A Brief History of New Zealand

By Tim Lambert

The Maori

The Maori arrived in New Zealand in the 10th century AD. They called the new land Aotearoa, which means Land of the Long White Cloud. The Maori brought dogs and rats. They also brought yams and kumara or sweet potatoes and gourds. The Maori also ate fern roots. There was also an abundance of seafood in New Zealand. The Maori hunted dolphins, whales, and seals and they ate fish and shellfish.

They also hunted large, flightless birds called moa – until they became extinct. n Maori society was tribal. Each person belonged to a family or whanau, a sub-tribe or hapu, and the full tribe or iwi. Warfare was common in New Zealand. The Maori built fortified settlements called pa. They fought with long wooden clubs called taiah and short wooden clubs called patu. They also fought with short jade clubs called mere. People captured in war became slaves.

The Maori are famous for their wood carvings. They also make pendants or tikis from whalebone. The Maori are also famous for their tattoos or moko, which were made with a bone chisel, a mallet, and blue pigment.

Colonial New Zealand

The first European to sight New Zealand was Abel Tasman on 13 December 1642. Ominously Europeans fought with the Maori and the Europeans were not keen to return. However, the new land was named New Zealand after a Dutch province.

Europeans left New Zealand alone until 1769 when Captain Cook arrived on his ship The Endeavour. The first encounters with the Maori were violent so Cook called the place Poverty Bay and sailed away.

However later, at Mercury Bay, Cook managed to befriend the local Maori. He went on to circumnavigate New Zealand and to accurately map it. Cook made two more voyages to New Zealand in 1773 and 1777.

Furthermore, other European explorers (French and Spanish) came. Towards the end of the 18th century, sealers began to sail to New Zealand. The first group arrived on the South Island in 1792. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, whalers came to New Zealand. Sailors began to cut wood from New Zealand for masts and spas and a small group of Europeans settled there. In the early 19th century some Europeans began buying land from the Maori.

There were isolated conflicts between Maori and Europeans but generally, relations were peaceful. The Maori traded food and flax for European goods – including muskets. Imported muskets made Maori warfare much more bloody. The so-called musket wars were fought between 1819 and 1825. Furthermore, Europeans brought diseases to New Zealand to which the Maori had no resistance. On the other hand, they did bring potatoes and pigs.

Meanwhile, missionaries went to New Zealand. The first was Samuel Marsden who arrived in 1814. However, at first, the missionaries had little success.

Then in 1817, the laws of New South Wales were extended to New Zealand. However, in reality, there was little law and order among the European settlers and some of them appealed to the British government for help. So in 1833, the government sent a man named James Busby as ‘official British Resident’. The British government was concerned about the way people were buying land from the Maori and they wanted it to be properly regulated. Busby’s job was to unite the Maori tribes into a federation that the British could deal with. In 1838 Busby was replaced with a man named William Hobson.

At first the British government was reluctant to make New Zealand a colony. However, they changed their minds when they feared the French were about to do so. In 1840 William Hobson persuaded the Maori to accept annexation by the Treaty of Waitangi. The Maori accepted the sovereignty of the British crown. In return, the Maori became British subjects and they were guaranteed possession of their land.

However, despite the treaty, the British and the Maori soon quarrelled. Also in 1840, Hobson made Auckland the capital of New Zealand. n Meanwhile a man named Edward Gibbon Wakefield created a New Zealand Company and in 1839 they sent a ship called the Tory with settlers. They landed at Wanganui in 1840. In 1841 the company sent settlers to New Plymouth. In 1842 colonists were sent to Nelson on the South Island.

The Maori grew disenchanted with the Treaty of Waitangi and in 1844 a chief named Hone Heke cut down the British flag (a symbol of British authority in New Zealand) several times. He sacked the town of Kororareka and he fought a 2-year war with the British. However, he was eventually defeated.

Meanwhile more and more colonists arrived in New Zealand. Sir George Grey was governor of New Zealand from 1845 to 1853. He purchased large amounts of land from the Maori. In 1848 members of the Scottish Free Church founded Dunedin. In 1850 a group of Anglicans founded Christchurch. However, the New Zealand Company closed in 1858.

