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by  John Wilson

New Zealand’s human history is relatively short: it was the last habitable land mass in the world to be discovered, by the ancestors of Māori, probably in the late 13th century. Large-scale European settlement began in the 1840s, and the subsequent social, political and economic changes have moved New Zealand from British colonial outpost to multicultural Pacific nation.

Māori arrival and settlement

Discovery and migration

New Zealand has a shorter human history than any other country. The date of first settlement is a matter of debate, but current understanding is that the first arrivals came from East Polynesia in the late 13th century. It was not until 1642 that Europeans became aware the country existed.

The original Polynesian settlers discovered the country on deliberate voyages of exploration, navigating by making use of prevailing winds and ocean currents, and observing the stars. The navigator credited in some traditions with discovering New Zealand is Kupe. Some time later the first small groups arrived from Polynesia. Now known as Māori, these tribes did not identify themselves by a collective name until the arrival of Europeans when, to mark their distinctiveness the name Māori, meaning ‘ordinary’, came into use.

The Lapita pottery trail

Although New Zealand has abundant clay deposits, Māori people did not make pottery. But their distant ancestors brought the skill from South-East Asia across the Pacific as far as Samoa and Tonga before it was lost. Lapita pottery (named after a site in New Caledonia) is one of the ways we can trace the emergence of Polynesians in the Pacific. The motifs of Māori art in New Zealand clearly resemble the decoration on Lapita pottery.

Hunting and gathering

The early settlers lived in small hunting bands. Seals and the large, flightless moa bird were their main prey, until moa were hunted to extinction. In the South Island, hunting and gathering remained the main mode of survival.

Gardening and fishing

The Polynesians brought with them kūmara (sweet potatoes) and yams, which grew well in the warmer North Island. Extensive kūmara gardens supported relatively large settlements. But even in the north, birds, fish and shellfish were important in the Māori diet. In some northern areas, large populations put pressure on resources. The Polynesian dog and rat came with the early arrivals, but the domestic pigs and chickens of the islands did not, for reasons not fully understood.

A robust people

In favourable conditions, Māori lived reasonably well. Their life expectancy was low by modern standards, but comparable to that of Europeans in the same era. The Māori population before European contact may have reached 100,000.

An oral culture

Māori passed on rich and detailed history and legends orally. Society was organised around groups that traced their descent from common ancestors. Reciting whakapapa (genealogies) was an important way to communicate knowledge.


The concepts of mana (status) and utu (reciprocity) were central to the culture, and led to widespread warfare. But the violence was usually episodic. For most of the time Māori lived not in fortified but in unprotected settlements or seasonal camps.

Material culture

The greatest achievements of Māori material culture were carving wood for important buildings and canoes, and fashioning stone and bone into tools and ornaments. Warfare did not inhibit regular trade in desirable stones and foods, and was itself a means by which resources were appropriated.

Europeans to 1840


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.

British sovereignty and settlement

British intervention

In the 1830s the British government came under increasing pressure to curb lawlessness in New Zealand, to protect British traders, and to forestall the French, who also had imperial ambitions. The missionaries, for their part, wanted to protect Māori from the ill-effects of European settlement.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In 1833 James Busby was sent to the Bay of Islands as British Resident. At Busby’s instigation, northern chiefs adopted a flag in 1834 and signed a declaration of independence in 1835. Seven years after Busby’s arrival, at Waitangi on 6 February 1840, William Hobson, New Zealand’s first governor, invited assembled Māori chiefs to sign a treaty with the British Crown. The treaty was taken all round the country, as far south as Foveaux Strait, for signing by local chiefs, and eventually more than 500 signed.

Sovereignty and rights

Under the treaty, Māori ceded powers of government to Britain in return for the rights of British subjects and guaranteed possession of their lands and other ‘treasures’. In later years, differences of interpretation between the English and Māori texts complicated efforts to redress breaches of the treaty.

British sovereignty was proclaimed over New Zealand on the basis of Māori consent, though the South Island was initially claimed on the basis of discovery.

The ‘race’ for Akaroa

In the 19th century, the British and the French were rivals in the Pacific. The French had only minor interests in New Zealand, but the myth persists that the South Island only escaped being French because in the scramble to colonise Akaroa the British got there first. But by the time the French settlers and their naval escort reached New Zealand, the whole country was securely British. Lieutenant-Governor Hobson, learning the French were heading for Akaroa, did send Captain Stanley of the Britomart to demonstrate British sovereignty there. However, there was never any chance Cook Strait would become, like the English Channel, a sea passage separating English- and French-speaking regions.

