Risking lives for health: Apirana Ngata’s support for Maori participation in World War One


Apirana Ngata supported Maori participation in World War One despite the certainty of casualties.  Ngata contended that involvement in the war would generate benefits higher than costs to Maori.  This seemed counter-intuitive after a time when the Maori population had declined precipitously due to conflict and disease. However, Ngata recognised the high status Maori culture accorded to warriors and contended that participation in war would benefit Maori self-confidence and health.  From the 1960s on evidence has established strong relationships between rank status in social hierarchies and health.  The biochemical mechanisms and neurological pathways underlying this are increasingly understood.  This lends support to Ngata’s intuition that the psychological and associated health benefits to Maori of participation in World War One may well have exceeded the genetic loss from casualties.


… the Maori race…has declined largely because it gave up fighting.  … I have seen hapu after hapu and tribe after tribe declining in numbers because they could not fit themselves into a scheme of life where there was no fighting – fighting with their hands and bodies, not fighting with their minds….They pine away, they die, largely because there is no fighting.” 

Apirana Ngata NZPD 1916 Vol 175.

Apirana Ngata devoted his energies to Maori wellbeing at a time when the Maori population was low and culture and language were endangered.  Census estimates recorded a Maori population decline from 56,049 in 1857 to 39,854 in 1896.  Maori life expectancy was only 35 in 1905 (New Zealand Official Yearbook 1995).  When World War One broke out in 1914 many Maori were reluctant to participate because of grievances from the New Zealand Wars, while others wished to participate.  Pakeha and the Crown authorities had mixed views, ranging from reluctance to see “native” soldiers fighting against European ones to concern at declining Maori numbers.  Given this context, it seems extraordinary that Apirana Ngata supported Maori participation in the war, knowing an imperilled population would suffer losses in genetic and fertility rate terms.

This paper examines Ngata’s advocacy of Maori participation in World War One, beginning with the context:


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Maori faced social dislocation caused by conflict, disease, and threats to Maori culture, language and identity.  Maori leaders were divided on cultural identity, constitutional and property rights issues, and on how best to adopt and adapt to European technology and institutions.

While some Maori leaders such as Maui Pomare supported whole-hearted adoption of European ways, Apirana Ngata sought to preserve cultural identity while also adopting the best Europe had to offer.  Pomare supported individualisation of land titles while Ngata worked to lift tribal land productivity while retaining communal ownership.  Ngata tribalism to more Europeanised organisational forms, with Maori culture and language playing a unifying role, at least transitionally (see Walker 2001). 


Following on the outbreak of World War One, the Imperial Government initially banned ‘native’ races from fighting in a European war.  When Indian and African troops were sent to France this policy changed and Maori were permitted to do garrison duties to free up others for the front line, and were then sent into combat.  The Maori contingent, the Hokowhitu a Tu, left New Zealand in February 1915 for the Middle East and saw action at Gallipoli later that year.  Ngata composed a recruiting song, Te Ope Tuatahi, that alluded to and honoured tribes loyal to the Crown and therefore obliquely and unspokenly drew attention to absent tribes.

Against this backdrop Parliament in mid-1916 debated a Military Service Bill governing military conscription.  Ngata advocated its application to Maori and declared in Parliament:

 “…I say that the objection to the ablest of the male Maoris leaving New Zealand because their race is a declining race is sentimental.  I think it is going to be the very best thing for the Maori race that their ablest-bodied men are going into action.  That race has declined largely because it gave up fighting.  Among other things, I have made a study of the race to which I belong, and I have seen hapu after hapu and tribe after tribe declining in numbers because they could not fit themselves into a scheme of life where there was no fighting – fighting with their hands and bodies, not fighting with their minds.  Your civilisation requires fighting with brains; it requires special equipment for the battle of life.  It takes more than half a century for some of these warrior tribes to accommodate themselves to these new conditions.  They pine away, they die, largely because there is no fighting.” 


NZPD 1916 Vol 175.

Ngata went on to contend that Maori sought to enlist not because of patriotism but because of “the spirit of their fathers within them that moved them to go.”

