Maori pose for a photo in native clothing around 1920. European colonists brought war and disease with them to New Zealand, causing the Maori population to decline for decades.

Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

History of the Maori

The influx of pakeha (European settlers, foreigners and colonists) to the area permanently changed the way the Maori did battle. Firearms became highly coveted. A Maori tribe first used muskets in 1807, but other Maori using old-fashioned weapons easily defeated the tribe using firearms because the weapons were so difficult to load and use. In an act of revenge, the tribe's leader, Nga Puhi, obtained more muskets, trading potatoes, flax and pigs to get them. In 1815, the war parties stormed the North Island of New Zealand, wielding their muskets and forcing victims into slavery, exile or killing them outright. The Musket Wars were fought well into the 1820s and resulted in the deaths of at least 20,000 Maori and New Zealanders [source: nzhistory.net]. The other tribes began to obtain their own firearms, however, leaving them better able to defend themselves.

By the 1830s, however, two tribes (Ngati Tama and Ngati Mtunga) were forced off their land by the Musket Wars. They headed south in search of new land, eventually stumbling upon the Chatham Islands, home to the similarly named Moriori people. The Maori noted the abundance of food in the area, as well as the lack of weapons in the Moriori camps. The Moriori were known as peaceful people, and the Maori used this against them in their quest for new land. In fact, a meeting in which the Moriori were simply discussing how to handle the intrusive Maori was misconstrued as a "war council," prompting the Maori to attack. Moriori who were not killed outright were thrust into slavery, and some were later killed and eaten. The Moriori were effectively extinguished, leaving the Chatham Islands to the Maori.

Back on the mainland, tribal battles soon dissipated, due largely to the many other growing concerns the Maori had to face. Firearms were not the only thing Europeans brought to New Zealand. Diseases common in Europe took hold among the Maori, whose immune systems were largely defenseless. Despite this, the Maori generally welcomed Europeans. Christian missionaries, convicts on the lam and others who settled in the mountainous area, set up shop and reaped crops such as sweet potatoes. Despite cultural disparities and the obvious language barrier, trade relationships escalated between the indigenous Maori and the European settlers.

In addition, missionaries worked to expand literacy among the Maori by establishing a written Maori language. Before this, the group primarily communicated verbally. In 1835, however, the tide began to turn, although it took time for it to become obvious. There were fears that the French would like to annex New Zealand. In response, Maori leaders signed an agreement that effectively turned England into New Zealand's parent country in exchange for sovereignty as a British territory. Known as the Treaty of Waitangi, the agreement gave the Maori control over their own land, or so they thought [source: nzhistory.net]. In 1840, the British crown allowed European immigrants to set up a new government and illegally acquire ancestral Maori land. The British also established new laws and taxes in violation of the treaty. The New Zealand Wars soon erupted, causing decades of battle between the Maori and the British government, resulting in many deaths. The British gained full control of New Zealand by the 1870s, effectively squashing the Maori revolution for many years. By the 1890s, fewer than 45,000 Maori remained, largely because of the battles with the British and European-introduced disease.

So how has Maori culture survived wars and foreign influences? Read more on the next page.