The Farmer in New Zealand
1 — The Maori Farmer
The Maori Farmer
In the Procession of farmers who have lived and worked in this country the Maori must take his appointed place. The Maori of pre-European days was hardly a farmer in the sense in which the word is used in this survey. He had, however, advanced far beyond the mere gathering of food from forest, river, and sea. The cultivated kumara was the staff of his life, with fern-root as a stopgap. One tribe alone, the Tuhoe people in the inland fastnesses of the Urewera, subsisted entirely on berries, fern-root, birds, rats, freshwater fish, and even insects — for the kumara would not grow on their uplands—until, about the beginning of last century, the coming of the potato revolutionised their way of life.
Although the Maori's cultivation of the kumara was closer to gardening than to farming, the elaborate methods needed to grow it prepared him for the problems of less fickle European crops. There were many varieties of kumara—probably more than eighty —and the fact that it was a tropical plant (it flowered page 2but never seeded in New Zealand), which needed shelter and warmth, made its cultivation a matter for close organisation. The ground that was to receive it was prepared some time beforehand: the roots of the cleared trees were dug out with the ko, the most serviceable of the wooden implements of the Maori, and burned on the spot; when the clearing and stumping of the land had been achieved, the top soil was finely worked, sand was added, and, if the soil were clay, it was drained by surface channels. The kumara was surrounded with elaborate rituals and tapu; fertility symbols were placed to aid its growth; and everything connected with its planting or harvesting was accompanied by magical observances.
The close identification of so much of Maori religion with the raising of food crops is a clear indication of how important they were to Maori life. Food gained from crops was to the Maori something that had to be seriously worked for, something that needed both long planning and the sympathy of the gods, something that could be assured only by the concerted effort of the whole tribe. Food gained by hunting or fishing was less certain, and it could not be relied upon to supply the whole means of life. Even the wild fern-root was cultivated to the extent that its tops were periodically burned. The Maori, with his close attention to soils and situation (for the kumara, unlike the potato, would grow only in an entirely favourable situation), to working, draining, page 3and fallowing the ground, and to the cycle of the seasons, was a farmer in embryo. His immediate realisation of the value of European plants and his instant casting aside of his poor crude ko and timo (or grubbing stick) in favour of European spades and hoes show how far he was ready to accept the superior techniques of the white man. It needed no important adjustment of his ways for the Maori to engage in European farming; he was already attuned to farming as a way of life.
Year by year the Maoris had wrestled with their difficult environment, using a complicated variety of skills to make a living from the soil or forests of their adopted land. They had brought with them from their island origins the taro, the gourd, and the kumara, to give some diversity to a diet very limited in both quantity and quality. The Maori had always been faced with the need to plan his production of food over the whole year, and when his planned cycle broke down, interrupted by war or the seasonal failure of a main crop, he starved to death. Not only were his food resources limited; he had to face the almost equally great disadvantage of the crudity of the tools of his stone age material culture.
The navigators who re-discovered New Zealand in the late eighteenth century plied the Maori with seeds and animals: the pig is usually ascribed to the benevolence of Captain Cook. These gifts were on a small scale, however, and the lack of any continuing page 4advice on horticultural matters and the use of the few implements distributed by the explorers left the Maori people in substantially the same state of agricultural ability as before—with the important exception of the potato. The potato, indeed, had by 1807 become a principal article of Maori diet (though there were those who said that the coarse and tediously prepared fern-root which it pardy replaced was a more healthy food), and a lucrative export, for in the eighteen-thirties the Maori exported pork and potatoes regularly to Australia.
