Did Māori benefit from colonisation?

Today you can be pilloried as a heretic for suggesting that there were any benefits of colonisation, let alone whether the benefits may have been greater than the downside for Māori. This is despite the fact that there has been almost zero balanced analysis of what the benefits and detriments were. We have slogans rather than analysis.

There tends to be two polar opposing camps when it comes to colonisation. The first camp features exclusively on the (many and significant) detriments such as loss of lands, languages, status etc but totally ignores the benefits such as an end to slavery, the rule of law, property rights, democratic government etc.

At the other end you have a camp that regards Māori in 1840 as a tribal civilianization that was thousands of years behind the rest of the world, and that they should be grateful to the British for taking over the country as it brought them into the 19th century. That camp ignores that even without colonisation the Māori people today would of course be vastly different to what they were in 1840 as communication and trading could occur without colonisation.

So the first camp judge colonisation on the basis of whether Māori today are worse off than Europeans in New Zealand. But that is not the comparison that one should look at, to answer whether colonisation’s harmful effects were less than or greater than its benefits.

The second camp judge colonisation on the basis of whether Māori today are better off than they were in 1840. And that is equally flawed as it ignores universal progress.

The correct comparison is are Māori today better off than they would have been if the Treaty of Waitangi had never been signed and New Zealand had not become a British colony.

Now of course there is no way to answer that question without Uatu the Watcher or the ability to travel to an alternate dimension where history played out differently. But what we can do is look for a proxy. NZ is a Pacific country and Māori settled from the Pacific. Is there another Pacific country that could be a reasonable proxy for how things may have turned out without the Treaty of Waitangi and colonisation?

Well as it happens, there is. Tonga.

Tonga is very proud of the fact it has never been colonised. It was a British protected territory but it was never colonised and the indigenous population makes up the vast majority of the population and controls the Government.

Now of course Tonga is not a perfect proxy for a non colonised New Zealand. It has a much smaller land mass which could be seen to make economic prosperity harder (however look at Singapore and Zimbabwe to consider how little natural resources can matter). You can also argue that Tonga was more peaceful than New Zealand was before 1840, as they had a relatively strong central monarchy and not the same degree of intra-tribal slaughter as in New Zealand. So you can argue in either direction that how Tonga has turned out is a bit worse or a bit better than how New Zealand would have.

Any comparison is obviously imperfect. But perfect is the enemy of good. What I have long been interested in, is whether comparing the outcomes for NZ Maori today to Tongans in Tonga, we can illuminate in which areas colonisation has been clearly detrimental and in which areas it has been beneficial. Anyone who claims there were not benefits is wrong, just as anyone who claims no detriments is wrong.

So I have spent many hours going through the data for Tonga and for Maori in New Zealand, to see how they compare.

First what are the populations, before we look into key areas of economy, education, health and crime.


In 1840 there were around 80,000 Maori living in New Zealand. There does not appear to be a record of Tonga’s population then but in 1891 it was 19,196.

Today there are around 850,000 Maori living in New Zealand and 105,000 Tongans living in Tonga. Population growth has not been static with periods of declines and increases. But of interest both Maori and Tongans have had a 1.32% annual increase.

Incomes and Jobs

The average income from employment in Tonga is 1,539 Tongan Pa’anga which annualised is 18,468 TP. This is equivalent to NZ$12,618.

The latest income data from Stats NZ has the average weekly income from employment in NZ for Māori as $1,084. This is $56,369 annualised which is five times the average income in Tonga.

There are also far more Māori in the Labour Force than Tongans in Tonga. In Tonga only 47% of the working age population are in work or looking for work. In New Zealand 70% of Māori are in the labour force. However Maori unemployment is at 6.9% compared to 3.1% in Tonga. So the percentage of the working age population in actual employment is 45.3% in Tonga and 65.2% for Māori in New Zealand.

So Maori in New Zealand are much more likely to be in employment and those in employment on average earn five times as much as Tongans in Tonga.


The infant mortality rate for Māori is 4.9 per 1,000 births and for Tongans (in Tonga) it is 11.6 per 1,000 births.

In terms of obesity, 60% of Tongans are obese and 90% are overweight. With NZ Māori, around 51% are obese and 80% overweight.

The current smoking rate for adult Maori is 25.7%. The smoking rate in Tonga is 31%

Comparing alcohol abuse is more difficult, but we have some data. In NZ the average person consumed 10.7 litres of pure alcohol. The figure for NZ Maori will be higher than that – estimate 12 litres or so. 40% of Maori are classified as hazardous drinkers.

In Tonga the average alcohol consumption is 1.6 litres per person so less than 20% of the level of NZ Maori. This has profound implications for negative statistics for Maori in terms of health, domestic violence and other criminal offending.

In terms of suicides, the rate per 100,000 is just 4 in Tonga and 21 for NZ Maori.

Only 17% of adult Tongans smoke. This is around half the 31% of Maori who are smokers. This also has profound implications for negative statistics for Maori in terms of health and life expectancy.

Life expectancy for Maori is 75 years from birth, while in Tonga it is 71 years from birth. So Maori on average live four years longer. Presumably the negative impacts of alcohol and smoking are outweighed by a more developed healthcare system.


The literacy rate in Tonga is 99.4% and in New Zealand 99%, so no big difference. Note this is basic literacy, not meeting a qualification standard.

In terms of post-secondary education, 17% of Tongans have completed tertiary study compared to 49% of Maori.


The incarceration rate of Tongans is 0.17%. The NZ Maori incarceration rate is 0.46%.

The murder rate in Tonga is 0.001% (1 per 100,000). For Maori is is around 2.7 per 100,000.

The road fatality rate is 16 per 100,000 people in Tonga and 17.6 per 100,000 for NZ Maori (100 per 100,000 vehicles)


In terms of incomes and jobs, I think it is very very clear colonisation has benefited Māori in NZ. They earn five times more than Tongans in Tonga, and are far more likely to be in employment. The only negative is slightly higher unemployment for those wanting to work.

Even without data, this is a logical conclusion. New Zealand has a first world or developed economy. This did not happen by accident. There is no reason to think that without colonisation, the New Zealand economy would be akin to France or Sweden per capita, instead of other Pacific countries like Tonga.

In terms of health, it is more mixed, but mainly negative for Māori. NZ Māori have alcohol abuse rates massively higher than Tonga, and smoking rate significantly higher. Yes life expectancy is still longer, but the impact on quality of life is huge. If New Zealand had not been colonised, Māori would arguably have far fewer health problems than they do today.

In terms of education, Māori have done better at tertiary level. The literacy rates are similar, but many more Maori do post-secondary education than Tongans in Tonga.

In terms of crime, the impact of colonisation has arguably been worst. Māori in New Zealand are around three times more likely to be in prison and to be victims of violence and homicides than Tongans in Tonga. They are more likely to be offending at a young age, and the impacts of crime are often generational for children of those in crime, end up also in crime.

I don’t think one can reach an overall conclusion about whether the benefits of colonisation outweigh the detriments, as it depends on what you value the most. Earning five times as much in wages would count for a lot to many, but not having so many people in prison and victims of crime would also count for a lot.

The key rationale of this post is to try and demonstrate that there have been both benefits and detriments, and to rejects extremists who claim it has been all good or all bad. And also to educate media that inequality is not the same thing as judging the impacts of colonisation.

Comments (94)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment