New Zealand History

Early History

New Zealand was originally settled by waves of Polynesians some time between 1000 and 1300 CE, although some evidence suggests earlier settlement. The descendants of these settlers created a distinct culture and became known as the Māori. Separate settlement of the tiny Chatham Islands in the east of New Zealand produced the Moriori people; linguistic evidence indicates that the Moriori were mainland Māori who ventured eastward. Some of the Māori (particularly in the North Island), called their new homeland “Aotearoa” (“land of the long white cloud”).

The original settlers quickly exploited the abundant large game in New Zealand, such as moa. Moa were large flightless birds similar to ostriches and rheas that were pushed to extinction by about 1500. As moa and other large game became scarce or extinct, Māori culture underwent major change. Horticulture became more important, as did warfare, reflecting increased competition for land and other resources. In this period, fortified pā became more common, although there is debate about the actual frequency of warfare.

Leadership was based on a heritary system of cheiftainship, although chiefs needed actual leadership abilities as well as chiefly geneologies. The most important unit of pre-European Māori society was the hapū or group of families. Within the hapū were several whānau or families, and tribes (iwi) consisted of groups of hapū. Related hapū would often trade goods and co-operate on major projects, but conflict between hapū was also relatively common. Pre-European Māori had no written language but were capable of amazing feats of memory; most could recite their geneologies back hundreds of years. Arts included ta moko (tattooing), weaving, wood carving and various performing arts including haka.

New Zealand has no native land mammals, apart from some rare bats. Birds, fish and sea mammals were important sources of protein. Māori cultivated food plants which they had brought with them from Polynesia, including sweet potatoes (called kūmara), and taro. They also cultivated the cabbage tree, a plant endemic to New Zealand. Cannibalism, as elsewhere in the Pacific, played a very small part in the diet.

European Contact

The first Europeans known to reach New Zealand were the crew of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who arrived with his ships Heemskerck and Zeehaen. Tasman anchored at the northern end of the South Island in December 1642 but sailed northward to Tonga following a clash with local Māori. Tasman sketched sections of the two main islands’ west coasts. Tasman called them Staten Landt and that name appeared on his first maps of the country. Dutch cartographers changed the name to Nova Zeelandia in Latin which derived from Nieuw Zeeland in Dutch. It was subsequently Anglicised as New Zealand by British naval captain James Cook of the HM Bark Endeavour who visited the islands more than 100 years after Tasman (1769-1770). Cook returned to New Zealand on both of his subsequent voyages.

From the 1790s, the waters around New Zealand were visited by British, French, and American whaling and trading ships. Their crews traded European goods, including guns and metal tools, for Māori food, water, wood, flax and sex. Māori were reputed as enthusiastic and canny traders. Although there were some conflicts, such as the killing of French explorer Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne and the destruction of the Boyd, most contact between Māori and European was peaceful. From the 1800s missionaries began settling in New Zealand and attempting to convert Māori to Christianity and control the somewhat lawless European visitors.

The impact of contact on Māori varied. In some inland areas life went on more or less unchanged, although a European metal tool such as a fish-hook or hand axe might be acquired through trade with other tribes. At the other end of the scale, tribes which frequently encountered Europeans, such as Ngapuhi in Northland, underwent major changes. Pre-European Māori had no distance weapons, and so the introduction of the musket had an enormous impact on Māori warfare. Tribes with muskets would attack tribes without them, killing or enslaving many. As a result, guns became very valuable, and Māori would trade huge quantities of goods for a single musket. The Musket Wars died out in the 1830s after most tribes had acquired muskets and so a balance of power was achieved.

Around this time many Māori converted to Christianity. The reasons for this have been hotly debated, but may include social and cultural disruption caused by the Musket Wars and European contact, the appeal of a religion which promotes peace and forgiveness, a desire to emulate the Europeans and gain a similar abundance of material goods, and a polytheistic culture which had little difficulty accepting new gods.

