About the project

This is a long-running archive-based project that focuses on Bluff between the years 1800 and 2000. Enabled by a Marsden Fast-Start research grant, the project seeks to re-shape thinking about New Zealand’s economic development and race relations. Its major output is a monograph being published by Bridget Williams Books.

The Marsden Fund is a contestable research fund established by the New Zealand Government in 1994 to fund excellent fundamental research.  The Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Marsden Fund Council and operates under the Terms of Reference issued by the Minister of Science and Innovation.

Marsden Fund logoThe Marsden Fund takes its name from physicist Sir Ernest Marsden (1889-1970) who made a remarkable contribution to science both in New Zealand and overseas, and who visited Bluff at least once!



“Before it was any kind of political and constitutional entity…New Zealand was a series of opportunities for circulating artefacts within the world system and ports were locations for exchanges.”

Peter Gibbons, “The far side of the search for identity: reconsidering New Zealand history”, New Zealand Journal of History 37, no. 1 (April 2003): 41.

About the investigator

My name is Michael Stevens and until February 2018 I was a Senior Lecturer in Māori History based at the University of Otago. A proud “Bluffie”, both of my parents were also raised in Bluff, and most of my family still lives there.


After completing my secondary schooling at Southland Boys’ High School I completed a BA(Hons) in History and an LLB at the University of Otago between 1999 and 2004.  I then completed a PhD in History that examined the knowledge and practices that underlay the annual tītī harvest—most commonly referred to as “muttonbirding”—which is an activity I continue to take part in.

After a two-year postdoctoral fellowship I took up my lecturing position in June 2012 and in October 2013 was awarded the Fast-Start Grant, which got underway in March 2014. I completed the research and much of the writing for this project before I left the University of Otago to pursue other opportunities and am currently finishing the monograph on my own time.


“I…hope that a spot so eligible as “Awarua,” or the Bluff, will not long remain unoccupied…it is fully a fortnight near to England than any portion of New Zealand now under colonization.”

Captain John Lort Stokes, “Survey of the Southern part of the Middle Island of New Zealand”, Journal of Royal Geographic Society 21 (1851): 26.

Key context and questions

Bluff was a key entry point for goods, people, livestock and ideas central to the lower South Island’s colonial development and in return it dispatched primary products to points throughout the British Empire.  It also attracted and retained a relatively large number of Kāi Tahu people, and later, those from many different iwi.

As such, in 2006 43% of Bluff residents self-identified as Māori, compared with 11.8% for the Southland region as a whole, and 15% for all New Zealand.  This project wants to establish whether this Māori aggregation was part of an attempt to avoid or find a place within the economy, if this Māori presence shaped the port’s evolution in particular ways, and whether or not the port underwrote or rewrote Māori lifeways.


“Maori economic behaviour was neither completely subsistence and marginalised nor completely commercial and integrated. The nuances of that intermediate position need to be further explored at the local level.”

Paul Monin, “Maori Economies and Colonial Capitalism”, in The New Oxford History of New Zealand, ed. Giselle Byrnes (Melbourne: Oxford, 2009), 145.


In exploring these questions, this study of Bluff responds to calls for regional histories of Māori economies and their transnational linkages, and focuses very strongly on the interplay between economics, place, and community formation. In examining these factors and uncovering the way they sustained a robust Māori community, this project challenges the insular approach that often shapes thinking and writing about the Māori past.

The project therefore has three broad and interconnected aims:

  • to chart the evolution of the port of Bluff over two centuries down to the year 2000;
  • to examine the consequences of this for resident Kāi Tahu
  • to think through the implications of these things for current approaches to colonial and Māori history.

In pursuing these things, the project aims to shed light on New Zealand’s incorporation into an expanding capitalist world economic system and the ways in which this—as well as colonial governments—impacted upon Māori, both negatively and positively. Māori disempowerment was widespread, and wide-ranging, but it was also uneven, and nowhere was it absolute. Put differently, the project wants to test the idea that Bluff-based Kāi Tahu were participants in as well as victims of the British Empire.

On the way to producing the monograph, the project will also generate public talks, conference presentations and peer-reviewed articles for academic journals.

Media coverage of the project includes a profile in the University of Otago Magazine, an interview on Radio New Zealand National’s Nine To Noon programme, an article in Te Karaka (the quarterly magazine issued by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu), and another in The Southland Times.  (NB: the latter article states that three generations of my family have lived in Bluff.  In actual fact, two different branches of my family have lived and worked in the port for six consecutive generations. Three generations of my immediate family currently live there.)