Exercises in New Zealand’s Demography and Economic History

This is an earlier version of a paper published in New Zealand Population Review, which was a festschrift to D. Ian Pool (Vol 7, 2011 p.178-182)


In the course of writing Not in Narrow Seas: New Zealand History from an Economic Perspective I was found myself not only reporting demographic history, but using demography as a lens to investigate some economic questions. After the introduction there are two extracts from the yet-to-be published (indeed yet-to-be completed) text – modified for presentational purposes. here The lens-maker is of course, Ian Pool (and his students and colleagues), who has also commented on earlier versions of the text. [1]

Economic development – and therefore economic history – has been intimately tied up with demography, at least since Thomas Malthus, a great economic thinker best known for combining the law of diminishing returns with the less diminishing forces of procreation to conclude that humankind was in a poverty trap, because any increase in production would be absorbed by population growth.

Such is the clarity of his analysis we can identify precisely why his prediction has not come about. Agricultural productivity has increased markedly, couples have shown more restraint (as he might have said), and additional productive lands were opened up in the Americas, Australia and South African. While economists have been cautious of stagnationist predictions as a result of such a fine economist getting his predictions wrong, those who expect doom from ‘peak oil’ are essentially using a Malthusian framework. Even closer is the fear of a water crisis as aquifers are run down and rivers drained and polluted. In some ways salt-free water is even more important than land for food production; there is plenty of land in the Sahara desert.

Economists working in the fields of contemporary economic development have been very aware of population pressures. Fertility control has been a constant theme, although perhaps they have yet to turn their minds sufficiently to the consequential population imbalances which can follow some decades later – already a serious issue in China and in many rich countries.

Population change is also a serious issue in economic history. The Malthusian analysis is never far way from consideration of the path of the long established societies. The more recently settled ones require a different approach because they commence with a surplus of land (and other resources) relative to population.

Pre-Contact Demography (From Chapter 3)

The Polynesian settlement of New Zealand in the thirteen century makes Aotearoa a recently settled area. Unfortunately there is no documentary evidence about Maori life until the arrival of Cook and Tupaia in 1769. As best we understand it, proto-Maori morphed into what may be called the ‘classical’ Maori without any sharp technological or external changes. Technological change was not rapid; the likelihood is that it took generations for cultivating kumera to percolate down to the southern kumera line; long ocean voyaging seemed to have ceased for some reason – perhaps a climate change – from early in the fourteenth century, and Tasman aside, we know of no visitors that connected to them for 450 years until the arrival of Cook and Tupaia.

The population path of early New Zealand is fraught with difficulties. We are not sure how many Pacific Islanders arrived. An estimated base on the DNA evidence is 70 to 100 females. The population in Cook’s time is also uncertain; he estimated 100,000.

Suppose that there were 85 women in 1269 plus 85 men. Probably there were few children but we need to add in a ‘shadow’ number, of, say, 85, assuming a child to women ratio of 100%. (See below.) That is an equivalent population of 255. If it grew at 1.2 percent p.a. for the next 500 years, there would have been around 100,000 in 1769.

That rate would appear to be a very high population growth rate in Pool’s judgement; he says that a ‘rate of 0.5 percent would be a rather rapid growth figure for antiquity, and even for much of history’.[2] Perhaps we could allow a slightly higher rate because there was more than adequate food. But double Pool’s conjecture seems unlikely.

Additionally it is possible that the fifteenth century tsunami(s), which Bruce McFadgen has identified, destroyed as much as half the population; the oral tradition suggests at least one occurred during daylight hours when those who worked on the shores – most women and children – would have been relatively vulnerable.[3] If so we need double the number of canoes which first arrived or raise the fertility rate fractionally.

I am loathe to keep increasing the number of canoes. As I have argued elsewhere in my book, the more there were, the more likely that one would have brought breeding pigs. I am inclined to the view that Cook may have overestimated the late eighteenth century population, but that suggests a lower rate population decline through to 1840 than Pool thinks.[4]

We are left with the uneasy conclusion that the available data is not entirely consistent; hopefully the future will find a resolution.