It is fair to date the beginnings of Europeanised Maori agriculture from the establishment of the first mission at the end of 1814 by Samuel Marsden. Before Marsden the Europeans who had contributed to Maori knowledge and equipment had acted without system or study of the needs of the country and the capabilities of its climate and people, spreading their gifts with an undiscriminating self-indulgent philanthropy. It was the Rev. Samuel Marsden who first deliberately set out to help the Maori to acquire experience of European farming with the express intention of raising his standard of living. Marsden, himself sprung from Yorkshire small-farming stock, had become a leading farmer in New South Wales, an activity he believed as pleasing to God as to man. In regard to New Zealand this policy would be even more directly useful for moral than for material improvement. The great Hongi, for instance, at once page 5the terror and the pride of his country, could be induced to give up the passionately loved sport of war only if he should have 'some object of importance to employ his great mind. There is nothing in New Zealand but war that can meet his active spirit. Agriculture alone offers a substitute. . . .'
Though the diversion of the bloodthirstiness of Hongi was one of the ends proposed for Maori agriculture, the grand aim was to give the Maori people easier means of life. This was felt not least by the Maoris themselves. Ruatara, who may well be dubbed the first Maori farmer if one seeks to distribute such thorny garlands as titles of priority, was fired with an ambition just as burning as Marsden's own to give to his people their daily bread. Ruatara was as much the advance scout for his whole people as Toi or Kupe, when he saw on Marsden's farm at Parramatta just what could be gained from the orderly production of food from European crops. Ruatara learned Christianity at Parramatta. He learned also the value of wheat, the missing element that might give stability to Maori agriculture. There is abundant evidence that the Maoris starved when the potato and kumara crops were exhausted, either by too extravagant use or by bartering them away to European ships in exchange for highly prized iron.
The questing spirit of Ruatara had already taken him round the world in European vessels—to suffer much at the hands of unscrupulous sea-captains—and page 6his race was indeed fortunate in his enterprise and leadership. In Maori society innovation was made from above, by chiefs of high rank like Ruatara or Hongi. As soon as Marsden knew that his 'new leader and friend', who had promised so well at Parramatta, was at length arrived, after undergoing unknown hardships, at his native land, he eagerly sent him wheat-seed and tools, for Marsden and Ruatara were united in their belief that industry would correct the 'wild and vagrant habits' of the Maoris and 'prepare them for the everlasting gospel'. Both men wished the Maori people to become Europeanised, the process to begin with material culture. Indeed, one of the missionaries, King, doubted Ruatara's knowledge of religion, although he 'was a well-wisher to his own people'.
Whatever his spiritual shortcomings, so visible to King and so unapparent to Samuel Marsden, Ruatara set to work with a thoroughness and method as yet unusual in his race. He travelled forty miles inland to the most remote extent of his chiefly authority, and in Marsden's words, 'laid out the grounds he intended to clear and cultivate, and marked out the ground for his men, having first enquired of me how much ground a man broke up in a day at Port Jackson. He was seldom at home but constantly at his farms.' It was not enough, however, to grow corn. He had to wait until Marsden had sent him a steel page 7mill before his people would accept the new crop with anything like the required revolutionary ardour.
Ruatara, besides being the first Maori farmer, was the protector and encourager of the first missionary settlement, which was made on his territory at Rangihoua, Bay of Islands. The association of Ruatara and the missionaries would have produced great mutual benefit, not least in the sphere of farming, had the Maori leader not died during 1815, leaving both his white friends and his half-instructed people to fend for themselves. A new leader was ready to step into his place. This was the great Hongi, like Ruatara a pupil in the arts of civilisation at Marsden's establishment at Parramatta. Hongi had perhaps even more than Ruatara's ability to organise his people for the tasks of peace or war. 'Shungee had,' reported Marsden, 'near the village we were at, one field which appeared to me to contain forty acres, all fenced in with rails and upright stakes tied to them to keep out the pigs. Much of it was planted with turnips, common and sweet potatoes, which were in high cultivation. They suffer no weeds to grow but, with incredible labour and patience, root up everything likely to injure the growing plant.' Hongi was also growing his first crop of wheat, but there were difficulties to contend with just as formidable as the Maori ignorance of European methods.
