Objective: To document aspects of the history of alcohol use among Maori, with a particular focus on the period from 1840 to 1872 and to identify potential use of this knowledge in the development of strategies for the prevention and treatment of alcohol-related harm among Maori in contemporary New Zealand.
Method: A survey of the surviving documentation about alcohol in nineteenth-century New Zealand; materials were predominantly drawn from the writings of pakeha (non-Maori) missionaries, officials and travellers, as well as available statistical records.
Results: Analysis of early written historical records suggests significant variation in the response of Maori to the introduction of alcohol in different parts of New Zealand during the period following European contact.
Conclusions: One stereotype that has arisen suggests Maori have been incapable of and/or unable to manage the production and use of alcohol. On the other hand, another commonly held belief has been that Maori supported abstinence or ‘resisted alcohol’ because they recognised its ‘ruinous nature’ and because it was contrary to traditional custom and practices. Historical information indicates that the Maori response to the introduction of alcohol was in fact diverse and for much of the nineteenth century alcohol was non-problematic for many Maori. This reinterpretation of the historical record can potentially empower contemporary Maori to take greater responsibility for the use of alcohol. It also challenges the negativity of the stereotypes generated by historical misinformation.