Anne Salmond: Violent Maori fathers only a recent phenomenon


I agree with Alan Duff when he says, “Real men don’t beat up kids, or wives, or anyone else. Real men love.” I know that, as a child, he experienced domestic violence. I respect him as a writer and for his fantastic work with Books for Homes. I admire the passion with which he tackles the burning issue of child abuse among Maori and violence against women.

At the same time, when he suggests this hateful violence is a legacy of a “simple” pre-European Maori culture, with its “screaming, eye-popping haka”, he is wrong. In saying that, I realise I run the risk of being flagellated as a bleeding-heart liberal, or worse, by some of the Herald’s readers.

** cough **

Rather than appealing to scholarly authority, then, let’s turn to the accounts written by European men who visited New Zealand in the very early days and saw with their own eyes how Maori family life was conducted.

We can begin with the traveller John Savage, who wrote in 1807, “The children here appear to be treated with a great degree of parental affection. They are robust, lively, and possess, in general, pleasing countenances.”

Samuel Marsden, the leading missionary who visited New Zealand for the first time in 1814 (and could never be accused of possessing a bleeding heart), noted: “I saw no quarrelling while I was there. They are kind to their women and children. I never observed either with a mark of violence upon them, nor did I ever see a child struck.”

In 1824, Richard Cruise remarked: “In the manner of rearing children, and in the remarkable tenderness and solicitous care bestowed upon them by the parents, no partiality on account of sex was in any instance observed. The infant is no sooner weaned than a considerable part of its care devolves upon the father: it is taught to twine its arms round his neck, and in this posture it remains the whole day, asleep or awake.”

As the artist Augustus Earle wrote in 1832: “They are kind and hospitable to strangers, and are excessively fond of their children. On a journey, it is more usual to see the father carrying his infant than the mother; and all the little offices of a nurse are performed by him with the tenderest care and good humour.”

This was observed by men coming from an extremely patriarchal and class-based society.  Where children were seen and not heard.  Did they have the same point of view of tribal life the way we do now?  Would the fact they saw Maori men interacting with children negate the possibility of their violence towards children?

At the same time in Britain, it must be noted, the violent chastisement of women and children was commonplace, in the law and in everyday life. Under the doctrine of “coverture”, women and children were legally the property of their husbands and fathers, who were entitled to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline.

This accounts for the air of amazement, and sometimes disapproval, with which European men in the early 19th century described the lenient way in which Maori domestic life was conducted.

In order to tackle domestic violence in 21st century New Zealand, it’s vital to identify accurately the most likely causes for our shameful record of abusing women and children. Unfortunately, the Once Were Warriors storyline which indicates that Maori domestic violence is an ancestral legacy is part of the problem, not the solution.

It is wrong in fact, and it props up stereotypes that do a great deal of damage to Maori people and to our society.

Just because the British were amazed at a much more integrated and classless tribal society does not lead us to conclude these fathers were any less violent or ruthless to their children.

Children like Moko (and maybe Alan Duff, as well) are the victims in all of this. Rather than condemning tikanga, it might be wiser to draw upon ancestral Maori ways of conducting family life for inspiration and healing. As Samuel Marsden wrote in 1820, “There can be no finer children than those of the New Zealanders in any part of the world. Their parents are very indulgent, and they appear always happy and playful and very active.”

This is as true today as it was then in many Maori families. Instead of blaming Maori ethnicity or culture for New Zealand’s terrible record of domestic abuse, we need to look to poverty, alcohol, drugs, gang culture, prisons and other role models for brutal behaviour – in sport for instance – for the root causes of domestic violence in New Zealand, and tackle these at the source.

Or, we could just tell Maori parents not to torture, beat the shit out of, or murder their kids.

Or is that too subtle?


– Dame Anne Salmond is Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland, NZ Herald

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.

As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.