'No labour of man without iron can clear and subdue uncultivated land to any extent. The New page 8Zealanders seem to do as much in this respect as the strength and wisdom of man is equal in their situation.' Marsden was very willing to do everything he could to provide the Maori with iron tools, though with his usual integrity he would not promise much, even to Hongi, because it might not be within his power to supply it. He was constantly assailed during his evangelical journeys in New Zealand by requests for hoes, spades, axes, and a blacksmith to make more of these things. In the first five years of his acquaintance with the Bay of Islands Marsden found the area of ground under cultivation by the natives increase tenfold. With this testimonial to native application he could not but feel embarrassed by importunities for tools he knew would make the wilderness fruitful and which it was beyond his means to supply. Poor Pomare, enviously comparing his crude and broken wooden implements with the European tools in the hands of Hongi, wept when he found there was no blacksmith to help him, and his wives added their sympathetic tears. He feared he would be dead (of starvation) before his needs were supplied. Marsden had already been struck with the crudity of Maori implements. 'We saw with pain the hard toil they endured and the little progress they made in cultivation with their rude instruments, and were convinced by ocular demonstration that the earth can never be subdued and made to bring forth its increase to reward the sweat and toil of man without iron, and that this page 9valuable article is the only thing in creation that can relieve the temporal miseries of this people.'
Marsden was ever on the look out to experiment with the farming possibilities of New Zealand. Early in the eighteen-twenties he sent over cattle. Thomas Kendall, cantankerous 'man-on-the-spot' if ever there was one, complained that these went wild for want of grass, and suggested that his superior officer's energies would be better employed in founding churches and schools. The missionaries could have led an easy life simply trading with the natives, an activity Marsden used all his authority to prevent. They had not Marsden's belief in the value of agriculture as a civilising agency. Nor had they Marsden's preference for the immediate practicable minimum. 'If you wait,' he answered Kendall from New South Wales, 'for churches and schools until you get good, pious men to build them from hence, I fear they will not be found in my day. The cattle I have at my own command, and I have sent them without application from any person.... I have seen want enough in this Colony to convince me of the vast importance of cattle in a new settlement.'
It was part of Marsden's intention that the missionaries should make themselves independent of native supplies of food by developing their own farms. He was always inspecting the soil wherever he went and estimating its capabilities. Thanks to this close interest the missionary farms at Keri-Keri and page 10Waimate were eventually established, the latter eminently successful and a forceful example to the natives. It was at Keri-Keri in 1820 that the plough was first used in New Zealand. 'I felt much pleasure in holding it,' wrote the missionary Butler, 'after a Team of six Bullocks—brought down by the Dromedary— I trust that this auspicious day will be remembered with gratitude and its Anniversary kept by ages yet unborn'. Others too rejoiced at 'the sight of the British plough breaking up the deserts of New Zealand', for this was, in the opinion of the Rev. William Yate, the most pleasing of all prospects that could meet the eye of the philanthropist in this country. There was no anticipation in the minds of these earnest lovers of men that the very comeliness of the sight of the good New Zealand soil bringing forth its plenty was to be, with the incoming race, the ruin of the Maori people they were bending all their energies to help. From some points of view the plough and the spade were far more dangerous to the Maoris than muskets, rum, and European disease.
There seems indeed to be abundant evidence for the opinion that the Maoris, however much inclined to prefer immediate gratification to distant benefits, had a real talent for agriculture. The average Maori obeyed the commands of his chief. The chiefs were converted to European agriculture as well as to European religion. The rank and file of the tribes followed suit. As was their custom, the Maoris worked together at the tasks of farming, rather than individually, the only exception to this being the smaller groups working for the missionaries on their farms—but these men merely worked under a white chief instead of the ancestral chief. Whatever limitations this system of working as a community under the direction of their chiefs might have imposed on the Maori in later years when the example of the white man's individualism was more apparent, in the forties and fifties it was admirably suited to Maori talents and temperament. The flowering of Maori agriculture in page 12these two decades disposes of any suggestion that the Maori was by nature incapable of the steady and continuous effort needed for successful farming of European type. On the contrary the Maori in these years gave evidence of a natural genius for agriculture and the management of stock which makes the decline of Maori farming after the wars of the sixties among the most tragic results of those deplorable conflicts.
