Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

The New Zealanders

by  Jock Phillips

New Zealand is a land of immigrants from other places. But at some point, a distinct character, the New Zealander, emerged. This is the story of how those living or born in New Zealand have formed a unique people, with their own traditions and ways of life.

Māori New Zealanders

If New Zealand is a land of immigrants from other places, when did a separate character, the New Zealander, emerge? The answer cannot be an objective one; there is no genetic measure of a distinct ‘race’. New Zealanders began to exist when people said they did.

Māori perceptions

The first inhabitants of New Zealand probably did not think of themselves as a nation. With no remembered contact with peoples of other countries, Māori had no need to define themselves by the islands in which they lived. They identified themselves with smaller entities – the canoes in which their ancestors arrived from Polynesia, and their tribes and sub-tribes.

The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to reach the country, in 1642, followed in 1769 by the Briton James Cook and the Frenchman Jean François Marie de Surville. When newcomers first appeared in their waters, Māori placed them within their own world view as returning ancestors or supernatural beings.

In the 19th century, as Māori began to visit other lands and to see the newcomers as people with different languages and customs, they perceived themselves as tangata māori, ‘ordinary’ or ‘usual people’. In contrast, others became tangata mā (white people), tangata pora (strange people), tangata tupua (foreign or demonic people) and eventually Pākehā (non-Māori, or European), a term which was in use by 1815.

Māori as New Zealanders

The first Europeans in New Zealand did not use these terms. Abel Tasman described the inhabitants as ‘Indians’, a European term for indigenous peoples of other places. By the time of Cook’s voyages, the country had been given the Dutch name Nieuw Zeeland on European maps. From 1769 the local people, the Māori, were called New Zealanders by the visitors; this continued for the next 80 years. Europeans in New Zealand did not wish to be considered ‘New Zealanders’. In George Craik’s 1830 book about Māori, The New Zealanders, a Pākehā–Māori man is introduced as ‘a white New Zealander’ and promptly responds that he is ‘not a New Zealander, but an Englishman’. 1

    • George L. Craik, The New Zealanders. London: Charles Knight, 1830, p. 275. › Back

European New Zealanders

Until 1840 people in New Zealand other than Māori were few in number and often on temporary visits, so there was little need to refine the distinction between New Zealanders (Māori) and Europeans. But as the European population increased they realised their interests and attitudes were different from those who were only visiting. New terms appeared. Those who came out on New Zealand Company ships to obtain land and settle were ‘colonists’ or ‘settlers’. Hybrid names such as ‘Anglo-Māori’ or ‘Anglo-New Zealander’ were occasionally used, but did not catch on.

From the 1830s Europeans had begun to call the indigenous people Māori – or more often ‘Māoris’. This allowed a change of meaning for the term ‘New Zealander’. So from the early 1850s people began to describe the European inhabitants as New Zealanders. As late as 1859 the historian A. S. Thomson still referred to Māori by this name, but he was unusual. In 1854 for example, Thomas Cholmondeley, an English visitor, noted that ‘the New Zealander will retain more of the Briton than any other colonist’, a remark which suggests that for him Māori were not even included in the concept. 1 By the end of the 1850s, as the non-Māori population rose to over 100,000, ‘New Zealanders’ were those with white faces, not brown.


The European residents of New Zealand now had a name; they had yet to develop a sense of who they were. The emergence of other terms suggested that people who were bred, if not born in New Zealand, did begin to see themselves as different from homeland British. One such term was the ‘colonial’ – at first this meant simply a person living in the British colonies, but it took on richer meanings in the phrase ‘colonial experience’ which, as the politician William Pember Reeves noted, ‘means the rapid power of adaptability to circumstance’. 2

Another revealing distinction was between the ‘old chum’ and the ‘new chum’, terms which appeared in local writings and cartoons from the 1860s. The old chum was rich in ‘colonial experience’; the new chum was ‘green’ – fresh off the boat with the habits and pretensions of British ‘civilisation’. The implication was that colonials had been moulded by the harsh conditions of the frontier: they could turn their hands to anything, and could rough it in the bush. A number of New Zealand novels of the 1870s and 1880s describe how the hero learns to endure physical discomfort and survive, to become ‘colonised’.

