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Introduction to The Maori As He Was

Introduction to The Maori As He Was


Elsdon Best was New Zealand’s earliest and one of its most prolific ethnographers. He was born in Tawa Flat, Wellington, New Zealand on 30 June 1856 and, apart from three years spent in the United States as a young man, he lived in New Zealand until his death on 9 September 1931. His The Maori As He Was: A Brief Account of Life as it Was in Pre-European Days (1924) was long established as the standard introductory survey of Māori culture and exerted significant influence over a wide range of discourses surrounding Māori culture and New Zealand society

A Background to The Maori As He Was

Best lived with his family in Wellington until the age of eighteen, but moved away after tiring of his clerical job in the Registrar General’s Office. Relocating to Poverty Bay, he worked as a farm labourer for three years before being made unemployed led him to enlist with the Armed Constabulary in Taranaki. While in uniform he participated in the 1881 raid on the Māori pacifist community of Parihaka; paradoxically, he was at the same time being encouraged by prominent Taranaki settlers such as Percy Smith and Edward Tregear to pursue the study of Māori culture.

Best left for a working holiday in the United States in 1883 and returned three years later to operate a sawmill with his brother. His life began to take a more academic turn with the establishment of the Polynesian Society in 1892, of which Best was a founding member. Enthusiastic about the society’s goals, he began to interview Māori tribal elders from around the Wellington region as part of its effort to study and record Polynesian history and culture. In 1895, Best was appointed as a mediator to assist the Department of Lands and Survey in making a road through the Urewera district, a project opposed by the local Tuhoe tribe. Also employed to record aspects of tribal life, Best thus became the nation’s first professional ethnographer.

Best married Mary Adelaide Wylie on 2 December 1903 and, working as a Māori health inspector from 1904, lived with her in the Ureweras until 1910.  During that time, he published profusely in a range of journals and newspapers and wrote the extensive Tuhoe: Children of the Mist (1925). Returning to Wellington, Best was employed by the Dominion Museum, under whose auspices he published a wide-ranging series of Monographs and Bulletins on aspects of Māori culture. His biographer, E.W.G. Craig, describes the circumstances under which The Maori As He Was was written and published:

The Maori was published in 1924 and was hailed everywhere as the most authoritative work on the race…. This major work was followed immediately by The Maori As He Was in response to demand for a shorter description of Maori life and customs. The smaller book was to have been displayed at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924 but the authorities decided it would have limited appeal overseas. Instead 500 copies were offered for sale during the visit of the American Fleet to Wellington in the following year. They sold readily and the book is still sought by tourists wanting information on the Māori.


Some Comments on The Maori As He Was

The Maori As He Was is an attempt to provide an account of Māori culture and accordingly it is divided into chapters that detail Māori history, mythology and folklore, religious ideas, social uses and so on. Best describes in his “Introduction” the audience he envisaged for such a book:

[T]he traveller and tourist, who wishes to gain some slight knowledge of the Maori and to preserve a memento of his visit, and others who wish to study native customs, beliefs, and peculiarities in a more thorough manner. (xiii)

The comment reflects the dual nature of Best’s representational intentions: not only to present Māori culture and make it comprehensible to a European audience, but also to ensure that the image isolated within the text is a ‘pure’ one of that culture prior to colonisation.  Māori culture is presented by Best as a fascinating example of arrested human development that illuminates the pre-modern origins of his readers.

The portrayal of Māori culture in The Maori As He Was is coloured by admiration filtered through a sense of settler racial superiority. Thus,

Among existing races of the barbaric plane of culture we have probably no more interesting people to study than the Maori of New Zealand. That fact is owing to their achievements and concepts in the past. (xiii)

Settlers may take nationalistic in this “barbaric” culture because of its worldwide appeal. Nevertheless, because its great achievements are anchored “in the past”, the corollary is that present Māori lack the potential for similar greatness. This lack is, to Best’s mind, the inevitable result of the colonial encounter:

As neolithic navigators the Polynesians had no compeers. They traversed and explored a vast oceanic region; they wandered half a world away from their original homeland, and here, at the edge of the world, they abide, conservative and disdainful as of yore, to await the end. (31)

The Darwinian logic behind this view of Māori culture, which is by definition “neolithic”, is that change or adaptation will inevitably destroy it. As a further consequence of this logic, settler grief over this fate is implicitly discounted as irrational, although the detachment with which Māori await it may be admired.