As early as 1845 Dr Martin, a rather iconoclastic commentator on young New Zealand, remarked that the natives produced food so cheaply they would ruin the white settlers' market. The white settler had his own place for the Maori in the scheme of things, and it was certainly not that of a competitor. The Maori was expected rather to be the willing accomplice in converting his forests into the white man's farms. It is well to remember that a great deal of hard manual work was in fact carried out by gangs of Maoris, by Maoris rather than by the labourers imported for this purpose as part of the Wakefield scheme of colonisation. Maoris made roads, felled and cut up timber, built raupo cottages, lifted potatoes, harvested corn, rowed boats (and water communications were relatively much more important in early New Zealand than they are to-day), acted as porters, and did all at a lower rate of pay than a white man would have accepted, though not always without resenting this disparity. To the Maori money itself was still novel enough to draw him from his page 13own pursuits even on poor terms. The Maori was an indispensable tool in the white man's first exploitation of the resources of New Zealand. But this widespread co-operation should not distract attention from the enormous strides being made by the Maori's own independent agriculture.
The early Maori was more than self-supporting: he supported the white man. The early Maori was young, eager, as full of hope in the efficacy of farming prosperity to promote the good life as Samuel Marsden himself could have wished; the early Maori in fact regarded himself as on the threshold of a new era of comfort and happiness, through his imitation of the white man's modes of living, both for production and for pleasure.
Lady Martin, wife of the Chief Justice who fought for the rights of the Maori people against a majority of his fellow colonists, has written a magnificent description of Maori farming in its hey-day, in the early fifties. 'Our path lay across a wide plain, and our eyes were gladdened on all sides by sights of peaceful industry. For miles we saw one great wheat field. The blade was just showing, of a vivid green, and all along the way, on either side, were peach-trees in full blossom. Carts were driven to and from the mill by their native owners, the women sat under the trees sewing flour bags; fat, healthy children and babies swarmed around, presenting a floury appearance. . . . We little dreamed that in ten years the page 14peaceful industry of the whole district would cease and the land become a desert through our unhappy war.' This account of a smiling countryside—in the Waikato—developed by Maori hands is echoed by more matter-of-fact writers. William Swainson gives a picture of the Bay of Plenty, Taupo, and Rotorua districts, showing what success had been achieved by a native population estimated at something over 8,000. 'In the year 1857,' he wrote, 'the natives of these districts alone had upwards of 3,000 acres of land in wheat, 3,000 acres in potatoes, nearly 2,000 acres in maize, and upwards of 1,000 acres planted with kumeras. They owned nearly 1,000 horses, 200 head of cattle and 5,000 pigs, four water-mills and 96 ploughs. They were also the owners of 43 small coasting vessels, averaging 20 tons each, and upwards of 900 canoes.' These instances of the developed state of Maori farming could be multiplied, but enough has been quoted to show that it was not, in Lady Martin's words, 'mere child's play'. There was nothing primitive and hand-to-mouth about this phase of Maori life.
Although the Maori excelled at growing wheat, since crops were nearest to his own traditional conceptions and his custody of his pigs in the old days had been of the most elementary, he was also capable of turning his hand to pastoral farming. The Rev. Thomas Samuel Grace, established at the mission station at Turanga (the modern Gisborne) in the page 15fifties, had commented in his reports on the development of wheat-growing in that district. Later in the fifties when he had transferred to the Taupo station, he was able to record that the Maoris in that district had collected £220 to buy a flock of sheep. In this instance the hopes of the earlier missionaries that new habits would make the Maori more moral were fully realised. 'The introduction of sheep has at last come in real earnest and, with the blessing of God, will be productive of many and great changes for the better in their social condition. One benefit is already apparent—the rooting out of the old jealousies which had for so long existed amongst these tribes. In order to purchase sheep they have formed themselves into a sort of company, so that now they cherish a common interest—a state of things hitherto unknown to them.'
