Teaching Module

New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)


The impact of colonization on childhood experiences in New Zealand was diverse and enduring. Although there was never any formal apartheid system, biculturalism continues to be more commonly a characteristic of Maori (of indigenous ancestry) than Pakeha (non-Maori, generally of European descent). Until very recently most Pakeha children grew up with little knowledge of, or familiarity with, Maori language or custom.

Conversely, most of the children who identified as Maori had little option but to engage with the language, practices, and values of the colonial regime. Many of the urban-raised lost access to their own cultural heritage in the process. Only in the late 20th century, under the combined influences of a Maori cultural renaissance and debates over the nature of a post-colonial New Zealand identity, have Anglo-Saxon assumptions of an inherent cultural superiority been challenged.

Culture and circumstance, location, time period, and family support structures all shaped the nature of antipodean childhoods. Formal colonization began in 1840, when Great Britain declared sovereignty over the islands and their inhabitants. The involvement of some 500 tribal leaders in discussions over the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi that year reflected several decades of encounters. In the preceding half-century, coastal tribes had interacted with seamen, sealers, whalers, traders, or missionaries who introduced their language, food, material culture, values, and diseases. European men who had sexual relations with indigenous women also contributed their gene pool.

The children of these liaisons were normally brought up within their mother's community. Apart from the occasional trader or shore-based whaler who lived long-term with a local woman, European fathers were generally unknown to their progeny. Their offspring were not necessarily disadvantaged. Tribal identification, traced through whakapapa (family trees), incorporated the ancestry of both parents, providing indigenous children with an extensive network of relations, allegiances, and obligations. Few immigrant children grew up with comparable family support. Theirs had to be created over two or three generations of living here.

Traditional lifestyles had evolved over the seven or so centuries during which descendants of Eastern Polynesian voyagers adapted to New Zealand's temperate climate. The changes caused by European values, policies, and diseases were abrupt. By the end of the 1850s, the settler and indigenous populations were roughly equal, at some 59,000 and 56,000 respectively. A rapid influx of Europeans over the next two decades, largely in response to gold discoveries, public works schemes, and assisted immigration policies changed the demographic balance. At the same time, rapid land alienation in both islands and conflict in the North over land sales and sovereignty issues destroyed the economic independence and potential prosperity of many tribes.

Children of both cultures were affected by the upheavals of this era. Some measure of charitable or government aid was normally available to the "deserving"—Victorian distinctions between worthy and unworthy recipients of assistance were well-entrenched in colonial thinking. Maori communities adversely affected by the confiscation or sale of productive land were much less likely to receive assistance in the event of crop failure, poverty, or disease. Even the Native School system, established in 1867, required village communities to contribute land and a portion of the costs for each institution. State-funded secular elementary schools, open to all children between 7 and 13 years of age, with compulsory attendance enforced for both Maori and Pakeha at the turn of the century, concentrated on numeracy, literacy, and physical fitness. These schools also served as powerful agencies of socialization through which contemporary values of citizenship, imperialism, and loyalty to the British Crown were imparted.

Childhoods in New Zealand have long reflected the consequences of external as well as internal events. Lacking immunity against introduced infections, the indigenous population declined steadily, reaching its lowest number (42,000 out of a total New Zealand population of 743,000) in the mid-1890s. An eventual demise was widely predicted. Yet a gradual recovery occurred, despite a disproportionately high Maori death rate during the 1918 influenza epidemic. The children of both cultures lost relatives and friends in the carnage of World War I – and lived with those who returned physically or emotionally impaired.

Many youngsters also experienced economic hardship during the years of the Great Depression. State welfare, social security, and education policies of the late 1930s and following World War II sought to establish equal access to services for all children, although government agencies were initially slow to recognize, and respond to, the major population shift that was occurring, as young adults and Maori families moved en masse from rural to urban areas in search of better employment, lifestyles, and living conditions. A demand for unskilled labor also encouraged many Polynesian people to leave their Pacific Island homes for work opportunities in New Zealand.

Schools in the main cities, Auckland and Wellington especially, soon reflected the greater cultural diversity brought to urban communities by Maori and Pasifika families (Tongan, Samoan, Nuiean and Cook Islanders, for instance), a trend that would accelerate in the latter decades of the 20th century as Asian migrants became a significant minority group in the total population. While the insidious inequalities of colonialism are yet to be fully redressed, a more inclusive educational curriculum now provides New Zealand's children with a much richer understanding of its influence than was available to earlier generations of the colonial-born.

How to Cite This Source

"New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #93, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/93 (accessed August 10, 2021).