A stereotype was emerging of the white colonial man or woman who was adaptable and physically strong, but lacked cultural interests. As the explorer and writer Samuel Butler remarked in 1868, ‘New Zealand seems far better adapted to develop and maintain … the physical than the intellectual nature … it does not pay to speak about John Sebastian Bach’s Fugues, or pre-Raphaelite pictures.’ 3

Climate and character

Geography is destiny

One of those who believed the physical features of New Zealand would make its people superior to Australians was the eminent English historian James Anthony Froude. In his book Oceana (1886) he argued that the variety of the New Zealand scenery would quicken the mind: ‘it will be in the unexhausted soil and spiritual capabilities of New Zealand that the great English poets, artists, philosophers, statesmen, soldiers of the future will be born and nurtured.’ 4

The assumption was that a new people were being moulded by the New Zealand environment. Some talked about the sense of freedom that came from roaming the empty landscape, among mountains or along beaches. Others talked of the climate. There was a common view that the hot climate of Australia was unsuited to the higher development of mankind, but when the ethnologist Alfred Kingcome Newman claimed that there was evidence of similar inferiority in New Zealand, he was opposed. Instead people suggested that New Zealanders, like the English, were an island people and that the bracing climate of New Zealand was in fact character forming.

  1. Harry Orsman, ed., The dictionary of New Zealand English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 534. › Back
  2. The dictionary of New Zealand English, p. 162. › Back
  3. Samuel Butler, A first year in Canterbury settlement. London: Longman, 1868, p. 50. › Back
  4. J. C. Reid and Peter Cape, eds, A book of New Zealand. Revised edition. London: Collins, 1979, p. 260. › Back


British citizens

If Europeans living in New Zealand in the 19th century had been asked their nationality, most would have said ‘British’. All, except those born in non-British countries, were legally British subjects. Any sense of being a New Zealander necessarily existed within this broader identity.

Racial ideas

To be ‘British’ emphasised the importance of heredity. Indeed, New Zealand settlers believed that because they had been chosen by the New Zealand Company, they were superior to the convict stock across the Tasman Sea in Australia. At the end of the 19th century racial ideas became stronger as the new science of genetics emerged. European New Zealanders generally considered themselves members of the Anglo-Saxon, even Caucasian race. They were committed to maintaining an Anglo-Saxon society, and took legislative action to keep non-white immigrants out of the country in the 1880s and 1890s. Even continental Europeans such as Dalmatians were not considered desirable, and their right to dig the kauri gumfields was restricted.

New British

People living in Great Britain were distinguished by regional cultures, dialects and even languages. The Scots and Irish were different from the English, and even within England there were noticeable variations – for example between the Cornish and Liverpudlians.

However, in New Zealand these distinctions faded as people intermarried and cultures mixed. An amalgamated Britishness appeared. The New Zealand politician William Pember Reeves claimed that New Zealanders were British ‘in a sense in which the inhabitants of the British Islands scarcely are.’ 1 After one generation in New Zealand the Irish and Gaelic languages disappeared, and a more generalised loyalty to Britain developed. School pupils learnt about the heroes of Britain and read British literature. Most of this was in fact English culture, although certain Scottish writers like Walter Scott had their place. Even the Irish, who followed the fortunes of their homeland politically, played the English game of rugby football. The sense of being Britons was a necessary prelude to becoming New Zealanders.

  1. Quoted in Keith Sinclair, A destiny apart. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson, 1986, p. 87. › Back

Better Britons

New influences

At the end of the 19th century a stronger sense of a New Zealand people, albeit as part of the British people, emerged. A number of factors assisted this:

  • The proportion of non-Māori people who had been born in the country increased. The census of 1886 showed that this group formed the majority.
  • Improved communications – railways and telegraph, and the highly mobile character of the population strengthened awareness of similarities across the country.
  • Compulsory schooling from 1877 and the spread of newspapers helped shape a common culture.
  • A succession of overseas visitors and commentators such as Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope commented on local characteristics and showed New Zealanders how others perceived them.

Brits rule

It took a long time for New Zealand-born people to achieve influence in their own country. The first to become a member of Parliament was John Sheehan in 1872, and in the 36 years from 1854 to 1890, only 39 of 449 MPs were born in New Zealand. This included a significant number of Māori.

Emerging nationalism

In the 1890s a New Zealand Natives Association was established ‘to create a feeling of patriotism and nationality’ among the New Zealand-born community. 1 It attracted 2,500 members, but did not have the impact of similar associations in Australia.

The period also saw the publication of several journals with nationalist manifestos such as Zealandia (1889) and New Zealand Illustrated (1899), and a considerable output of poems and novels. These often explored the influence of the landscape and the bush on the national psyche. But the literary movement also petered out in the new century.

The sense of a distinctive New Zealand people was intensified by circumstances that catapulted New Zealand into the world, and forced its people to compare themselves with others.