The population story is important for an economist, because at some stage the Maori population would have grown to the point where available resources were fully utilised, as predicted by Malthus. But what was the limit and was it reached?

Pool reports that the Maori population density was low at the time of European arrival compared to other Polynesian Island groups.[5] Even if the numerator is arable land, the New Zealand figure is a sixth of the next lowest (Easter Island and the Marquesas). It could be argued that New Zealand did not have the crops to make full use of its arable land, but even so, one might conclude that the Maori population was not near its Malthusian limit in the late eighteenth century. (There is no evidence of a protein shortage then.)

It is sometimes argued that the increasing number of pa (fortified villages) demonstrates a response to rising to population pressures. The first sites begin to appear shortly after the tsunami (although the serious building program seems to be in the seventeenth century). Are the two events connected? McFadgen thinks so, but it is not obvious.

But was the rise of the pa driven by population pressures? Given our fragmentary understanding of the population dynamics of the times, this is but a conjecture. An alternative is that the capital base had reached the stage where it had to be protected. Or perhaps, with increasing affluence and with opportunities for discovery exhausted, adventuring now meant raids on other communities. [6] But these are but conjectures too.

Nineteenth Century Maori (Chapter 13)

From the middle of the nineteenth century, regular census enumerations provide estimates on the Maori population, although there was almost certainly an undercount in the early ones. Demographers may grumble about their data on the nineteenth-century Maori population, but there is hardly any economic data across all Maori before the 1951 census. (Income questions were not asked even of non-Maori until 1926.)

Throughout the nineteenth century Maori faced a rising European population. It had passed the Maori numbers in 1858, was five times as great at the end of the wars in 1872, and seventeen times as great near the Maori population nadir in 1896.[7] (These are national totals – there remained regions where Maori made up a significant proportion of the population.)

There were even those who saw eventual extinction of the ‘Maori race’. Infamously, Isaac Featherston, a doctor before he became a politician and land dealer, said in parliament in 1856 (before the main wars) ‘[t]he Maoris are dying out, and nothing can save them. Our plain duty, as good compassionate colonists, is to smooth down their dying pillow. Then history will have nothing to reproach us with.’[8] (In fact Maori have easily outlived him.) After the wars, in 1881, another doctor, Alfred K. Newman, who also took up commercial pursuits, entitled an address ‘A Study in the Causes Leading to the Extinction of the Maori’.[9] It is a reminder of the standard warning to economists that they should not make predictions, especially about the future.

The decline of the Maori population was slower after 1874 than it was before 1858.[10]  Pool uses the child-woman ratio as a measure of the demographic health of iwi.[11] The ratio reflects fertility rates and morbidity, the likelihood that those born would reach adulthood, and that the adults would survive. It is not a familiar statistic but a sense of its magnitude can be gained from the 2006 Census, which reported – when the fertility rate was near replacement – the New Zealand ratio was about 85 percent – that is, there were 85 children under the age of 15 for every 100 women aged 15 to 49. [12] Given the higher child mortality, a higher C-W ratio would be necessary for the Maori fertility to be at the replacement level.

Pool estimates that the child-woman ratio for Maori was 70 percent in 1844, 87 percent in 1857/58, and 116 percent in 1874. The growth broadly flattens out to 120 in 1891, and then the ratio begins to climb again to over 150 percent in 1921. The stagnation period can be largely attributed to measles and whooping cough epidemics which killed more children. Some commentators had the insensitivity to report of the 1875 epidemics that they were ‘mild’ because few Maori ‘succumbed’ to the disease ‘except for children’.[13]

There was considerable regional variation. When in 1874 the average child to woman ratio was 116 percent, it was a healthy 154 in Northland and a struggling 81 percent in the Whanganui-Rangitikei region.[14] The regional patterns are complicated (especially if one is cautious – as Pool is – because of measurement error). On the whole, all regions experienced gains in the ratio over the second half of the nineteenth century, although some dropped in the period before 1874, especially in the Thames-Coromandel and the Waikato-King Country, recovering by the end of the century.

