Natural History. Credit: RareHistoricalPhotos.com

They Kept Human Heads as Trophies

The Maori people weren’t just cannibals. They also kept human heads on stakes driven into the ground, and kept them as trophies of their conquests. During the Musket Wars, various tribes were killing one another and eating the bodies of their enemies to absorb their spirits. Instead of eating the heads, they began to keep them, so they could look at the faces of the enemies who they conquered for eternity. This was considered to be one of the biggest insults to an enemy. The heads were called the “Mokomokai“. The brains and eyes were removed, mouths and eyes were sealed shut, and the skin was steamed or boiled to prevent it from rotting.

To make matters worse, some English explorers saw the Mokomokai and thought they were fascinating. This was especially true for a man named Major General Horatio Gordon Robley. He was an artist, and he was fascinating in drawing the tattoo designs that were on Maori people’s faces. He loved the fact that with a severed head, he could take as much time as he wanted to sketch those tattoo designs. (Yes, this is exactly as morbid as it sounds.) He wanted some of these heads for himself, so he was willing to trade one gun for one head.

This was exciting for the Maori people who were eager to get more firepower, and it lead to even more killings with the sole purpose of beheading and making more of these preserved heads. Between the years 1820 and 1831, there was a high demand from Europeans both in New Zealand and overseas who wanted to buy these “Mokomokai”. After a while, though, they became so common, that the market was oversaturated, and they stopped trying to buy them from the Maori. This actually contributed to the ending of the Musket Wars, as well. While these heads can be found in private antique collections all over the world, General Horatio Gordon Robley’s massive head collection was purchased by the Natural History Museum and New York City.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Burning of The Boyd. Credit: Teara.govt.nz

The Boyd Incident

Even though there were so many hostile episodes between the Maori and the European people, they continued to show up to the land, anyway. They began to have some success trading and trying to communicate. They would even give Maori men objects they wanted in exchange for a hard day’s work. Captain John Thompson left Sydney, Australia on his boat called The Boyd in order to trade timber. A year before their arrival, the crew of a ship called The Commerce had been carrying a disease that wiped out a lot of the Maori people. They believed that this was a curse brought to them by the white men. So, when The Boyd came into the harbor, they were treated with suspicion. Te Ara, the son of the chief, was sent as an ambassador to check them out.

When Te Ara showed up, Captain Thompson assumed that he wanted a job, like most other Maori men. Since he was like a prince, he was shocked that they did not respect him, and were treating him like a commoner. He did not take orders from anyone, and blatantly refused to work for the white men. When the Europeans realized Te Ara was not going to work, they started to beat him and ordered that he should not be fed for the rest of his time on board. A young boy named Thom Davis was kind to Te Ara, and snuck him food and water. He also cleaned his wounds, and tried to make him comfortable while he was prisoner.

When they returned to his home, Te Ara went back to his tribe and told them what happened. No one assaults the son of the chief and gets away with it. They enacted the cultural rule of “Utu”, or revenge. Captain Thompson and a group of men took a small boat to shore, and they were immediately captured and eaten by the Maori. Then, the Maori men dressed up in the clothes and hats of the Englishmen and rode their boat back to The Boyd. This trick worked, and slaughtered almost everyone on The Boyd.

A select few European people were spared. Since Thom Davis had shown kindness to Te Ara, his life was spared. A woman named Ann Morley, her baby, and a two-year-old girl were spared as well. Ann was given to a local chief as a wife, and adopted children.

When asked about his version of the tale, Te Ara simply said that Captain Thompson was a bad man. This caused issues between the Maori people who wanted to get along with the Europeans for trade reasons, as well as the whalers and everyone whose livelihoods were now dependent on the colonies. Te Ara eventually died during one of these battles. After The Boyd Incident, the Europeans started to call New Zealand “The Cannibal Isles”, and decided to make a public service announcement they simply needed to stay away, if they valued their lives.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Missionary meeting to sign peace treaties. Credit: New Zealand National Library.