European settlement begins

Even before the treaty had been signed, the New Zealand Company, inspired by the colonial promoter Edward Gibbon Wakefield, had despatched British settlers to Wellington. In the next two years, the company also founded Whanganui, Nelson and New Plymouth. Otago was founded in 1848 and Canterbury in 1850, both by New Zealand Company affiliates. Auckland, capital of the new Crown colony, grew independently.

European exploration

By the 1850s most of the interior of the North Island had been explored by Europeans, who were usually shown the way by Māori guides. New Zealand’s first Anglican bishop, George Selwyn, travelled widely. Much of the mountainous interior of the South Island was not explored until gold miners arrived in the 1860s.


When the British settlers sought self-government, the British Parliament passed the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852. This set up a central government with an elected House of Representatives, an appointed Legislative Council, and six (later 10) provincial governments. The settlers soon won the right to responsible government (by an executive supported by a majority in the elected assembly). But the governor, and through him the Colonial Office in London, retained control of ‘native’ and defence policy.

War, expansion and depression

Early clashes

In the 1840s there were clashes between Māori and Pākehā. In Marlborough’s Wairau Valley in 1843, a dispute over land led to bloodshed. The war in the north (1845–46) began when Hōne Heke cut down a flagpole flying the British flag at Russell. There was also fighting over land in the 1840s in Wellington and Whanganui. In the 1850s, disputes between Māori over the sale of land to Europeans kept Taranaki in ferment.

Land as the issue

Until the late 1850s, the government managed to purchase enough land to meet settler demands. But many Māori became increasingly reluctant to sell their land, which tribes owned collectively. The Māori King movement, under the leadership of Wiremu Tāmihana, grew in part out of Māori resistance to land sales. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero was chosen as the first Māori King in 1858.

War in Taranaki and Waikato

The flashpoint was Taranaki. The refusal of Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke to sell land at Waitara led to war in 1860. The efforts of Māori to retain their land were depicted by the settlers as a challenge to British sovereignty. Māori resistance was effectively crushed after Governor George Grey took war into Waikato in 1863–64.

Two chiefs, Te Kooti and Tītokowaru, campaigned in the late 1860s, but by 1872 fighting over land had ended. Large areas of land were confiscated from ‘rebellious’ tribes. A Native Land Court gave land titles to individual Māori, to facilitate sales to Pākehā.

After the wars, many Māori drew back from contact with European settlers. Most lived in isolated rural communities. Māori land continued to pass into Pākehā hands, usually by sale through the Native Land Court. In the 1870s the village of Parihaka became the centre of a peaceful protest, led by the prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, against occupation of confiscated land in Taranaki. In 1881 government forces invaded Parihaka in an attempt to crush this resistance.

‘No resting place’

When he was under pressure to sell his tribe’s land at Waitara, Te Āti Awa chief Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke wrote to Donald McLean, the chief land purchase commissioner: ‘These lands will not be given by us into the Governor’s and your hands, lest we resemble the sea-birds which perch upon a rock, when the tide flows the rock is covered by the sea and the birds take flight, for they have no resting place.’ 1

Gold and wool

While progress in the North Island was held back by war, the South Island forged ahead on the proceeds from wool and gold. Sheep were turned loose on South Island grasslands. After gold was discovered in Otago in 1861 and then on the West Coast, settlers flooded in. Six years later the discovery of gold at Thames boosted the town of Auckland.

Wool ensured that Canterbury became the wealthiest province, and gold made Dunedin the largest town.

Vogel’s programme

Towards the end of the 1860s, gold production fell and wool prices slipped. A new boost to growth came in 1870 when Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel proposed a loans-funded programme of public works, including the building of railways and assisted immigration. The population increased dramatically. The (non-Māori) census of 1871 recorded a total of about one-quarter of a million people; 10 years later there were half a million. Vogel’s policies, like those of Wakefield before him, were based on a belief that New Zealand would only grow if people and capital could both be attracted. This stimulated a sense of a single colony rather than separate settlements, and led to the abolition of the provinces in 1876.