European settlement increased through the early decades of the nineteenth century, with numerous trading stations established, especially in the North. The first full-blooded European infant in the territory, Thomas King, was born in 1815 in the Bay of Islands. Many Europeans bought land from Māori, but misunderstanding and different concepts of land ownership led to conflict and bitterness. In 1839, the New Zealand Company announced plans to buy large tracts of land and establish colonies in New Zealand. This alarmed the missionaries, who called for British control of European settlers in New Zealand.

British sovereignty

In 1788 the colony of New South Wales had been founded. According to Phillip’s amended Commission dated 25 April 1787, the colony included “all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean” and running westward on the continent to the 135th meridian. Until 1840, this technically included New Zealand, but this had no real impact as the New South Wales administration had little interest in New Zealand.

In response to complaints about lawless white sailors and adventurers in New Zealand, the British government appointed James Busby as Official Resident in 1832. In 1834, he encouraged Māori chiefs to assert their sovereignty with the signing of the “Declaration of Independence” in 1835. This was acknowledged by King William IV. Busby was provided with neither authority nor military support, and was thus ineffective in controlling the European population.

Treaty of Waitangi

In 1839, the New Zealand Company announced its plans to establish colonies in New Zealand. This and the continuing lawlessness of many of the established settlers spurred the British to take stronger action. Captain William Hobson was sent to New Zealand to persuade Maori to cede their sovereignty to the British Crown.

On 6 February 1840, Hobson and about 40 Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. Copies of the Treaty were subsequently taken around the country to be signed by other chiefs. A significant number refused to sign or were not asked, but in total more than 500 Maori eventually signed.

The Treaty gave Maori control over their lands and possessions, and the rights of British citizens. What they gave the British in return depends on which language version of the Treaty is referred to. The English version gives the British Crown sovereignty over New Zealand, but in the Maori version the Crown receives kawanatanga, which some have argued is a lesser power. Dispute over the true meaning and intent of either party remains an issue to this day.

Britain was motivated by the desire to forestall other European powers (France established a very small settlement at Akaroa in the South Island later in 1840) and to end the lawlessness of European (predominantly British) whalers and traders. Maori chiefs were motivated by a desire for protection from foreign powers, the establishment of governorship over European settlers and traders in New Zealand, and to allow for wider settlement which would increase trade and prosperity for Maori.

Hobson died in September 1842. Robert FitzRoy, the new governor, took some legal steps to recognise Maori custom. However his successor, George Grey, promoted rapid cultural assimilation. The practical effect of the Treaty was only gradually felt, especially in predominantly Maori regions.

Colonial period

Administered in 1840 as a part of the Australian colony of New South Wales, New Zealand became a colony in its own right on 3 May 1841. It was divided into provinces, which were reorganised in 1846 and 1853, when they acquired their own legislatures, and abolished in 1876. The country rapidly gained some measure of self-government through the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, which established central and provincial government.

From 1840 there was considerable European settlement, primarily from England, Scotland and Wales, but also from Ireland and to a lesser extent the United States, India, and various parts of continental Europe, including the province of Dalmatia in what is now Croatia and Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. Already a majority of the population by 1859, white settlers, (called Pākehā by Maori), multiplied to reach a million by 1911.

In the 1870s and 1880s, several thousand Chinese men, mostly from the Guangdong province, migrated to New Zealand to work on the South Island goldfields. Although the first Chinese migrants had been invited by the Otago Provincial government, they quickly became the target of hostility from white settlers, and laws were enacted specifically to discourage them from coming to New Zealand.

Maori Adaptation and Resistance

Maori had initially welcomed Pākehā for the trading opportunities they brought. However it soon became clear that they had underestimated the number of settlers that would arrive in their lands. Iwi (tribes) whose land was the base of the main settlements quickly lost much of their land and autonomy. Others prospered; until about 1860, the city of Auckland bought most of its food from Maori who grew and sold it themselves. Many iwi owned flour mills, ships and other items of European technology, and some exported food to Australia. Although race relations were generally peaceful in this period, there were some conflicts over who had ultimate power in particular areas: the Governor or the Maori chiefs. One such conflict was the Northern or Flagstaff War of the 1840s, in which the town of Kororareka was destroyed.

