History of New Zealand, the Youngest Country
New Zealand is the youngest country on earth - the last major landmass to be discovered. It has a rich and fascinating history, reflecting both our Maori and European heritage. Amazing Maori historic sites and taonga (treasures), some dating back almost a thousand years, are a contrast to many beautiful colonial buildings. A walk around any New Zealand city today shows what a culturally diverse and fascinating country we have become.
New Zealand’s Founding Document
Signed in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi is an agreement between the British Crown and Maori. It established British law in New Zealand, while at the same time guaranteeing Maori authority over their land and culture. The Treaty is considered New Zealand’s founding document.
Declaration of Independence
After Captain Cook’s exploration of New Zealand in the late 18th century, an increasing number of settlers came to New Zealand. By 1839, there were an estimated 2,000 Pakeha (Europeans) living in New Zealand. In 1833, after increasing lawlessness amongst traders and settlers, the British government appointed James Busby as British Resident to protect British trading interests and counter the growing lawlessness.
In 1835, the French were looking to trade and settle in New Zealand and had started to buy land. In response to this, the British Crown signed a Declaration of Independence with 34 northern Maori Chiefs. This declared New Zealand an independent state under British rule. It also stated that ‘no claim could be made on New Zealand without Maori agreement’.
Despite Busby’s presence, lawlessness, and the number of dubious land sales to Pakeha, increased. The British Government decided there was a need for some effective rule in New Zealand. In 1840, they sent Captain William Hobson there as Lieutenant-Governor. His mission was to acquire the Sovereignty of New Zealand, by way of a treaty with the native Maori Chiefs.
First Maori were the first inhabitants of Aotearoa/New Zealand (meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’). After arriving from their ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki, probably about 1000 years ago, they set up a thriving society based on the iwi (tribe), which flourished for hundreds of years. [ More about Iwi and Tribes]
Arriving in Aotearoa
According to Maori, the first explorer to reach New Zealand was Kupe. Using the stars and ocean currents as his navigational guides, he ventured across the Pacific on his waka hourua (voyaging canoe) from his ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. It is thought that Kupe made landfall at the Hokianga Harbour in Northland, around 1000 years ago.
Where is Hawaiki?
You will not find Hawaiki on a map, but it is believed Maori came from an island or group of islands in Polynesia in the South Pacific Ocean. It is not known exactly which place, but there are distinct similarities between the Maori language and culture, and others of Polynesia including the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti.
It is now thought that Polynesian migration was planned and deliberate, with many waka hourua making return journeys to Hawaiki. Modern replicas of waka hourua, such as Te Aurere, have successfully journeyed throughout the Pacific, using traditional navigation methods.
More waka hourua followed Kupe over the next few hundred years, landing at various parts of New Zealand. Today, many iwi (tribes) can trace their entire origins and whakapapa (genealogy) back to certain waka hourua.
Maori were expert hunters and fishermen. As mostly coastal dwellers, fishing was vitally important to them. It also played a part in their mythology — the god, Maui, was believed to have ‘fished up’ the North Island. Maori wove fishing nets from harakeke (flax), and carved fishhooks from bone and stone. Maori considered whales as kaitiaki (guardians), and used their flesh for food and their hard, strong bones for weapons. A Maori tradition that remains today is to throw back the first fish caught. This is a way of thanking Tangaroa, god of the sea, for his bounty.
Hunters and Collectors
Maori hunted native birds, including moa, the world’s largest bird, with a range of ingenious traps and snares. Many different species of bird, including kereru and tui, were eaten. [ more about Tui] However, the now-extinct huia was considered tapu (sacred) and was never eaten; though its feathers were highly prized, and worn in the heads of rangatira (chiefs). Penguins and seals were hunted and used as food by Maori, especially in the South Island. Muttonbirds were popular in the far south of the country, and are still a prized food today. They were stored in large bags of bull kelp, and could be preserved for many months.