A long depression

The aftermath of Vogel’s borrowing was an economic depression that lasted into the 1890s. After a brief boom in wheat, prices for farm products sagged. The market for land seized up. Hard times led to urban unemployment and sweated labour in industry. The country lost people through emigration, mostly to Australia.

The frozen-meat industry

Scarcely had depression gripped the country than future prosperity was anticipated with the first successful shipment of frozen meat to England in 1882. Exporting meat (frozen) and butter and cheese (chilled) became possible. After initial setbacks in refrigerated shipping, New Zealand became a British farm. With an economy based on agriculture, the landscape was transformed from forest to farmland.

    • Quoted in Ann Parsonson, ‘Te Rangitāke, Wiremu Kīngi, ?–1882’. Dictionary of New Zealand biography, › Back

Liberal to Labour

The Liberal era

The watershed election of 1890 put the Liberals, who were to become New Zealand’s first ‘modern’ political party, into power. From 1893 to 1906 the government was headed by ‘King Dick’ – Richard Seddon. The Liberals cemented in place New Zealand’s ‘family farm’ economy by subdividing large estates, buying Māori land in the North Island, and offering advances to settlers. Buoyant markets for New Zealand’s farm products ensured the success of these policies. The minister of lands, John McKenzie, championed the family farm. Farming progressed, especially in the north. By 1901 more than half the European population was living north of Cook Strait for the first time since the 1850s.

The state steps in

The Liberal government reinforced an established pattern of state involvement in the economy and regulation of society. Its old age pensions and workers’ dwellings anticipated the welfare state. In 1893, after campaigns led by women like Kate Sheppard, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote.

On the money

From 1887, Kate Sheppard led a nationwide campaign to obtain the vote for women. In 1893 this was achieved. Many years later, she was chosen to grace the country’s new $10 note. Her companions in honour were: (on the $5 note) Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mt Everest in 1953, Māori leader Sir Apirana Ngata (on the $50), and the scientist who split the atom, Ernest Rutherford (on the $100 note). Queen Elizabeth II, who once graced all the notes, now appears only on the $20.

Imperial loyalty

New Zealand’s close economic ties with Britain reinforced the loyalty of New Zealanders to an empire that secured their place in the world. This loyalty found expression in the despatch of troops to fight for Britain in the South African War in 1899. A self-confident nationalism was also evident, and New Zealand declined to join the Australian Federation formed in 1901.

The First World War

Liberal rule ended in 1912, when William Massey led the Reform Party to power, promising state leaseholders they could freehold their land. When the First World War broke out, New Zealand rallied to aid the Empire. Thousands served, and died, overseas. The 1915 landing at Gallipoli in Turkey was a coming of age for the country and established the potent Anzac tradition (named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) – a pride in New Zealand’s fighting men and the dominion’s special relationship with Australia. More New Zealand troops fought and died on the Western Front.


After some prosperous years in the later 1920s, the worldwide ‘Great Depression’ hit New Zealand hard. Export prices collapsed. Farmers faced difficulties over their mortgages, and urban unemployment soared. Discontent erupted in riots. A coalition government, dominated by Gordon Coates, failed to lift the country out of depression.

The rise of Labour

Organised labour flexed its muscles in the 1890 maritime strike, and in the Waihī and waterside strikes of 1912–13. Setbacks on the industrial front turned the labour movement towards political action. The Labour Party, founded in 1916, made uneven gains through the 1920s, then was swept into power under Michael Joseph Savage in 1935 by an electorate disillusioned with how the conservative coalition government had handled the depression. When Savage died in 1940, Peter Fraser became prime minister.

Labour in power

In power, the Labour Party, aided by an economic recovery already under way when it was elected, revived the economy further by pragmatic rather than doctrinaire socialist policies. The Reserve Bank was taken over by the state in 1936, spending on public works increased, and a state housing programme began. The Social Security Act 1938 dramatically extended the welfare state.

The Second World War

With the outbreak of the Second World War, New Zealand troops again fought overseas in support of the United Kingdom. The fall of Singapore shook New Zealanders’ confidence that Britain could guarantee the country’s security. During the war in the Pacific, the United States protected New Zealand against Japan. In the early 1950s, New Zealand troops fought in Korea. In the 1960s, concern to keep on side with this new protector prompted the National government of Keith Holyoake to send troops to Vietnam, despite popular protests.

