It is well known that Maori practised cannibalism in both the pre-colonial and early colonial periods and that this was not just confined to Maori eating Maori. In the late 1890s, the historian R. A. A.Sherrin estimated that some one hundred pakeha (Europeans) were devoured between 1774 and 1804 with the number doubling between 1809 and 1840 with the greater availability of the food on offer.
Generally, the imported product turned out to be less appealing to the cultivated Maori palate than the local, tangata whenua version.
This was no doubt informed in part by the better physiological condition of the domestic variety. Captain James Cook had remarked in his journal that Maori were generally in better health and condition than their pakeha counterparts: they were taller, had better muscle tone, and were much less afflicted by diseases that had ravaged European populations such as smallpox and measles - that was yet to come.
Diet and healthy exercise would have contributed to this superior condition: fresh or well-preserved kai moana (sea food), kumara, greens, and the bounty of the forest in the form of birds, bats, and rats, with a touch of kauru to sweeten things up, rounded out the Maori diet. In comparison, Cook's pakeha sailors and the sealers, whalers, and runaway convicts that followed were fed a diet of salted pork and worm-infested ship's biscuit that was hardly the stuff on which pedigree stock are raised. It can have given no pleasure to the Maori gourmand to see his scurvy-ridden, vitamin C deficient, meal on-the-hoof. It was hardly sufficient to whet the appetite.
As to taste, Maori gourmands informed early visitors to New Zealand that they did not care for the saltiness of European flesh. That of "Negroes" tasted too much of tobacco. Perhaps too, overall conditioning was lacking in the pakeha product, reflecting their generally poor physical state which would have affected overall tenderness of the meat.
Given the generally disappointing condition of the imported product, many a pakeha who came into Maori hands dodged the knife and fork - or being picked up in the fingers.
Nevertheless, Edward Markham of Hokianga counseled as late as 1834 that:
"They say the Meat of a Mans leg and Thighs well boned, washed, and rolled is very delicious but Sailors the Gourmands pronounce to be too tough and Salt, and not so good as Mouries but still are eatable with a good appetite as Sauce and well done Potatoes."
Fortunately for the Maori gourmand, an abundant domestic supply of human flesh came onto the market in the early 1820s. Primed by a vigourous trade in muskets with pakehas paid for in potatoes, pork, and preserved moko mai - tattooed heads - an enterprising Maori entrepreneurial spirit tapped into a value-added, premium export market based on other people's meat. Inter-tribal war on a previously unheard of mass disassembly scale, in addition to settling old political scores, provided a steady supply of taurekareka - captives or slaves - to feed the booming export sector. Some taurekareka were eaten by their Maori captors while others of a higher export grade, in a selfless act of delayed gratification by their enslavers, were held for facial tattooing before beheading for the moko mai trade, yielding meat as a valuable protein by-product for local consumption.
Citation for Markham quote and numbers of pakeha devoured:
Trevor Bentley, Pakeha Maori, (Penguin Books NZ, 2 ed, 2007), p. 59.
Legal notice: As of 2009, and to the best of our knowledge, cannibalism is illegal in most jurisdictions and persons should not engage in the practice under almost any circumstances (unless stranded for months at sea or by plane crash in the Andes). A healthy historical interest in cannibalism is permissible in some jurisdictions where freedom of inquiry and speech are still protected.