In 1862 when the main tragedy of the Maori wars had already been enacted, an even more remarkable moral result was attributed to the Taupo flocks: they had kept their owners out of the wars. Gorst had commented on the state of the Waikato in the agricultural slump of the late fifties, when the price of corn dropped from twelve shillings to three, that 'the extreme poverty of the Waikato natives is one of the chief obstacles to their subjugation. There is very little in their villages which they would mind losing'. This poverty following on a riot of prosperity had in fact helped to embitter the natives. What little food page 16they did grow—for they had returned to their ancestral subsistence farming—was wasted 'at some great meeting for establishing that Maori nationality which is their one absorbing object.' At Taupo, however, the 2,000 sheep to which the original purchases had grown by natural increase were a substantial hostage to fortune. The Maori Messenger could not forbear to moralise on this lucky theme: 'The Natives at Taupo did not assist in the Taranaki war. We have heard that it was the sheep which kept them away; for they said, "why should we fight about Waitara; perhaps by and bye, if we do, the Governor will come and take away our sheep." Thus sheep were the means of maintaining peace; those quiet gentle animals . . . kept down the angry passions of those who would otherwise perhaps have dipped their hands in blood.'
It should not be thought that this venture of the Taupo natives in pastoral farming was the only stock farming undertaken by the Maoris. From their first importation into the country the Maoris had a pronounced weakness for owning horses, paying for them at extortionate rates, merely for the pleasure and sense of power of being able to ride, and on occasion to race their steeds. (Ninety years later the motor car gives the satisfaction once given by the horse.) This was, however, a social rather than an economic phenomenon. In early New Zealand it was oxen rather than horses which drew the plough, for page 17Maori as for European. Lady Martin mentions that the Waikato natives had bought cows and that every village had a supply of milk. Home-baked bread had replaced the old order of potatoes for breakfast, dinner, and tea. Maori diet had radically changed, though there is no evidence that beef or mutton was extensively consumed. On the contrary it is much more likely, since the Taupo natives farmed for wool and the Waikato cattle were used to provide milk or to draw the plough, that the Maoris regarded their beasts as too valuable to kill for the immediate gratification of a different meat course on a few days in the year, especially as pigs were still very extensively bred for the sole purpose of providing meat.
It is typical of the thoroughness of the early Maori in all he undertook that Grace's Taupo natives should have striven to learn to weave, so that they could turn their own wool into blankets. But then Grace had already been able to testify that the Maoris were 'the most practical people in the world. They will listen to theories with delight, but that is all. When they see a practical demonstration they get to work at once. This has been seen in the erection of flour mills.' Grace here referred to the widespread 'mania'—this word was fairly used to describe the epidemic enthusiasm for a new facility—among the Maoris of the fifties for erecting flour mills. Every village had to have its mill, usually water-driven. In the fifties the government sent round an inspector page 18to see these mills were kept in good working order, a necessary service, since when his office was discontinued, there were frequent complaints that mills had ceased working through mechanical defect beyond the power of their native owners to remedy. A mill might cost as much as £360. Indeed, the profits of the first flush of Maori farming prosperity went into mills, horses, and farming implements rather than into consumption goods, evidence again of Maori ability to plan for long-term results, for the horses alone could have been considered as luxuries.
Marsden had been besieged for spades and hoes. Grace was held to ransom for ploughs. 'When I wanted a store built at Matata, two ploughs were the stipulated payment—nothing else would do. Again, when I found it necessary to buy a canoe for the river, I was obliged to pay with a plough.' It was spade husbandry which was killing the Maori people, in Grace's opinion, curiously echoing Marsden's thoughts on the effects of work with crude wooden implements on an earlier generation. For such a practical people as the Maoris to have seen the improved implement, whether iron spade or ox-drawn plough, was to have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 'No sooner did they see it [the plough] in the hands of a Maori than they threw away their spades and would not touch them.'
