Early 19th century Māori literacy
With the arrival of British missionaries, Māori quickly learned to read and write in order to learn about Christianity and European technology. The Museum Library holds many early Māori language publications.
Māori language publications flourished in the 19th century
The Auckland Museum Library has an extensive collection of early Māori language materials, particularly printed scriptural publications, a range of Māori language newspapers and more than 300 manuscripts.
With the 19th-century arrival of British missionaries came the notions of Great Britain as the apex of hierarchical civilisation and Māori as 'noble savages'. For Māori in the 1830s, Christianity and books became fashionable symbols of European knowledge and technology and declined swiftly when seen as emblems of empty promises in the 1840s.
First mission school tries to teach literacy
Samuel Marsden of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) encouraged the 'civilise and Christianise' philosophy and directed his pioneer missionaries to emulate the model of manual industry and schooling for converting native people.
In 1816 Thomas Kendall of the Church Missionary Society established the first mission school for native children at Rangihoua under the patronage of Ruatara of Te Hikutu and Hongi Hika of Ngai Tawake. This early introduction to reading, writing and Christianity was unsuccessful.
Kendall had an elementary primer, A korao no New Zealand, or The New Zealander's first book, printed in Sydney in 1815.
The Museum Library's copy is the only known copy left of the 200 printed.
Religious material is printed in New Zealand
By 1827, CMS missionaries under Henry Williams completed the Māori translation of the Gospel, and imported printed religious material from Australia. By 1830 the CMS had their first printing press at Kerikeri.
The publication Ko te katekihama III, a translation of the Church Catechism from the Book of Common Prayer, heralded the mass printing of thousands of pages of religious material. The Wesleyan Mission first printed material in 1836 at Hokianga and the Catholics at Kororareka in 1839.
Māori teach Māori to read and write
Māori appeared to acquire scriptural literacy easily within their villages. Bishop Pompallier believed that Māori could read within three months "as they would persevere endlessly with slates in hand". Māori eagerly taught other Māori, helping to spread the novelty of literacy and the Gospel.
Learning through reading seen as the source of power
Iwi came to trust their missionaries; the power of the spoken word was transferred to that of the written word. Māori society became skilled at acquiring knowledge in the European manner so that their tribe could deal with Europeans and their technology. The lack of access to secular literature had ominous political implications, as Māori assumed that literacy and the Bible were essential to access God and that religious reverence was the source of European power.
Tribal histories documented for land courts
The establishment of British law and its bureaucracy of jurisdiction, regulations and records after 1840 transferred the political control of secular affairs from Māori collectives to the courts. This revolution ensured the easy transfer of land title from Māori to European. Whakapapa, waiata, whaikorero and tribal histories were documented for use in the Native Land Courts.
The first newspaper produced entirely by Māori
Māori language newspapers emerged as a political forum between the colonial state and Māori, to inform Māori about legislation, land sales and British social customs. The first Māori language newspaper produced entirely by Māori is Te Hokioi o Nui-Tireni, e rere atuna in 1862; the press was a gift from Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.
Cite this article
Early 19th century Māori literacy. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 May 2015. Updated: 2 December 2019.