As the Pākehā population increased, pressure grew on Maori to sell more land. A few tribes had become nearly landless, and others were fearful of losing theirs. As well as an economic resource, land is the basis of Maori identity and a connection with the ancestors. Pākehā had little understanding of this, and accused Maori of holding onto land which they did not use efficiently. Competition for land was a primary cause of the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s and 1870s, in which the Waikato and Taranaki regions were invaded by colonial troops and Maori of these regions had much of their land taken from them. The wars and confiscation have left a legacy of bitterness which remains to this day.

Some iwi fought on the government side. They were motivated partly by the thought that an alliance with the government would benefit them, and partly by old feuds with the iwi they fought against. One result of their co-operation strategy was the establishment of the four Maori seats in parliament, in 1867.

Following the wars some Maori began a strategy of passive resistance, most famously at Parihaka in Taranaki. Others continued co-operating with Pākehā, for example tourism ventures were established by Te Arawa around Rotorua. Resisting and co-operating iwi both found that the Pākehā desire for land had not gone away. In the last decades of the century most iwi lost substantial amounts of land through the Native Land Court. This was set up to give Maori land European-style titles and establish exactly who owned it. Due to its Eurocentric rules, high fees, locations remote from the lands in question, and unfair practice by many Pākehā land agents, its main effect was to directly or indirectly separate Maori from their land.

The combination of war, disease, land loss leading to poor housing and alcohol abuse, and general disillusionment caused a fall in the Maori population from around 86,000 in 1769 to around 70,000 in 1840 and around 48,000 by 1874, hitting a low point of 42,000 in 1896. Subsequently, their numbers began to recover.

While the North Island was convulsed by the Land Wars, the South Island, with its low Maori population, was peaceful. In 1861, gold was discovered at Gabriel’s Gully in Central Otago, sparking a gold rush. Dunedin became the wealthiest city in the country, and many in the South Island resented financing the North Island’s war. In 1865, Parliament voted on whether to make the South Island independent, but this proposal was defeated 17 to 31.

The South Island contained most of the Pākehā population until around 1900 when the North Island again took the lead and has supported an ever greater majority of the country’s total population through the 20th and into the twenty-first.

The 1890s

Major changes occurred in this decade. The economy ceased to be based on wool and local trade and became based on the export of frozen meat and dairy products to Britain. This change was enabled by the invention of refrigerated shipping, which allowed foodstuff to be transported over long distances. Refrigerated shipping remained the basis of New Zealand’s economy until the 1970s.

The decade also saw the advent of party politics with the establishment of the First Liberal government. This government established the basis of the welfare state, with old age pensions; developed a system for settling industrial disputes which was accepted by both employers and unions; and extended voting rights to women, making New Zealand the first country in the world to enact universal female suffrage.

The 20th Century

New Zealand decided against joining the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and instead changed from being a colony to a separate “dominion” in 1907, equal in status to Australia and Canada. Thus New Zealand became known as the Dominion of New Zealand. The date was declared Dominion Day, but never reached any popularity as a day of independence. As a potential national day, Dominion Day never possessed any emotional appeal, although the term “dominion” was popular. The Dominion newspaper began on Dominion Day, 1907. To regard it as a national independence day is incorrect. With Dominion status, New Zealand did not have any control over its foreign affairs or military; these issues remained the responsibility of Britain.

World War I

The country remained an enthusiastic member of the British Empire, and many New Zealanders fought in World War I. New Zealand forces took Western Samoa from Germany in the early stages of the war, and New Zealand administered the country until Samoan Independence in 1962.

Post World War I

In 1926, the Balfour Declaration declared that the British Dominions were equal, which had the effect of granting New Zealand control over its own foreign policy and military. The legislation required to effect this change, the Statute of Westminster 1931 was not adopted by New Zealand until some 16 years later. By 1939, the Governor-General ceased to be Britain’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, instead an independent officer was appointed.

Like most other countries, New Zealand was hard hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Attempts by the conservative Liberal-Reform coalition to deal with the situation with spending cuts and relief work were ineffective and unpopular. In 1935, the First Labour Government was elected and established a welfare state, which included free healthcare and education and state assistance for the elderly, infirm, and unemployed. The programme was retained and expanded by successive National governments.