The image of a stoic, fatalistic culture — “conservative and disdainful as of yore … await[ing] the end” — points to the fact that The Maori As He Was selects, structures and interprets its ethnographic data to convey and conform to a specific image of contemporary Māori. For a start, they lack the higher mental and physical powers necessary for participation within the new capitalist economy:

[I]n conditions of steady, continuous work, demanding strength, endurance and steady application, the Maori is not equal to the European settler. The discipline that produces these qualities is the product of the more advanced civilizations, and it is not a feature of the lower planes of civilization. (6)

Furthermore, as members of the “lower planes of civilization” Māori are fundamentally irrational. Debilitated by superstitiousness, they are fundamentally unreliable members of society: “It may be said that the Maori mind is essentially practical until the superstitious side of his character is affected, and then anything may happen.” (58) These constraints upon contemporary Māori identity, supported by Best’s authoritative observations, endorse the settler rhetoric of that period. European racial superiority is affirmed, and Māori contestation of the Pakeha right to belong is forestalled. However, this portrait is also riven by contradiction. On the one hand, “there is a lack of words to denote abstract qualities and concepts, as is common with all barbaric folk” (13); on the other, “The native concept of a Supreme Being, and their conception of the soul in nature … point to very remarkable powers of abstraction.” (33) Such inconsistencies highlight Best’s failure (which is also shared by wider Pakeha society) to fully constrain Māori identity to his own terms.

The Maori As He Was is concluded with an “Envoi” that justifies the project by envisaging the inevitable extinction of Māori culture:

[T]he pure-blooded race will pass away, and the European strain will then become stronger with advancing time. In days that lie before we shall know the Maori only according to what we now put on record concerning him, and the place-names he will leave behind him…. The Maori has fulfilled the task allotted to him in the scheme of human development; he now steps aside from the old, old path he has trodden for so many centuries. (269)

Yet at the same time as Best was writing Māori culture out of the future of the nation, his work was being endorsed and appropriated by such prominent Māori leaders as Apirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck). His biographer, writing in the 1960s, wrote this endorsement into a wider narrative of New Zealand racial harmony:

By rescuing from oblivion those sacred traditions Best did more than any of the fine workers in this field to restore Maori confidence and establish firm foundations for rehabilitation.


The perspective afforded by forty further years casts The Maori As He Was in a more problematic light. Nevertheless, it is patently unfair to castigate Best simply for being a product of his times; at the same time, to ignore its appropriation by Māori is to deny them agency as effectively as the text does. Yet of what value is it now, aside from what it reveals about Pakeha attitudes towards Māori during the 1920s? Michael Reilly attempts to negotiate this issue with regard to another of Best’s works:

While Tuhoe as a historical text betrays the marks of Best’s authorial interventions it also retains the tohu (signs) of its Tuhoe progenitors; their interpretations of the past still ring through Best’s readings and misreadings. The existence and maintenance of their voices justifies the continued use of such texts.


Applying Reilly’s argument to The Maori As He Was allows the continued acknowledgment of its place in the New Zealand literary archive. However, the new eyes with which it must be read might find one of the entries in Best’s “List of Authors Quoted” particularly suggestive: “Manihera Waititi: One of the innumerable band of natives who, past years, provided the bulk of the matter of this work.” (271)


Craig, E.W.G.Man of the Mist: A Biography of Elsdon Best. Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1964.

Reilly, Michael. “An Ambiguous Past: Representing Maori History”. In The New Zealand Journal of History, 29(1), April 1995, 19–39.

Sissons, Jeffrey. “Best, Elsdon (1856–1931)”. In The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume II, 1870–1900. Ed. W.H. Oliver. Wellington: Allen & Unwin and Department of Internal Affairs, 1990, pp. 39–40.

A rose-tinted but detailed view of Best’s life and a bibliography of his publications can be found in Craig’s Man of the Mist; a more sceptical view of Best and his co-founders of the Polynesian Society is provided by Peter Gibbons’ “Non-Fiction”. In The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English. Ed. Terry Sturm. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2 ed., 1998, pp. 31–118.

Selected Links

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Extensive biographical essay on Best by New Zealand historian Jeffrey Sissons. Hosted by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.



Searchable database of pictures from the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington containing several portraits and photos of Best at work. Hosted by the National Library of New Zealand.



Online ebooks of Best’s first six “Dominion Museum Monographs” and “Dominion Museum Bulletins”:

  • “Some Aspects of Maori Myth and Religion”
  • “Spiritual and Mental Concepts of the Maori”
  • “Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori”
  • “The Maori Division of Time”
  • “Polynesian Voyagers: The Maori as a Deep-sea Navigator, Explorer, and Colonizer”
  • “The Maori School of Learning”

Hosted by The Knowledge Basket: New Zealand’s Research Archive.


Elsdon Best

Photograph and brief biography of Best and photograph of monument to Best at his birthplace of Tawa. Hosted by Tawalink.