Māori responses in the early contact period were determined by well-established customs and practices. The notions of mana, tapu and utu were sources of both order and dispute in Māori society. They were practical forces at work in everyday matters.
Mana is often referred to as status; a person with mana had a presence. While mana was inherited, individuals could also acquire, increase or lose it through their actions. Rangatira (chiefs) in particular recognised the need to keep their mana as high as possible. Mana influenced the behaviour of people and groups, and was sought through achievements and successes. Māori vigorously defended their mana in everyday matters and tried to enhance it whenever they could. Sometimes the defence of mana required an excessive response to the actions of another.
Control of or patronage over European traders (and after 1814 missionaries) became an aspect of the pursuit of mana. Māori spoke of ‘our Pākehā’. Rivals could not be allowed to reap the advantages of access to these new arrivals without a challenge.
Māori life was also restricted through the placing of tapu on people and things. Tapu controlled how people behaved towards each other and the environment. It protected people and natural resources.
Almost every activity, ceremonial or otherwise, was connected to the maintenance and enhancement of mana and tapu. Crucial to this process was the concept of utu.
Often defined as ‘revenge’, utu has a broader meaning: the maintenance of balance and harmony within society. A wrong had to be put right, but how this was done could vary greatly.
Utu in the form of gift exchange established and maintained social bonds and obligations. If social relations were disturbed, balance could be restored through utu. One form of utu was muru, the taking of personal property as compensation for an offence against an individual, community or society. Once muru was performed, the matter was considered to be ended. The nature of muru was determined by factors that included the mana of the victim and the offender, the severity of the offence and the intent of the offending party.
If balance was not restored, a taua (hostile expedition) might become necessary. Even here there were levels of response. A taua muru was a bloodless plundering expedition, while taua ngaki mate or taua roto sought violent revenge for a death.
Māori were quick to recognise the economic benefits of developing a positive working relationship with Europeans. Trade and other Pākehā practices were accepted on Māori terms, with concepts of mana, tapu and utu playing significant roles.