He went on to argue:

“It is not going to hurt the race physically.  For a time the birth-rate will not be as much as it is.  I believe the race will be reinvigorated after the war.” 

Ngata was effectively arguing that Maori would gain more in psychological and health terms by fighting than they would lose through inevitable casualties.  He placed this argument in a bicultural, “nation-building” context, contending that:

“Many misunderstandings that exist at present between the two races will disappear.  Men who fought side by side must understand themselves very much better for that fact.”

He then linked this to Maori self-respect, arguing:


“ We could not maintain our self-respect and ask the Government of New Zealand during this war, which is being fought for the safety of the Empire everywhere, that we the Maoris should stay at home while the Pakehas went.  We would lose our self-respect.”

NZPD 1916 Vol 175.


Ngata characterised military service as part of the “price” Maori paid for full British citizenship.  Price-based exchange is a voluntary transaction for mutual benefit that creates no wider sense of obligation.  However, Ngata may also have conceived of Maori military service as a gift-based exchange that created a sense of obligation and reciprocity and strengthened relationships between the two peoples.  An analogy could be drawn with Te Heu Heu’s “gifting” of Tongariro to the nation as a National Park.  In modern times, some Treaty of Waitangi settlements have involved a “return” of land to Maori and its immediate “gifting” back to the Crown; a non-market exchange that has proven more enduring than some other exchanges between Maori and the Crown or private agents.

Ngata got his way when a Government proclamation on 16 June 1917 extended the Military Service Act to Maori.  By this time some tribes had volunteered and filled the first two contingents, while others such as Waikato remained opposed. 

Ngata’s psychological insights

Ngata’s support for Maori going to war recognised, and sought to exploit for Maori benefit, innate psychological drivers with behavioural and physical health implications:


Individual and collective identity

People innately identify and maintain double standards of morality between in and out-groups.  Since individual and group identity are often conflated, to have another culture disparage one’s own can damage an individual’s self-esteem.

For any group, an absence of a proud “cultural storyline” means something will fill its place, including  “borrowed identities” such as the Nation of Islam in the US, for a time Rastafarianism in parts of New Zealand, and modern gang identities.  For minority cultures the choice is often to adopt the majority culture and face potential rejection from both the majority or minority culture, or adopt an oppositional culture that draws strength from “otherness”.  This can lead to exacerbation of otherness by “oppositional identity” and hostility to the majority culture.  An alternative to such identity may be disconnected individualism that seeks only short-term sensation (such as through alcohol or drug abuse) or involves absence of serious thought or reflection. 

Against a backdrop of suspicion between the dominant European and Maori cultures, Maori leaders such as Ngata blurred the edges of separate Maori identity to avoid Pakeha fear of separatism and disloyalty, while maintaining discrete Maori identity in hidden, low key or unthreatening ways.  The Maori warrior spirit Ngata sought to uphold was critical to Maori identity and he wanted it applied in a comfortingly loyalist way in defending British imperial interests. 

This was important in managing Pakeha perceptions of Maori at a time when the young male Pakeha population was being slaughtered in large numbers and the Maori population was in danger of being perceived as “free-riders”.  Price et al (2002) observe that people are hard-wired to punish free riders and hard-wired to punish those that don’t punish free riders.  In the military the cost of free riding can be fatal for others, and so extreme sanctions against cowardice and desertion are designed to counter genetic free riding in a military context.

Role of conflict in strengthening identity

Why anyone would rationally volunteer to go to war, for little pay and often for dubious causes, and to face the possibility of death, is a puzzling psychological question.  Conflict between groups can strengthen the identity of individuals within a group.  Exposure to danger, whether in mountaineering or in war, can enhance an individual’s sense of self by more sharply defining it.  People behaving in potentially self-destructive ways may do so to bolster their own sense of identity (Akerlof & Kranton 2000). 

