Anzac Poppy, New Zealand History  © US Embassy New Zealand

New Zealand History

New Zealand is known as the Youngest Country on Earth. Settled by Maori between 950 and 1130 AD, New Zealand's history is short but detailed. Find out more below.

Polynesian Settlement

Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand, which translates as 'Land of the Long White Cloud') was first settled by Maori between 950 and 1130 AD. Highly sophisticated ocean navigators, Maori journeyed south through the Pacific from their original homeland, Hawaiiki (believed to be near Tahiti), to their new home of Aotearoa.

Aotearoa possessed a more temperate climate than their original Pacific Island home, with no indigenous mammals (aside from the native bat) to hunt for food. Bird and marine life was plentiful however, and Maori also began to cultivate kumara, taro and yam. 

Isolated from other Polynesian peoples by thousands of miles of ocean, Maori developed a unique and vibrant culture of their own, reflecting their natural environment and affinity with the land.  Maori, the tangata whenua (people of the land) were the only inhabitants of New Zealand for over 600 years, until the arrival of European explorers in the mid 1600s. 

European Exploration

In 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman “discovered” Aotearoa. Tasman did not venture ashore but named his discovery Nieuw Zeeland (after a province in Holland). Over 100 years later, in 1769, Captain James Cook was the first European to extensively map and explore New Zealand, making two scientific expeditions to the islands and claiming them for Britain.

From the 1790s onwards European settlement was sporadic, mainly consisting of whalers, traders and missionaries, who lived in scattered settlements throughout the country. It was not until 1840 when a number of Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, ceding governance to Britain, that the new colony was opened for mass European settlement.

European settlement in Aotearoa had a profound effect on Maori life and customs. Policies of enforced assimilation meant the loss of traditional Maori society, traditions and language.  European endemic diseases such as Influenza also spread rapidly amongst Maori, who possessed no immunity to such diseases. The Maori population, estimated at 85,000 in the mid 1700s, fell to just over 40,000 by the end of the 19th century.

Colonial Heritage

The vast majority of New Zealand settlers in the 19th century were of British descent.  Land Agents such as The New Zealand Company were responsible for organised resettlement schemes which attracted thousands of immigrants to the new colony.  Most British immigrants came from the lower middle-classes and arrived in New Zealand seeking freedom from the repressive class structures of Britain.  Other significant migrant groups at this time included Chinese gold prospectors and Dalmatian Kauri-gum diggers.

New Zealand settlement was characterised by a period of Maori land alienation, and a number of conflicts (notably the New Zealand Wars of the 1850s and 60s).  Generally colonialism in New Zealand was not as overtly repressive or violent as other parts of the world, but negative nonetheless.

Interestingly, in 1893 New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote – a quarter century before Britain or the USA.  Richard “King Dick” Seddon, Prime Minster and leader of the Liberal Party, also implemented such pioneering systems as old-age pensions, minimum wage requirements and children’s health services –  making New Zealand a world-leader in social welfare. 

The ANZACs

New Zealand’s links with the ‘Mother Land’ (Britain) remained strong well into the early twentieth century – New Zealand soldiers fighting for the Empire in the Anglo-Boer War and World War I. 

World War I saw New Zealand troops fighting with Australians, in the Australia New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs). The Anzacs most famously took part in the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli, suffering heavy losses.  World War I – particularly Gallipoli – is remembered annually in New Zealand on Anzac Day (April 25th).

30 years later New Zealand again fought for the Empire in World War II, but shortly afterwards gained full independence from Britain, becoming an independent commonwealth state. 

Post-Colonial

In the latter part of the twentieth century a strong sense of New Zealand identity emerged, reflecting the country’s colonial and Polynesian heritage.  A liberal political stance and environmental conscience heralded a Nuclear Free Policy in the 1980s; whilst the nation’s defence forces turned their attention to Peace Keeping roles throughout the world.

Today New Zealand is a world-leader in human rights and social welfare.  A spirit of innovation has also catapulted New Zealand’s arts, science and technology sectors onto the world stage.  A renaissance in Maori culture and language, and increased immigration from the Asia Pacific region also add to the country’s unique and proud sense of identity.

For more information on New Zealand history:
  • Belich, James. 1998.  The New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Penguin Books
  • King, Michael.   2003. The Penguin History of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin Books
  • Salmond, Anne. 1991. Two Worlds: First meetings between Maori and Europeans. Auckland: Viking

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