The Treaty of Waitangi Didn’t Change Much

For years, the New Zealand colonizers and the Maori tribes were killing one another without any sense of law or justice. The Europeans wanted to take their land for themselves, and the Maori would not let them. In 1831, 13 chiefs of northern tribes got together to send a petition to King William IV, asking for an official set of laws to govern the country. Two years later, a man named James Busby was appointed by the crown to move to New Zealand and work out the legal issues.

Instead of assuming Britain’s total control over the land, Busby gave the tribes their own Declaration of Independence. While the Maori truly did own this land, this document made the ownership of their own land in New Zealand official by European standards. After a couple of years, 52 chiefs signed the declaration. This meant that each tribe now had an official property line, and they could sell their land to European settlers, rather than having to go to war and steal it, like most colonizers had done in the past. This did not settle all the problems, of course. Over the next few years, issues were taken into consideration, and in 1840, tribal leaders came together to sign The Treaty of Waitangi.

However, most of the tribal leaders could not speak English, so they did not fully understand what the treaty actually said. This made it easy for the Crown to declare their sovereignty over the nation at a later time, and deny that the Maori had equal rights to the Europeans.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Maori tribal people chopping down the flag pole with the Union Jack. Credit: Listverse.com

The Flagstaff War

A few years following The Treaty of Waitangi, things were quiet, and the Maori and European people kept the peace. In 1842, the British put the 17-year old son of a chief named Maketū Wharetōtara on trial, because he slaughtered a group of European men, women, and children that he had been living and working with on a farm. When they asked him why he killed them, he said that they “offended his mana”, or took away his birthright as the chief’s son. They found him guilty of homicide and executed him. Even though the natives had killed dozens of Europeans in the past, this was the first time that the British colonizers had enough power to even enforce their own laws on Maori people.

In 1845, the British government began trying to take even more control over the lives of the Maori people by enacting new laws. A tribal leader named Hone Heke could tell that if they allowed this to continue, the English would completely take over their culture. So he decided to chop down the flagpole that the British settlers had been flying the Union Jack on Maiki Hill as a symbol of rebellion that they were not going to take orders.

This act of vandalism escalated into actual battles, which are remembered as “The Flagstaff War”, “The Northern War”, or “Hone Heke’s Rebellion”. The flag was cut down multiple times as Hone Heke demanded that Maori tribal leaders should be allowed a seat in government. He had actually been a supporter of The Treaty of Waitangi, because it was supposed to be an equal partnership between the Maori and English people. If anything, the English were not putting up with their end of the deal by enforcing their rules.

The fighting got so bad, women and children had to be evacuated onto the ships in the harbor. Buildings burned to the ground, and it did 50,000 pounds’ worth of property damage, which is more like $6 million with today’s inflation. It was too much for a lot of colonial people to handle, so most of them sold their land for next to nothing and moved back to England. Of course, there were some that thought the fighting was worth the effort.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Photo of John Alexander Gilfillan and the one daughter who managed to survive, after they returned to Australia. Credit: New Zealand National Library.

The Gilfillan Family Massacre

Once they were able to legally buy land in New Zealand, people from England were attracted to the idea of finally being able to afford large estates where they could raise their families. The New Zealand Company facilitated these exchanges, divvying up land that once belonged to Maori tribes, clearing it out, and preparing it for English families.

John and Mary Gilfillan chose to settle in the Whanganui colony in 1842. They had six children, so they wanted plenty of space. They were able to purchase 100 acres of land for a great price, especially compared to England. The New Zealand Company gave them a temporary house in the center of town until their new house and farm was ready to move to in 1845. For two years, the family lived in peace, minding their own business, and only taking a trip to the main town of Whanganui when it was absolutely necessary, because it was a four-hour journey on foot.

Two years later, in 1847, a naval cadet named H.E. Crozier shot and killed a Maori man in the face, near the main town of Whanganui, and tried to say it was an accident. When the Maori people demanded that Crozier should go to trial for the man’s death, they refused to release him into their custody. Yet again, the English broke the promises they had made for equal treatment, considering the fact that the English were entitled enough to put Maori people on trial for murdering an Englishman, but they would not allow them the same courtesy when the shoe was on the other foot. The Maori threatened the government that if they did not give up H.E. Crozier, they would take their revenge on a random European family. When the English did not comply with their demands, they found a target- The Gilfillan Family.

