New Zealand became a modern state as a colony in the British Empire. It took its place as an independent actor in world affairs as a dominion of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Between John Cabot’s first voyage to Newfoundland in 1497 and the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the British Empire grew to be the largest and most powerful of all empires, before ending remarkably quickly – and largely peacefully – during the half-century after 1945.
One resulting legacy is the Commonwealth of 54 countries. For New Zealand, empire and Commonwealth marked out the country’s evolution and provided its first windows on the wider world.
The first British colonies, settled in the 1600s, were North American, in what would become Canada and the United States of America. In wars from 1740 to 1815, the British lost 13 of its North American colonies, but gained French Quebec (later Canada) and held on to 15 Caribbean colonies and four West African settlements. Through the same period de facto control was established in India. Along the sea route to India, Britain occupied various Dutch and French colonies – of which the Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and Ceylon were retained.
There was a ‘swing to the east’, which included the great voyages of Captain James Cook in the Pacific, drawing Australia and New Zealand into the system. To fill the place of lost American colonies, to which convicts had been shipped, New South Wales was settled in 1788. Britain reluctantly annexed New Zealand in 1840. Missionaries led the push. They argued that the increasing numbers of whalers, traders and settlers, their sometimes fractious relationship with Māori and the possibility of French annexation all demanded British action.
When Britain withdrew its last imperial garrison at a critical moment in the decade-long New Zealand wars, the colony’s leaders lobbied in London for empire unity with like-minded Canadians and Australians. This movement gave birth to the new label ‘imperialism’, which later changed in meaning to cover expansion of territory, power and influence.
After a major rebellion in India (the ‘Indian mutiny’) in 1858 the British government took direct control of all British possessions in India. Over time, the empire expanded beyond India’s frontiers – to the west, into the Arabian/Persian Gulf and a swathe of territories across East Africa; to the east, into Burma, Malaya, North Borneo, the Straits Settlements, Hong Kong, treaty ports in China – notably Shanghai – and, eventually, a naval base at Wei-hei-Wei in the north.
British expansion in the South Pacific was in large part ‘sub-imperialism’. By the 1870s the Australian colonies and New Zealand were keen for Britain to acquire these distant dependencies, which were relatively close to Australia and New Zealand, and in an ocean they wanted kept free of foreigners.
Crown colonies were established in Fiji and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (later Kiribati and Tuvalu), as was a protectorate in the Solomon Islands, a protected state in Tonga, and a condominium shared with France in the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu). Australia took over Papua in south-eastern New Guinea and New Zealand took over the Cook Islands and Niue.
New Zealanders were active in other parts of the empire too – they joined in the South African gold rushes from the 1870s, fought in the South African War (1899–1902), saw their gold dredges adapted to Malayan tin mining, and sent missionaries to India and China.