Story: History

Page 2. Europeans to 1840

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In 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman made the first known European discovery of New Zealand. He charted the country’s west coast from north of Greymouth up to Cape Maria van Diemen. Subsequently a Dutch mapmaker gave the name Nieuw Zeeland to the land Tasman had discovered. A surprisingly long time – 127 years – passed before another European reached New Zealand.

James Cook made landfall in New Zealand from the east in 1769, on the first of three voyages. Cook circumnavigated and mapped the three main islands and returned to Britain with reports about the country’s inhabitants and resources.

An Australian outpost

For 50 years after Sydney was founded in 1788, New Zealand was an economic and cultural outpost of New South Wales, and most of the earliest European settlers came from Sydney. In the late 18th century sealers and whalers began visiting; by the early 19th century some had begun to settle, and some to farm. During these years, New Zealand was part of a Pacific-wide trade system, and New Zealand goods were sold in China.

Māori–European interaction

The first European ‘town’ grew at Kororāreka when whalers began calling into the Bay of Islands for food and water. From the 1790s, Māori produced pork and potatoes for this trade. The other main area of early interaction between Māori and others was the Foveaux Strait sealing grounds. The presence of traders drew Māori to particular places; having a European living among them gave some tribal groups an advantage in the race to acquire European goods, especially firearms.


A Sydney chaplain, Samuel Marsden, founded the first Christian mission station in the Bay of Islands in 1814. By 1840 over 20 stations had been established. From missionaries, Māori learnt not just about Christianity but also about European farming techniques and trades, and how to read and write. The missionaries also transcribed the Māori language into written form. In the 1830s, French missionaries brought Catholicism to Māori.

Books – and bullets

The missionaries brought literacy as well as Christianity to Māori. The missionary William Yate began printing in Māori in 1830. The Church Missionary Society later sent a trained printer, William Colenso, and a proper press to Paihia, enabling complete books to be printed. By 1837 the full New Testament was available in Māori. However, some Māori were more interested in acquiring the lead type to cast bullets than they were in the books the missionaries printed.

Inter-tribal wars

Christianity would become important for Māori, but they were slow to convert. Muskets, traded for flax and potatoes, had a greater impact in the 1820s and 1830s than religion, and escalated the killings in tribal conflicts. The Ngāpuhi tribe, led by Hongi Hika, devastated southerly tribes, and Ngāti Toa, under Te Rauparaha, attacked Ngāi Tahu in the South Island. But diseases introduced by Europeans probably caused more fatalities than firearms.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'History - Europeans to 1840', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Apr 2020