A group of six Maori men were floating through a river on their property, and charged towards the house. John Gilfillan knew that he was no match for the Maori warriors, so he ran away without trying to take his wife and children. He later claimed that he thought the men were only after him and that if he ran, they would chase after him and leave his family alone. It took four hours for him to walk to the center town of Whanganui, where he told the authorities about the attack. By the time they returned to the property, the house was on fire. His wife, Mary, and three of their children were dead. Three survived, but one daughter was very badly wounded, clinging on to life.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Samuel Marsden was the first missionary to give a Christian service to the Maori natives. Credit: nzhistory.govt.nz

A Christian Missionary Was Slaughtered

In some native cultures, Europeans were able to win people over by converting them to Christianity. In 1849, an organization called The North German Missionary Society sent a Protestant missionary named Carl Sylvius Volkner to preach the gospel to the Maori, in hopes that they would listen and become more civilized. They called this new religion “Pai Marire“, which was a mixture of Christianity and the native Maori belief system. At first, it actually worked, and people preferred Pai Marire to Catholicism, which a man named Joseph Marie Garavel had already tried to teach them in the town of Opotiki. So, Garavel was kicked out, and Volkner was allowed to live with one of the tribes. He even built a church where he was able to deliver his sermons to the people.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Photo of Carl Volkner with his Bible. Credit: nzhistory.govt.nz

During this time, the tribes on the East Coast of New Zealand were debating amongst themselves how they should deal with the hostility among them. The inner-tribal warfare had gotten really bad, because some of the groups were working with the English government, while others were staying loyal to their culture. To make matters, worse, the European settlers were spreading diseases like Typhoid Fever, and the natives had no way to combat the disease.

So much was going wrong, they needed someone to blame. They started to suspect that Volkner might be a spy for the English government. Joseph Marie Garavel was still angry about being kicked out of his position, so he lied and said he could confirm that Volkner was truly writing letters to the government and selling them out. The tribe in Opotiki felt betrayed. The beheaded Volkner near the altar of the church, gouged out his eyeballs, and ate them.

10 Facts that Prove the Native Maori People of New Zealand Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight
Illustration of Maori Warriors. Credit: AncientFacts.net

The Massacre at Poverty Bay

After years of the Europeans making their colony in New Zealand, a man named Te Kooti decided to trust the British and work with them. He did not want to convert to Christianity, or “Pai Marire”, but he began working in the shipping industry along the coastline. Despite his genuine effort to get along with the white men, they believed that his resistance to Christianity meant he was part of a spy rebel group called “HauHau”.

He tried to explain himself to Donald McLean, who was the police inspector. McLean became fluent in the Maori language in order to settle disputes like this, but he did not believe Te Kooti, and sent him to prison on Chatham Island. During that time, he converted to a religion called Ringatu, which was based more on Judaism and the Old Testament, mixed with the native Maori customs. In 1868, he managed to escape and free hundreds of prisoners. There were 135 women with children, and 163 men living in the prison on Chatham Island, and he managed to release them all.

Instead of going on a wild rampage, Te Kooti and his men aimed their guns at a magistrate, saying that they wanted to travel to “King Country”, or England, to become educated. When the magistrate refused to accept their demands, Kooti’s men began a battle that lasted for several months in Poverty Bay. More and more native people began to join up with Te Kooti, so the government put a bounty on his head. They broke into the magistrate’s house and kills him, his wife, and children, along with 51 other European people. This became known as the “Massacre at Poverty Bay”.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The First Meeting – Abel Tasman and Māori in Golden Bay. Karen Stade. The Prow. 2012

Pre-1840 Contact. Government of New Zealand. NZ History.

Ten crew of Cook’s ship killed and eaten. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2016

Te Kooti. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2017.

Carl Völkner. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2017

The Northern War. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2017

The Musket Wars. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2015

War in Whanganui. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2014

A Frontier of Chaos? The Boyd Incident. Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Treaty events 1800-49. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2017