World War II

When World War II broke out, New Zealand again contributed many troops. The New Zealand armed forces were by now substantially under New Zealand command, although legally a part of the British military. Thus, the New Zealand Government did not have the same powers to recall New Zealand armed forces to meet the threat of invasion by Japanese forces, as Australia did in 1942. They mostly fought in Europe, relying on the British Navy and later the United States to protect New Zealand from the Japanese forces. This began a policy of co-operation with the United States which resulted in the ANZUS Treaty between New Zealand, America and Australia in 1951.

Maori Urbanisation

Many Maori fought in World War II, and many others moved from their rural homes to the cities to take up jobs vacated by Pākehā servicemen. The Maori population had increased in the early twentieth century and the culture had undergone a renaissance thanks in part to politician Apirana Ngata. World War II saw the beginning of a mass Maori migration to the cities, and by the 1980s 80% of the Maori population was urban, in contrast to only 20% before the war. The migration led to better pay, standards of living, and education for most Maori, but also exposed problems of racism and discrimination. By the late 1960s, a protest movement had emerged to combat racism, promote Maori culture, and seek fulfillment of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Post World War II

The Maori protest movement was just one of several movements which emerged at this time to challenge the conservatism of mainstream New Zealand culture. This, and the country’s economy, was based on being an offshoot of Britain. From the 1890s, the economy had been based almost entirely on the export of frozen meat and dairy products to Britain. This system was irreparably damaged by Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973. New Zealand was forced to find new markets and re-examine its place in the world.

The Prime Minister from 1975 to 1984, Robert Muldoon and his Third National government responded to the crises of the 1970s by attempting to preserve the New Zealand of the 1950s. His conservatism and antagonistic style helped create an atmosphere of conflict in New Zealand, most violently expressed during the 1981 Springbok Tour. Some innovations did take place, for example the Closer Economic Relations agreement with Australia, and in 1983 the term “dominion” was replaced with “realm” by letters patent.


In 1984, the Fourth Labour government was elected, and embarked on a major campaign of restructuring, cutting government spending, reducing most taxes, floating the New Zealand dollar and removing many subsidies. Although many of these changes improved the economy, they also created widespread unemployment, which was made worse by the 1987 stock market crash.

Unhappy with the speed and extent of reforms, voters elected a new National government in 1990. However the new government continued the reforms. Unhappy with what seemed to be a pattern of governments failing to reflect the mood of the electorate, New Zealanders changed the electoral system to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), a form of proportional representation. New Zealand’s first MMP election was held in 1996.

The Fourth Labour Government also revolutionised New Zealand’s foreign policy, making the country a nuclear-free zone and effectively leaving the ANZUS alliance. Immigration policy was liberalised, allowing an influx of immigrants from Asia. Previously most immigrants to New Zealand had been European and especially British, apart from some migrants from other Pacific Islands such as Samoa. Other fourth Labour government innovations included greater recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi through the Waitangi Tribunal, and Homosexual Law Reform.

New Zealand today

The Fifth Labour government, elected in 1999 and the current government of New Zealand, maintained most of the previous governments’ reforms. However more effort was made towards protecting vulnerable members of society. For example employment law was modified to give more protection to workers, and the student loan system was reformed to reduce (and eventually eliminate) interest payments.

New Zealand retains strong but informal links to Britain, with many young New Zealanders travelling to Britain for their “OE” (Overseas experience). The British are the largest group of migrants to New Zealand, thanks in part of recent immigration law changes which privilege fluent speakers of English. However foreign policy has been essentially independent since the mid 1980s. New Zealand did not contribute troops to the Iraq War, although some medical and engineering units were sent.

For a developed country, New Zealand’s economy is still very dependent on farming, although the old trinity of meat, dairy and wool has been supplemented by fruit, wine, timber and other products. Tourism is a major industry, and the country has been successful in attracting several major film productions, most notably the Lord of the Rings trilogy, directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson.

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