Slavery in Colonial Times


As in many other cultures, slavery was a key element of Maori society.  Mokai  were usually spoils of war, condemned to lives of drudgery, danger, heavy physical work and obedience to their masters or mistresses' whims;  they were expected to fight under supervision, could be used to negotiate with enemies, or as food if supplies were short.  Female slaves might be prostitutes, or become secondary wives to their conquerors.  Marriages between victorious chiefs and highborn women of defeated tribes strengthened the invaders' take to the land.

Samuel Ironside.Samuel Ironside. Marlborough Historical Society Collections Marlborough Museum
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The Treaty of Waitangi, 1840, outlawed the taking of slaves, and made all Maori British citizens, but did not affect pre-Treaty arrangements.  Christianity preached the equality of all before God and  some slaves were freed as a result.  In other cases masters and slaves were baptised together, but existing relationships prevailed.  One of Rev. Ironside's best local preachers was Paramena, a slave who experienced some prejudice in his leadership role.1

Kehu snaring a weka 1812-1893Kehu snaring a weka 1812-1893 William Fox: In the Aglionby or Matukituki Valley, looking into the Otapawa. 20th Feb. [1846]. Alexander Turnbull Library. B-113-008. [Kehu snaring a weka ]. Permission of ATL must be sought for further use of this image
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Some chiefs had many slaves, and mokai appear frequently in colonial records:  accompanying masters, carrying goods or gifts, doing menial tasks, obeying orders.  Chiefs hired slaves to European explorers and surveyors:  Kehu and Pikiwati, Ngati Tumatakokiri slaves of Ngati Rarua chiefs, guided Brunner on his West Coast expedition (1846-1848).  Tau, Ngai Tahu slave of a Te Atiawa chief, had accompanied Brunner, Heaphy and Kehu on their earlier 1846 journey.  They all returned to their masters.2

Slaves were sometimes restored to their people:  Paremata Te Wahapiro of Ngati Tama, captured by Ngai Tahu at Tuturau in 1837, delivered back to Wakapuaka with a new wife, daughter of his captor, Taiaroa;3  Ngati Toa's return of Ngai Tahu chiefs to Kaikoura or Banks Peninsula in about 1840;4  and a party of Ngai Tahu making their way from Motueka to Lyttelton in two large boats in 1851.5  A few slaves escaped to become fugitives.

Some chiefs formed strong bonds with mokai.  Paremata wanted to support his mokai, arrested in 1843, until deterred by Europeans;6  Panakenake and Poria, Kehu's chiefs, gave him a life-time interest in land at Motueka,7 and Ngarewa, Te Atiawa chief at Port Gore, insisted Government agents allocate land for his Ngati Apa slaves.8  Bishop Selwyn was amazed when one of his staff tried to purchase the release of his mother and brother from a chief at Croisilles. The mother refused to leave - "she loved her master" and would "not go out free".9

While there are accounts of very brutal treatment of slaves in pre-colonial times,10 the lack of criticism after 1840 suggests that officials, clergy and settlers were not offended by what they saw.  Rangatira continued to own slaves well into the 1850s and perhaps later.  Europeans supported the system by acknowledging the existence of slavery, and hiring slaves from chiefs; Sarah Ironside, home alone after the Wairau Affray, in order to retain the services of her domestic help, gave a "pair each of our largest and best blankets" to their chiefs who were leaving for the North Island.11

In general, slaves were keen converts to Christianity, no doubt attracted by its benefits to them, and as their masters' control decreased, often worked for Europeans who paid them for tasks they formerly did for nothing.12

The passage of time eventually led to the extinction of slavery.


Sources used in this story

  1. Ironside, Rev. S. (1842)  Journal, 7 November.  Wesleyan Archives, Morley House, Christchurch.
  2. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2007) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough, Volume 2, Te ara hou : the new society.  Wellington, N.Z. : Huia Publishers pp276-289.
  3. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough, Vol I, The People and the land. Wellington, N.Z. : Huia Publishers p137.
  4. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2004) p 130.
  5. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2007) p 196.
  6. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2007)  p 455.
  7. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2007)  p 456.
  8. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2007)  p 455.
  9. Selwyn, G (1848)  to Hawkins. 30 August,  In "New Zealand" Pt IV 1847 pp62-63.
  10. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2004) pp 452-453.
  11. Ironside, S:  "Missionary Reminiscences" VIII & XIV. 1891. Wesleyan Archives, Morley House, Christchurch.
  12. Mitchell, H.A., &  Mitchell,  M.J. (2004) pp192-199.

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  • This is just so typical propaganda to the max....'Mokai' does not mean fact its quite the opposite....Notice that the authors are Pākehā?? As for captive women being prostitutes?? Well i guess it depends on which end of the STICK you're on...It's stories like this that continues the subtle assimilation of our people, so that the Western hegemony remains status quo.

    Posted by Rahera TeRiini, 25/01/2015 11:04am (3 months ago)

  • I would like to know what the impact of slavery has been on modern maori culture. what the long term effect of the distruction of family stuctures has been. Is it comparable to the impact it had on afro-american culture? Ed. We will get back to you

    Posted by brian, ()

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