In 1852 the Constitution Act divided New Zealand into 6 provinces. Each one had a provincial council. In 1856 New Zealand was granted self-government. Wellington was made the capital of New Zealand in 1865.

Meanwhile, settlers brought sheep to New Zealand. It was very well suited to raising flocks of sheep and the industry flourished. At the end of the 19th century a new breed of sheep, the Corriedale was created by breeding Leicester or Lincoln rams with Merino ewes. Furthermore, in the 1860s gold was discovered in New Zealand resulting in gold rushes.

The white population of New Zealand grew at a tremendous rate. By 1861 it was almost 100,000. By 1881 it was nearly 500,000. However, the Maori were increasingly discontented. Some Maori in North Island appointed a king in 1858. In 1860 simmering Maori resentment broke out into war. The fighting dragged on until 1872. As a result of the war, large amounts of land were confiscated from rebel tribes.

Furthermore, the Maori suffered from diseases introduced to New Zealand by Europeans and their numbers declined drastically. In 1769, when Cook arrived, there were about 100,000 Maori. By 1896 their numbers had fallen to 42,000.

Many Britons migrated to New Zealand hoping for a better life and to escape conditions in Britain. n Meanwhile a new era began in 1882 when a refrigerated ship called The Dunedin took meat from New Zealand to Britain. Previously only wool was exported to Britain. Refrigeration allowed New Zealand’s farmers to export meat as well, bringing new prosperity.

Also in the late 19th century, several reforms were created in New Zealand. In 1877 all men were granted the vote. In 1893 women were allowed to vote. (New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow all women to vote in national elections).

Meanwhile, in 1877 free, compulsory education was introduced in New Zealand. In 1894 compulsory state arbitration of labour disputes was introduced. In 1898 old-age pensions were created.

New Zealand in the 21st Century

New Zealand was made a dominion in 1907. n Meanwhile soldiers from New Zealand fought in the Boer War of 1899-1902. Many also fought in the First World War. Some 17,000 men from New Zealand were killed, a terrible figure considering the population was only around 1 million.

Furthermore in the 1930s, like the rest of the world, New Zealand suffered from the depression. By 1933 about 14% of the workforce was unemployed. However, the Labour government of 1935-1949 introduced more social reforms.

Many men from New Zealand fought in the Second World War in North Africa and against Japan and in 1947 New Zealand became completely independent from Britain. In 1951 New Zealand joined the Anzus Defence Pact.

The National Party ruled New Zealand from 1949 to 1957 but Labour was in power again from 1957 to 1960. Meanwhile, in 1956 the white population of New Zealand reached about 2 million. The Maori population was about 135,000.

In the 1950s and 1960s, New Zealand became an affluent society. Television began in New Zealand in 1960. The 1950s and 1960s were years of prosperity for New Zealand but that ended in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, in 1975 the Treaty of Waitangi Act was passed. It formed a tribunal to examine Maori land claims.

Then in July 1984, French agents bombed the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. The ship was preparing to sail to protest about French nuclear testing in the Pacific. A Portuguese named Fernando Pereira was killed.

Furthermore, the early 1980s proved to be difficult years for New Zealand. In the early 1980s, there was rapid inflation and high unemployment. A new Labour government came to power in 1984 and they deregulated the economy. They also cut back the welfare state.

In the late 20th century links with Britain weakened. Instead, New Zealand sought closer links with Australia and Asia. The Closer Economic Relations Pact with Australia was signed in 1983. In the 1990s many Asians migrated to New Zealand.

Meanwhile, in 1993 the ‘first past the post’ electoral system was replaced with proportional representation. In 1997 Jenny Shipley became the first woman Prime Minister of New Zealand.

New Zealand in the 21st Century

A disaster struck New Zealand in February 2011. Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake, which killed 181 people and caused massive damage to buildings and infrastructure.

New Zealand still mainly depends on agriculture for its exports. New Zealand is famous for sheep although it also has many cattle. Crops like wheat, barley, peas, and apples are grown and New Zealand has many vineyards. Another important export is the kiwi fruit. However, an important industry in modern New Zealand is tourism. In 2023 the population of New Zealand was 5.2 million.

Last revised 2023