Elements of self-deception also come into play.  Soldiers in war look through a veil of ignorance hiding which individuals in a group will be killed.  Were that veil to slip and people able to assign a probability distribution to the likelihood of dying in battle then willingness to go to war would largely disappear.  Ernest Becker (1973, 1975) argued that a person’s character was shaped around the process of denying his/her own mortality and that this “character-armour” can prevent genuine self-knowledge.  Akerlof & Dickens (1982) contend that workers in dangerous jobs often suppress their awareness of and responsiveness to the dangers.  Hirschberger et al (2002) contend that men may take risks because they are more interested in defending the symbolic structures that regulate their fear of personal death than to avoid death itself.  Since many Maori were struggling to sustain their pride as bread-winners, or as leaders of whanau or hapu, an alternative identity and source of pride was appealing, despite personal risks.

Importance of a sense of being part of an historical continuum

An individual’s capacity to rise above present-centred individuality depends significantly on an awareness of and sense of unbroken continuity with the past, and of being part of a culture that transcends individuality.  Groups with fragile identities and despotic regimes that may lack legitimacy both understand the role of the past in shaping identity and seek to amplify, eliminate, marginalize or reinterpret it in ways favourable to themselves. 

Whakapapa was important in Maori identity.  If Maori as individuals had broken with their past tradition and not gone to war, then as individuals fewer would have lost their lives, they would have lived to reproduce, and this on the face of it would have strengthened Maori numbers at a time of demographic vulnerability.  However, a failure to live up to ancestral norms and behaviours breaks with cultural tradition and with a sense that an individual belongs to something bigger than himself that will survive his own mortality.  At a time when Maori culture was beleaguered, further breaks with cultural continuity would risk Maori individuals having nothing to guide their behaviour, and losing their way in a life that to be meaningful has to be part of something wider than and which survives oneself.

Importance of meaning and purpose in life

Viktor Frankel (1959, 1967) highlighted the importance of a sense of purpose and meaning in life.  He observed that in concentration camps those with a strong sense of meaning, even in suffering, were far more likely to survive than physically much healthier people who lacked such a sense.  Individuals whose lives lack meaning focus on their individual vulnerability and mortality, leading to fear.  Such people may seek only short-term sensation or activities that dull or suppress their consciousness, their curiosity and their volition.


Ngata himself had a deeply purposeful life, lived for something larger than himself.  His son Henare wrote of him:

“A favoured few…constantly keep their objective before them, find satisfaction both in accomplishing and striving…so long as there is a Maori people the objective will remain, growing with life itself.  Therefore, as it is something bigger than any single individual, Death cannot defeat such men – the Waiapu flows on.

(Ramsden 1948 p 15).

People in times of strife and dislocation seek more certainty in life, often seeking this in framing, symbolization, or invention of a coherent “storyline” or cultural mythology.  The brain evolved to predict and does so by identifying patterns that provide structure as a basis for inference and meaning.  Evidence from experimental psychology suggests that when exposed to something surreal or nonsensical, the brain responds by looking for structure or pattern within one’s environment (see Proulx & Heine 2009, Vess et al 2009).  Maori went through strife and division from the beginnings of European contact on.  They sought pattern or structure in a range of religious (including Pai Marire and Ringatu) and cultural identities that conferred a meaningful “storyline” that involved continuity with the past and a vision or at least direction for the future. 

Evidence and causation

It is contended that Ngata intuitively identified relationships between the psychology of status and self-esteem, and physical health and well-being.  In recent times Ngata’s intuitive arguments have gained support from empirical evidence and understanding of causative mechanisms:

Empirical evidence

There is strong evidence of causative correlations between perceived low social status (often proxied as income inequality) and unhealthy behaviours and outcomes (Fuller 2006, Price et al 2007, Wilkinson & Pickett 2009). The Whitehall 1 Study set up in 1967 showed that among British public servants low status strongly correlated with poor health (Wilkinson & Pickett 2009).  As Offer (2006 p 286) observed “social ranking is a matter of life and death.”  Marmot (2004) tracked death rates in the former Soviet Union to the decline in economic fortunes and the destruction unemployment caused to male dignity and self-identity in their work and role as breadwinners. 

Health inequalities are associated with relative income and status differences rather than absolute wealth (Offer 2006, Wilkinson & Pickett 2009).  That is, what causes health inequality is relative income and status differences, not absolute income (Offer 2006 p 288).  Relative status and inequality within a social rank order are more important than income inequality, though the two are closely related.