Liberal reformers

The first event was the arrival of a reforming Liberal government in 1890. Their new laws in effect proclaimed a set of values which had emerged within the new society.

The policies of this government had roots in the propaganda fed to immigrants in the 1870s. To attract settlers from Britain and Europe, recruiting agents promised a new world of material abundance and relative class equality, where the grasping landlord and the exploitative factory owner had no place. The depression of the 1880s brought these promises into question. Huge land holdings, unemployment, sweatshops and strikes appeared.

The Liberals set out to restore the migrant dream. They broke up great estates, enacted factory legislation, introduced industrial conciliation and arbitration, and brought in pensions for old people. At the same time they introduced votes for women, making New Zealand the first country to do so. This in part reflected a recognition that in the New World, women had to take on a wider range of responsibilities.

‘God’s own country’

Such measures attracted political observers such as Henry Demarest Lloyd from Chicago, Beatrice and Sidney Webb from Britain, and André Siegfried from France. The new laws and outsiders’ comments made evident New Zealanders’ distinctive characteristics. Visitors had long noted that in New Zealand ‘every man is not only as good as his neighbour, but a great deal better’. 2 Now the egalitarian ethos became accepted as part of the New Zealander’s identity. Some, especially Siegfried, noted how pragmatic and free of ideology the reforms were. New Zealand came to be seen as ‘the social laboratory of the world’.

Presiding over the government was a loud-talking nationalist, Richard Seddon, who was proud to lecture others on the virtues of his country even while not comfortable with changes such as female suffrage. Seddon was British by birth and always saw himself and his country as British, but ‘better British’ – without the perils that came with cities and extremes of wealth. New Zealand was in his words (also adopted by Australia) ‘God’s own country’.

  1. New Zealand Herald, 12 September 1894. › Back
  2. Governor Gore Brown, 1859, quoted in Keith Sinclair, A destiny apart. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson, 1986, p. 10. › Back



After the advent of the Liberal government, another public event that helped New Zealanders define themselves was the opportunity of federation with Australia. Many of New Zealand’s 19th-century migrants had come via Australia, and some were Australian-born. Like Australians, New Zealanders were ‘colonials’ and sometimes even ‘Australasians’.


At the end of the 19th century, as Australia moved towards federating the separate colonies of Australia, New Zealanders decided to go it alone. There were many reasons for this. Old distinctions of a hot continent versus a bracing island environment, and convict stock versus New Zealand’s ‘chosen people’, were raised again. But the major factor was the 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometres) across the Tasman Sea which provided, in politician Sir John Hall’s words, 1,200 reasons against joining the federation. Another significant consideration was the different treatment of Māori that was likely to follow union with Australia. The place of Māori in New Zealand identity became an important point of distinction.

New Zealand as Maoriland

Australians were also searching for a sense of national character, which they found in the ‘bush legend’ about the hard-bitten people of the outback. The Bulletin magazine became the famous vehicle for this legend. The Bulletin had extensive coverage of New Zealand topics under the heading ‘Maoriland’. This was partly because there were a few Europeans in New Zealand who saw their identity as growing out of Māori tradition. Rather than advocating the adoption of Māori language and rituals, they believed that Māori legends could provide an instant history for newcomers, and that Māori could make, as the novelist Arthur Adams wrote, a contribution to ‘the New Zealand race of the future’ in the form of ‘a physique and a vitality that belong to primitive things’. 1

Such a vision was possible, not only because the Māori population was by 1900 under 50,000 and posed no military threat to Pākehā dominance, but also because some intellectuals believed Māori had peculiarly Anglo-Saxon qualities. They were seen as warriors, sailors and poets – a people, the journalist James Cowan noted, ‘whose love of the sea and pride in deeds of battle show strangely close affinity to some of the dominant traits of the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic race’ 2 .

The Aryan Māori

In 1885 Edward Tregear, amateur ethnographer and later a leading public servant, published The Aryan Maori, in which he used linguistic evidence in an attempt to show that Māori were descended from people who had spread east from the Caucasus in south-east Europe, just as others moved west into Europe. In his interpretation, the Aryan race was reunited in New Zealand as Māori and Europeans mingled.

Such thinking was never universal in New Zealand, but strengthened the view that ‘our Maoris’ should be included as ‘honorary whites’ among the rest of the population. In 1901 the women’s suffrage leader Kate Sheppard said, ‘Maori and Pakeha have become one people, under one Sovereign and one Parliament, glorying alike in the one title of “New Zealander”’. 3

One people

As for Māori, many never considered themselves part of the ‘one people’ proclaimed by William Hobson at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The ‘amalgamation’ practised by the missionaries seemed to mean the replacement of Māori culture by British ‘civilisation’.