Since the two just-mentioned regions were central to the New Zealand Wars, it is tempting to use the coincidence to explain their demographic decline. Yet it is unlikely the war directly caused the low ratio, since that would involve the British troops killing Maori children in greater numbers than their mothers. Perhaps it could be explained by starvation after the war and less hygienic living as they retreated to less healthy pa, causing greater mortality among children than adults, and also lower fertility of the women (although it is usual to assume fertility rises with warfare). But there were iwi which did not suffer confiscation but also had a low ratio.

Pool focuses on the ‘immunological virginity’ of the pre-European Maori populations, with high death rates as new diseases were introduced, and some diseases lowering fertility – he mentions particularly gonorrhea – and increasing child mortality.[15] In which case iwi which lived where the European had arrived earlier, suffered their population decline earlier, recovered from the disease onslaught earlier, and so later ended up with the above average ratios. Thus in 1857 the Northland and Auckland regions’ ratios were among the lowest, although they showed a rapid recovery in the following 17 years. The deceleration (slowing down of the decline) was probably due to better resistance to disease, in part because the more vulnerable had died off, in part because of better hygiene and medical care (including vaccination against smallpox).

Thus the-after-the-war explanation of the Maori poverty is not particularly supported by the demographics, and while the popular ‘dying pillow’ thesis correctly observed the declining population, it did not pick the underlying recovery, which was under way decades before the nadir of the early 1890s.

In 1956 Keith Sorrenson proposed that the population decline was explained better by the loss of land per se, irrespective of the cause of the loss, rather than just the land that was confiscated.[16] Maori land had been alienated from the arrival of the settlers, as confirmed (but only limited) by the Spain Commission. The entire South Island, excluding Nelson, had been bought by the Government by 1860 (Stewart Island in 1863), although the reserves promised to Maori were not set aside for them. However most of North Island land was still Maori in 1860, the main exceptions being around the European settlements, most of the Wairarapa, much of Hawkes Bay and about half of Northland.[17] The confiscated lands were only a part of an alienation which accelerated in the 1860s.

In 1840 the entirety of New Zealand – all 66.4 million acres – was possessed by Maori (although some Europeans had some property rights). By 1870 the Maori owned just over a quarter (27.6 percent ); it was a sixth (16.6 percent) at the population nadir in 1891, and kept falling, to 7.1 percent in 1920.

Table 13.1: Land Holdings




European Maori %of Total Maori %of Total Acres per Maori Acres per European


























































Sources: Population : SNZ Long Term Data Series (Maori population interpolated in non-census years, where not available). Land: Brooking (1996) Lands for the people?: the Highland clearances and the colonisation of New Zealand : a biography of John McKenzie p.136

Pool sets out a framework to explain the demographic changes in the Maori population.[18] It begins with growth of the Pakeha population and has four channels to high mortality

  • the introduction of pathogens
  • court hearings which increased exposure to pathogens [19]
  • land alienation which led to a decline in Maori food production and malnutrition
  • social disorganisation from land purchases and confiscation.

Pool certainly shows there is an association between land alienation and low child-to-woman ratios. However, as he regularly argues, correlation is not causation; the land alienation would have brought in the European population which spread the pathogens.

Pool gives no indication of the importance of each channel, although the weight of his text is towards the pathogen channels. At best it might be interpreted that the land alienation and the concomitant social disorganisation accelerated the decline, as well as possibly delaying the population recovery.

We should be sceptical that there was necessarily lower food production following the land alienation; if there was malnutrition it may have been part result of the depletion of sea, estuarine and shore resources and the soils from environmental degradation.[20]

There is another problem with the claim that land alienation was seriously damaging. Certainly Maori lost land, but they retained a lot. In 1870 there was around 371 acres per Maori, less than the 830 acres each had in 1840, but almost double the settler share of 194 acres per head.(A small holding, sufficient for a family of four, might be about 40 acres.) Per capita land holdings continued to fall as more land was alienated and as, after 1896, the Maori population grew. At the population nadir there were 249 acres a Maori, almost three times the 89 acres a settler. By 1930 it was down to 54 acres per Maori. These are but averages so there would have been some who were very much worse off for land, and some who were better off.

