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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Pre-European Population and Early Days of Settlement

At the beginning of the last century New Zealand was occupied by a Maori population estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000, and by about 50 Europeans. Today the total population has passed 2½ million; and the Maoris, once considered to be a dying race, have a rate of natural increase twice that of the European population.

The actual size of the pre-European Maori population is uncertain. Captain Cook, whose first visit to New Zealand was in 1769, estimated that there were about 100,000 Maoris, but he did not visit some of the most populous inland centres, and his estimate was almost certainly low. In all likelihood the true figure was at least double this. There seems no doubt that contact with Europeans was speedily followed by a serious decline in Maori numbers.

Information on early European numbers is equally scanty. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was neither the need nor the machinery for collecting statistics of the small, scattered European settlements then existing. The figure of “about 50”, often quoted as the European population of New Zealand in 1800, is no more than a reasonable approximation. By 1815 the total of Europeans in New Zealand is believed to have been about 200. This increase reflects the expansion of trade and the growing numbers of traders and traders' agents settled ashore; the extension of whaling and sealing activities; and the establishment of the first mission. By the late 1830s the European population of New Zealand had risen to around 2,000.

In 1840 the first organised settlement, Britannia (Petone), was established by the New Zealand Company on the banks of the Hutt River. Threatened by flood, earthquake, and Maori hostility it was moved later that same year to Thorndon in Wellington. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the founder of the Company, planned a New Zealand which should reproduce a little contemporary England, with the same pattern of social classes and a small mixed-farm economy. His success was only partial, but the real achievement of the New Zealand Company lay in bringing out about 12,000 settlers between 1840 and 1850; in the founding of the settlements of Wellington, Nelson, Taranaki, and Wanganui; and in the inspiration and example it gave to the two new associations that founded Otago in 1848 and Canterbury in 1850. Auckland was made the capital of the colony in 1840.

As a result of these colonising efforts, the European population in the period 1840–50 increased over tenfold, from about 2,050 at the beginning of 1840 to 22,108 in 1850.

New Zealand was proclaimed a separate colony in 1841 and some form of statistical investigation into the population of the new colony seems to have taken place in that year. From that time onward the arrival of immigrants and the relatively rapid growth in population showed the need for accurate and regular statistical investigation. For some years it was the custom to take the count of the population annually in the different settlements, often under the supervision of the local resident magistrates. Apparently, whalers and others living in remote settlements were not included, and as there was no uniformity regarding date, method, or scope of the inquiry, it was impossible to compile accurate statistical data for the country as a whole. The statistics obtained were preserved in a series of manuscript Blue Books.


John Victor Tuwhakahewa Baker, M.A., M.COM., D.P.A., Government Statistician, Wellington.

Last updated 22-Apr-09