Physical growth and ethnic inequality in New Zealand prisons, 1840–1975

Kris Inwood, Les Oxley, Evan Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The British colonization of New Zealand after 1840 was marked by an unusual concern compared to other settler colonies to incorporate the indigenous Māori population into the new society. But despite a continuing political rhetoric of protection and sovereignty, Māori have historically had lower living standards and, since the 1920s, higher rates of incarceration than European-descended New Zealanders (Pākehā). In this article, the authors examine differences between Māori and Pākehā over 130 years using prison records. Aggregate data from the Ministry of Justice shows long-term change and differences in incarceration rates. Using a data set of all extant registers of men entering New Zealand prisons, the authors show change over time in convictions and in height. The adult statures of Māori and Pākehā were similar for men born before 1900, but marked differences emerged among cohorts born during the twentieth century. By the Second World War, the gap in adult stature widened to around 3 cm, before narrowing for men born after the Second World War. Periods of divergence in stature are paralleled by divergence in fertility and indicators of family size, suggesting the possibility that increasing fertility stressed the economic situation of Māori families. The prison evidence suggests that inequalities in ‘net nutrition’ between Māori and Pākehā are long-standing but not unchanging – indeed, they increased for cohorts born in the early twentieth century. A subset of the data describing adolescents confirms that, among those born after 1945, the ethnic differential was already visible by the age of 16.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)249-269
Number of pages21
JournalHistory of the Family
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 3 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Taylor & Francis.


  • Māori
  • New Zealand
  • anthropometric history
  • height
  • physical standard of living


Dive into the research topics of 'Physical growth and ethnic inequality in New Zealand prisons, 1840–1975'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this