Labour in decline

Labour remained in power through the Second World War, and in 1945 Peter Fraser played a significant role in the conference that set up the United Nations. But the party had lost the reforming zeal of the previous decade and its electoral support ebbed after the war.

The later 20th century

National in power

After Labour lost power in 1949, the conservative National Party ruled the country until 1984, interrupted by single-term Labour governments in 1957–60 and 1972–75. National Party Prime Minister Sidney Holland used the bitter 1951 waterfront dispute to consolidate his power by calling a snap election.

The British connection

New immigrants, still mainly British, flooded in while New Zealand remained prosperous by exporting farm products to Britain. The country’s culture remained based on Britain’s. In 1953 New Zealanders took pride that a countryman, Edmund Hillary, gave Queen Elizabeth II a coronation gift by reaching the summit of Mt Everest.

Royal visits

The first member of the British royal family to visit New Zealand was Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, in 1869–71. In 1901 the Duke and Duchess of York toured, the first visit by a future monarch (George V). In 1920 the Prince of Wales (who became, briefly, Edward VIII) dropped by and in 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York paid a visit. But it was not until 1953 that New Zealand hosted a reigning monarch. The people greeted the freshly crowned Queen Elizabeth II with delirious enthusiasm. Towns and cities were decorated and huge crowds turned out.

Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. New Zealand had already diversified its export trade, but the loss of an assured market for farm products was a blow. The first oil shock of 1973 contributed to the fall in 1975 of a Labour government which had been led until his death by Norman Kirk. After the second oil shock of 1978, the National government of Robert Muldoon tried to keep New Zealand prosperous by so-called ‘think big’ industrial and energy projects, and farm subsidies. The economy faltered as the fall of oil prices in the early 1980s made these schemes unsound. Inflation and unemployment mounted.

The ‘revolution’ of 1984

The fourth Labour government was elected in 1984. The minister of finance, Roger Douglas, was an ardent advocate of economic liberalisation. He removed most controls over the economy, privatised many state enterprises and called aspects of the welfare state into question. Many saw these measures as an assault on New Zealand’s egalitarian traditions.

In foreign affairs, Labour’s anti-nuclear policy ruptured relations with the United States.

National and Labour

The National government of 1990–99 pursued similar policies to Labour’s, passing the controversial Employment Contracts Act which opened up the labour market and diminished the power of trade unions. The government also mounted a more sustained attack on the welfare state, most obviously by cutting benefits.

After the 1996 introduction of a new voting system (mixed member proportional representation), minority or coalition governments became the norm, but National and Labour remained the major parties. Labour’s Helen Clark was prime minister from 1999 until 2008. She was succeeded by National’s John Key, who stepped down in 2016. A Labour-led government headed by Jacinda Ardern took office in 2017.

Māori in the 20th century

Most Māori continued to live in remote rural communities until the Second World War. But Māori society was dynamic. The Kotahitanga movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was evidence of Māori resilience. So were the land development work of Apirana Ngata and the revitalisation of the Māori King movement by Te Puea Hērangi. In the early 1920s Wiremu Rātana founded the Rātana Church.

Post-war Māori migration into the cities, together with Māori anger at their economic deprivation and concern about their mana and continuing loss of land, pushed race relations and the place of the Treaty of Waitangi into the forefront of national life.

Politics and sport

For many, sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa became a touchstone of race relations. During the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, New Zealand experienced divisive unrest. After the tour, attention turned to domestic race relations and to the need for New Zealanders to have a better understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Māori resurgence

Māori became more assertive. Some, alleging breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, wished to reclaim Māori sovereignty. The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to consider contemporary claims and address grievances. In 1985, the tribunal was empowered to look at breaches of the treaty since 1840. By 2020 more than $2 billion had been paid to iwi and hapū in acknowledgement of Crown breaches of the treaty.

Bicultural and multicultural

A Māori cultural renaissance, including efforts to foster the Māori language in the early 1980s, increased awareness that New Zealand society was bicultural. At the same time, more immigrants were arriving. Almost before it had been properly acknowledged that New Zealand was bicultural, it became multicultural – first in the composition of its population, more slowly in how it ran its national life. The country’s new Pasifika and Asian citizens were testament to the fact that New Zealand was no longer, culturally or economically, the offshore island of Europe it had seemed to earlier generations.

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'History', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 July 2021)

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