Grow Your Own
Maori ate native vegetables and also introduced vegetables from Polynesia, including the kumara (sweet potato). Vegetables were planted and harvested with a variety of tools including diggers, spades, and clubs. Maori also ate the roots of ferns, which they pulverised with wooden pounders. Other food included various berries and puha (a spinach-like vegetable). Maori also chewed gum — resin from the giant kauri tree. Weaved flax basket and bags were used to carry food, which was often stored in a pataka — a storehouse raised on stilts.
Scrumptious Earth Oven
Maori had an ingenious way of cooking food that is still popular today, and a must for any visitor to try! The hangi, or umu, is an earth oven built in a large pit. Special stones are placed over a fire of wooden sticks. A layer of green flax is laid above the stones, and then layers of meat and vegetables are placed between more layers of flax. A mat covers the oven. Water is then placed on the hot stones, which steams the food. Slow cooking makes the food extremely tender, while the wood and the flax infuse the food with a beautiful delicate and smoky flavour.
In pre-European times, skirmishes between Maori tribes would often occur. To protect themselves from being attacked by other iwi, Maori would construct a pa (fortified village). These pa were often built in strategic locations, such as at the top of hills and on ridges. Most pa were cleverly constructed, with a series of stockades and trenches protecting the inhabitants from intruders. Today, many historic pa sites can be found throughout the country.
Once Were Warriors
Both before and after the arrival of European, Maori have proved to be excellent warriors. Only men fought, and one of the most highly prized weapons was the spear-like taiaha. This weapon, often beautifully carved, is still used in Maori ceremonies today, and its use has become a highly sophisticated art form. Another fearsome weapon was the mere (club), beautifully carved, with some made out of pounamu (greenstone or jade). A warrior with a full moko (tattoo) on his face, brandishing a taiaha or mere, makes a fearsome sight.
The marae (meeting grounds) was a focal point of Maori communities, and still fulfils a crucial role in Maori society today. Wharenui (meeting houses — literally ‘big house’) were large structures at the centre of the marae. [ more about Whare Nui] A wharenui resembles a human body in structure. The front part, called the koruru, represents the head. The maihi are large boards that reach from the ‘head’ down to the ground, and represent arms. The amo are short boards at the front of the wharenui representing legs, while the tahuhu, a large beam running down the length of the roof, represents the spine. Many wharenui contain intricate carvings and panels that refer to the whakapapa (genealogy) of the tribe, and to Maori creation stories.
While Maori lived throughout the North and South Islands, the Moriori, another Polynesian tribe, lived on the Chatham Islands, nearly 900 kilometres east of Christchurch. Moriori are believed to have migrated to the Chathams from the South Island of New Zealand. In the late 18th century, there were about 2000 Moriori living on the Chathams. However, disease and attacks from Maori saw the numbers of this peace-loving tribe become severely depleted. The last full-blooded Moriori is believed to have died in 1933.
New Zealand’s first capital was Kororareka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands, which was briefly the capital in 1840. The capital soon moved south to Auckland, then, in 1865, even further south to its present site of Wellington.
Though a Dutchman was the first European to sight the country, it was the British who colonised New Zealand. With growing numbers of British migrants, and a dwindling and largely landless Maori population, British culture dominated New Zealand life throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. However, since World War II, New Zealand has moved towards its own unique national identity and place in the world.
The first European to sight New Zealand was Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. He was on an expedition to discover a great Southern continent ‘Great South Land’ that was believed to be rich in minerals. In 1642, while searching for this continent, Tasman sighted a ‘large high-lying land’ off the West Coast of the South Island.
First to discover New Zealand in 1642, Abel Tasman annexed the country for Holland under the name of ‘Staten Landt’ (later changed to ‘New Zealand’ by Dutch mapmakers). Sailing up the country’s West Coast, Tasman’s first contact with Maori was at the top of the South Island in what is now called Golden Bay. Two waka (canoes) full of Maori men sighted Tasman’s boat. Tasman sent out his men in a small boat, but various misunderstandings saw it rammed by one of the waka. In the resulting skirmish, four of Tasman’s men were killed.