Grace, who perhaps more than any other missionary carried on in the practical spirit of Marsden, page 19described the working out of an entirely new economy among the Maoris of Poverty Bay. At a hui held to celebrate the 1852 harvest home at the Turanga mission, after the abundant fare provided by the industry of the people on the mission land, many speeches were made, whose tenor was very clear. 'Their motto was, "Ploughs, sheep and ships", as a basis upon which was to be established a civilization like unto that of the Pakeha.' Again he thought it was 'beginning at the wrong end to teach these practical people occupations in which they feel they are as skilful as we—namely, the planting of food, etc. They need to be schooled in various industries, so that they may meet their growing wants.' The Maori had, in fact, begun to base a very full and increasingly complex economy on his success as a farmer. Apart from his eagerness to begin ancillary industries, like the milling of his own wheat and the weaving of his own wool, he developed his natural desire to take his own produce to market into a large-scale transport industry. The Maoris owned a fleet of small coasting craft, which, with their canoes, represented a considerable proportion of the carrying trade entering the port of Auckland. At that port alone in 1858 fifty-three small vessels were registered as being in native ownership, and the annual total of canoes entering the harbour rose to over 1,700. These facts are drawn from Swainson, for whom figures talked in unmistakable language of the prosperity of the natives. Other page 20writers confirm the opinion that the Maori was developing a talent for shipping that might soon have equalled his prowess as a farmer.
The Maori farmer was not backward as a business man, although his business ability occasionally had curious results. Grace declared, in 1852, 'The use of money and figures is doing much to enlighten them, and, if they persevere with the Corn Market already commenced by them, they will soon understand the art of dealing.' In an able contribution to The Maori People Today Harold Miller quotes a remarkable passage from an anonymous official's report on a visit to the Waikato. From this it is apparent how deeply prices and the cash nexus had influenced Maori life. 'They now have wise men among themselves to calculate the cubic contents of a heap of fire-wood, the area of a plot of ground, the live weight of a pig. . . .' Gorst reported the reverse side of the new business keenness of the Maoris. 'It is well known to settlers that Maories will let their corn and potatoes rot, rather than take a less price than they consider just.' A people which could starve on potatoes, with a full granary of corn reserved for sale to buy horses, was quite capable of making nothing at all when a fair profit was not obtainable. By 1859 production had so dwindled that grain had to be imported from Australia.
The Maori's farming methods often brought him into conflict with his white neighbours. Indeed there is page 21the testimony of Gorst that the farming principles of the two races were mutually antagonistic and bound to lead to disputes. The native cultivations of wheat, potatoes, or maize were defended 'only by a rickety fence of small sticks tied up with flax', very vulnerable to the inroads of the European farmer's cattle, which ranged at large over the open countryside. The Maori's pigs returned the compliment to the settler's crops and newly grassed paddocks 'setting hedges, ditches and dogs at defiance'.
Another Maori habit which aroused the horror of the settlers was the traditional native cropping of the best soil until it was exhausted, after which they passed on to another tract of virgin country, leaving the old ground to be smothered in weeds of European origin. As early as 1844 Octavius Hadfield had suggested to the Otaki natives that it would be well to sow wheat in their abandoned potato grounds. The Maori Messenger, an indefatigable counsellor of the Maori people in the affairs of this life and the next, all through the fifties advocated closer attention to the rotation of crops. It was even so bold as to hint that the sums so eagerly spent on mills might better have been used in getting practical instruction in 'farming, rotation of crops, importance of grass and fallowing, draining and irrigation.' Again the natives were admonished for insufficiently manuring their ground. But when the Maori people had only just realised and adopted the routine of European farming, page 22it was hardly to be expected that soil management would be immediately undertaken.
The flourishing of Maori farming in the forties and fifties had in it the seeds of the salvation of the race. The break-up of the tribe as the unit of social life under the pressure of European individualism was postponed by the new unity imposed by communal farming effort. The New Zealander in 1856 referred appreciatively to the Maoris as 'landholders, farmers, graziers, seamen, shipowners, labourers and artizans'. It is plain that the principal benefit to them of this early success as farmers was to give the Maori people a secure place in the new society the white man was acclimatising in New Zealand, a place not of inferiority, but of partnership and self-respect.