(It should also be emphasised that these calculations in no way justify the illegality or quasi-illegality of the way that much of the land was alienated. Nor should we forget that spiritual and ancestral links with particular parts of the land were torn asunder. But if this impacted on the population it is but the demoralisation thesis in another guise – as may be the thesis that social disorganisation directly led to mortality.)

It could be argued that the settlers had the better land, although some of their quota included ‘waste lands’ like the Southern Alps. On the other hand, by 1870 almost all the valuable urban land was in settler hands. Much of the farm land Maori were left with is highly productive today, but only after much developmental labour and capital. More damaging to Maori aspirations was the fact that the transport network which opened the land was often not there for theirs in the nineteenth century and was even slow to arrive in the twentieth.

The difficulty with the land alienation hypothesis on Maori mortality is that while land was certainly alienated – and too often unjustly – it does not readily fit the regional and timing patterns. In the end, one is left with the only rigorous explanation of the arrival of pathogens from an alien population. The direct impact of land loss seems to have been more on the Maori standard of living and developmental path, than on the population.


Even given the uncertainties and lack of solid information, demography has helped us think more systematically about the economics of pre-contact and late nineteenth century Maori.

There are perhaps two other conclusions to be drawn.

The first is that Malthus would have been fascinated by the pre-contact Maori story. It did not end in stagnation, despite the assumptions of his model applying almost exactly. That was because it was taking more than 500 years to get there. When we present the model we usually compare the disequilibrium and equilibrium states, but we do not usually discuss how long it takes to get from one of the other. There is a demographic limit on the speed of transition. Of course Malthus was writing about economies which were close to their stagnationist equilibria, but it is well to observe that it has not always been like that.

Second, while we should respect that Sorrenson was progressing an analysis by identifying a correlation between land loss and mortality which applied irrespective of the form of alienation. Pool offered a mechanism to explain the underlying causal process …

… as Ian has done in so many other areas of demography and which extend into economics and history.


[1]The central source for this paper and in the topic rea generally is D. I. Pool (1991) Te Iwi Maori: a New Zealand population, past, present & projected.

[2] Pool op. cit. p.37.

[3]  B. McFadgen (2007) Hostile Shores p.262.

[4]  Pool op. cit. p. 56.

[5]  Pool op. cit. p. 41

[6]  The book argues that pre-contact warfare may have been a leisure activity, not unlike rugby.

[7] The numbers used here exclude ‘half castes living as Europeans’. In 1891 they would have added about 5 percent of the Maori population, The totals include a similar number of ‘half castes living as Maori’.

[8] B. J. Foster (1966) ‘Dr Isaac Earl Featherston’ The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

[9]  Trans. Proc. New Zealand Inst., v.14, p.58-77.

[10]  Phil Briggs (2003) Looking at the Numbers : a View of New Zealand’s Economic History has a lower decline rate after 1858, but Pool (1991) op. cit. p.76. does not have the lowering until 1875 (p.76) Neither implies that the wars accelerated the Maori decline outside the war period. (The difference between the two may be that the latter allows for the deaths as a direct consequence of the wars.)

[11]  Pool op. cit., chapter 4.

[12]  The upper age being chosen to reflect the shorter Maori life span in the nineteenth century.

[13]  Pool op. cit., p.67.

[14]  Pool op. cit., p.245.

[15]  Elsewhere I had commented that the archaeological records which show similar longevity in the sixteenth century for Maori and more affluent Europeans might suggest they had similar standards of living. Ian has reminded me that Maori, being an isolated population, were not subject to the same diseases; they would be with the arrival of the European, and their longevity suffered accordingly. In such circumstances it is difficult to compare the material standards of living.

[16] M. P. K. Sorrenson (1956) ‘Land Purchase Methods and the Effect on Maori Population, 1865-1901’, J. Polynesian Society, v.65, 3, p.183-199.

[17]  H Miller (1966) Race Conflict in New Zealand, p. 37.

[18} Pool op. cit., p.67.

[19] An economist might want to extend this to all commercial interactions.

[20}  Depletion of the forests would have reduced the available edible bird life.