Non-Profit Making Venture
Tasman never set foot on New Zealand, and after sailing up the West Coast, went on to some Pacific Islands, and then back to Batavia (now Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). His mission to New Zealand was considered unsuccessful by his employers, the Dutch East India Company, Tasman having found ‘no treasures or matters of great profit’.
Captain James Cook, sent to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, was also tasked with the search for the great southern continent thought to exist in the southern seas. Cook’s cabin boy, Young Nick, sighted a piece of land (now called Young Nick’s Head) near Gisborne in 1769.
Cook successfully circumnavigated and mapped the country. His botanists and other experts on board his ship, the Endeavour, gained considerable information about the country’s flora and fauna, and the native Maori inhabitants. Cook led two more expeditions to New Zealand, before being killed on a Hawaiian beach in 1779.
Prior to 1840, it was mainly whalers, sealers, and missionaries who came to New Zealand. These settlers had considerable contact with Maori, especially in coastal areas. Maori and Pakeha (Europeans) traded extensively, and some Europeans lived among Maori.
Before 1840, there were about 2000 Pakeha (Europeans) in New Zealand, most living in the Bay of Islands. At this time, intertribal Maori warfare was frequent, and the arrival of guns, which Maori traded from Pakeha, made it deadly. This, and the diseases brought by the Pakeha, had a terrible effect on the Maori population, and their numbers started to steeply decline.
With the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, New Zealand became a British colony. This saw a great increase in the number of British migrants coming to New Zealand. Many had their passage paid for by colonial companies. The systematic colonial settlement of New Zealand was largely based on the ideas of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who believed the colonial settlements should be modelled on the structures of British society. Many New Zealand cities and towns were established and populated in this way. These settlements were intended to be civilised and self-sufficient, with small farmers cultivating their land, and living in peace with the native people.
As more migrants arrived and more land was needed for them, land disputes with Maori increased. The ambiguity and lack of adherence to the Treaty of Waitangi saw grievances increase and skirmishes multiply. These turned into full-scale war in Northland during the mid 1840s, and in the rest of the country during the 1860s. British troops helped the New Zealand colonial forces during these conflicts, as did some Maori.
During the land wars Maori were victorious on many occasions. Incidents such as the defence of the Ohaewai Pa in Northland showed that Maori military engineering was sophisticated and often superior to Pakeha. However, the force and greater number of the colonial forces eventually saw the New Zealand Wars end in defeat for the Maori tribes. Soon afterwards, the government seized vast tracts of Maori land including prime farmland in Waikato and Taranaki. The major loss of land, combined with continued deaths from disease, saw the Maori population steeply decline, dropping to only about 40,000 by 1900.
Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, the ‘homeland’ of Britain had an enormous influence on New Zealand. Government administration, education, and culture were largely built on British models. New Zealand troops fought, and suffered severe casualties in the Boer War and the two World Wars. As Prime Minister Michael Savage said about England in 1939, ‘where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand’.
A New Buddy
After World War II, cultural ties with Great Britain remained strong. However, successive New Zealand governments saw the USA as their major ally and protector. New Zealand signed the joined SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organisation) and signed the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, and United States) Pact. New Zealand troops also fought with US forces during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Towards a Republic?
While New Zealand is still heavily influenced by its colonial heritage, the country now has its own strong sense of identity. While still a member of the British Commonwealth, and maintaining close, friendly relations with the USA, New Zealand now has a far more independent trading and foreign policy. Since the mid 1980s, New Zealand has been a nuclear free zone, with its armed forces primarily focused on peacekeeping in the Pacific region. Today, even conservative politicians talk openly about New Zealand eventually becoming a republic — something unheard of until quite recently.