Causative mechanisms


Key sources of stress are low social ranking, and threats to lower this ranking further.  Such stress causes biochemical harm.  Low status in a hierarchy has been shown to cause damaging physiological stress in monkeys as well as humans (Offer 2006).  Experiments with macaque monkeys show that those that are more dominant (and therefore less stressed by ranking inequality) have more dopamine activity in their brains.  When someone is stressed, the brain releases cortisol, a central stress hormone that helps prepare physiologically to deal with threats (Wilkinson & Pickett 2009).  Cortisol increases blood pressure and blood sugar, reduces immune responses, and in the longer term can damage cells in the hippocampus, which can impair learning.  “Fight or flight” biochemical responses that are adaptive in the short-term degrade health and therefore are maladaptive if sustained over the long-term.  

Concluding comments

Apirana Ngata devoted his life to the socio-economic well-being of Maori and intuitively understood this had a strong psychological element.  He understood that European technology, institutions and trade linkages would dominant New Zealand’s future development, and he wanted Maori to adapt and adopt the best European society offered.  He was also anxious for Maori to retain their cultural traditions and identity, at least as part of a longer term transition to full participation in the modern world.  Ngata understood the impossibility of people simply abandoning their culture, language and identity and adopting a new one as if it were a change of clothes. 

Apirana Ngata was a cultural conservative who understood the role of tradition and culture as anchoring points.  He recognized that pride helped people persevere through difficult times and despite short-term costs (see Williams & Destono 2008).  He did not believe in passivity or being swept along by events, and he considered status and rangitiratanga as something actively earned rather than passively acquired.  They were not entitlements guaranteed by common law or by the Treaty of Waitangi, but something that required effort and self-discipline.  He might also have felt that militarily imposed discipline might help bolster individual self-control.

Ngata recognised that Maori men’s self-esteem and identity was influenced by their warrior status and associated whakapapa and ancestral identity.  This gave cultural continuity to Maori men that transcended their individuality and made them feel part of something wider than themselves.

Ngata advocated Maori conscription in World War One because he rated the psychological benefits for Maori more highly than the genetic and by extension the intergenerational costs.  Only in recent years have the biochemical and physiological mechanisms underlying the effects of status and mana on health become reasonably well understood: Ngata was well ahead of the empirical evidence and understanding of the causative mechanisms.

Ngata’s intuition had some later historical echoes.  Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) predicted that impoverishing Germany through the Versailles Treaty would lead to disastrous future conflict “before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing.”  Ngata also predicted dire consequences from breaking up Germany and destroying its self-esteem and national pride, recognizing how much violence results from destroying peoples’ dignity.  Far from heralding peace, he realized the Treaty of Versailles would only sow future conflict.  As Keynes and Ngatas’ forebodings later played out on the eve of World War Two, Ngata told Parliament:

“That was the kind of fool’s paradise we built for ourselves after the war of 1914-18.  But right at the termination of that war the so-called Christian nations laid down the seed of discontent which has since produced Hitler and Mussolini and all that is occurring in China today. 

He went on:

“Civilised countries conspired to carve up the territory of the Teutonic peoples and to arrange an impossible kind of Europe.  I do not want to justify dictatorship, but some day history will be written from another angle and will seek to justify the ambition of a man imbued with determination to put together again the pieces broken by the Treaty of Versailles.

NZPD 1939 Vol 254.

Ngata did not predict the depths of horror that arose from the “ambition of a man imbued with determination…” However he did in effect warn that destroying dignity would have unpleasant consequences, whether at the level of an individual or a nation state.

It is interesting to reflect on what Ngata’s views would be on the modern welfare state, aspects of which have eroded pride in personal responsibility and self-determination.  This has created a new set of challenging social problems, which have at their heart people’s need for pride, status and dignity, and a sense of living a meaningful and self-authored life.



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About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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1 Response to Risking lives for health: Apirana Ngata’s support for Maori participation in World War One

  1. Pingback: The evolving Treaty of Waitangi discourse and its wider benefits | Peter Winsley

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