From the late 1850s the sense of a separate Māori nation emerged, finding expression first in the Māori King movement and later, in the 1890s, in the Kotahitanga (unity) movement, and the holding of separate Māori parliaments.

During the First World War there were some Māori, especially those in Waikato, who resisted any suggestion that they should fight for king and country. Others shared the view of those such as Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) who, addressing the Māori forces on the battlefield at Gallipoli in Turkey, claimed that ‘we are the old New Zealanders. No division can be truly called a New Zealand division, unless it numbers Maoris among its ranks.’ 4 The politician Māui Pōmare also claimed that the war confirmed the union of Māori and Pākehā as New Zealanders ‘when their blood co-mingled in the trenches of Gallipoli’. 5

98.12% British

In the 19th century it seemed that the term ‘New Zealanders’ might exclude Māori. By 1920 few European New Zealanders understood it this way, although there would always be Māori who challenged their view. When in 1919 the politician G. W. Russell described New Zealanders as 98.12% British, Māori were included in his statistic. 6 Meanwhile a campaign was launched in the early 1920s to abolish the term ‘Australasian’.

  1. Arthur H. Adams, Tussock land: a romance of New Zealand and the Commonwealth. London: T. F. Unwin, 1904, p. 31. › Back
  2. James Cowan, The Maoris of New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1910, p. 8. › Back
  3. National Council of Women, conference report, 1901, pp. 13–14. › Back
  4. J. B. Condliffe, Te Rangi Hiroa: the life of Sir Peter Buck. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1971, pp. 127–8. › Back
  5. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) 177 (1916), p. 942. › Back
  6. G. Warren Russell, New Zealand today: ‘a priceless gem in the imperial crown’. Christchurch: G. W. Russell, 1919, p. 115. › Back

A man’s country

The South African War

Ten contingents of some 6,000 New Zealand men served in South Africa from 1899 to 1902. Of these, 230 died, over half from disease. Their actions were followed closely at home. Though the men left in response to ‘the call of mother England’ and to ensure, in the words of Premier Richard Seddon, that ‘our race … could and should be the dominant race of the world’, national pride became important. 1 Newspapers quoted observations about ‘our boys’ and reprinted letters from soldiers comparing themselves with others.

Perfect physical specimens

Older images were confirmed, and new ones established. The New Zealanders were said to be (again quoting Seddon) ‘as perfect in physique as it falls to the lot of the most favoured of our race to be’. 2

Colonial giants

Describing the New Zealand troops in South Africa, an English officer said, ‘I don’t suppose there is a man under six feet, and I should say quite half of them go up to 6ft. 4in. or 5in.’ In fact their average height was 5 ft 9½ in. (1.76 m). 3

The New Zealand soldiers were strong, courageous and adaptable, toughened by a pioneering heritage and experience of the frontier. Cool under fire, they were natural leaders who had initiative and were not crippled by English red tape. They were said to be a classless group whose obedience derived from loyalty to mates, not respect for officers. Despite such plaudits, the New Zealand troopers were seen as modest heroes with ‘not the slightest pretension’ or ‘self-glorification’. 4

The British had less confidence in their own men. Many recruits had been rejected on medical grounds, and a 1904 parliamentary committee on the ‘physical deterioration’ of the race raised fears that Britain’s urbanisation was making men soft. In this context the success of the colonial troops was reassuring.

The All Blacks

The point became clearer in 1905 when New Zealand’s All Black rugby team toured England and Wales. Their phenomenal success on the field encouraged British observers to suggest ‘a great historical and ethnological fact’: in the colony the transplanted Britisher was made better 5 . New Zealand’s bracing climate, her outdoor life and lack of cities made men stronger and larger.

Internalising these views, New Zealanders saw a distinctive role for themselves in preserving the race and empire from decadence. The qualities of the players were generalised into characteristics of the country’s people – their cleverness on the field could be read as colonial initiative and versatility, their teamwork as mateship and lack of class division. When they returned to cheering crowds and a formal welcome by the so-called ‘Minister of Football’, Richard Seddon, they were praised because the flattery had not ‘turned their heads in any degree’. 6

  1. Malcolm Ross, A souvenir of New Zealand’s response to the Empire’s call. Wellington: McKee, 1899, p. 1; New Zealand Times, 23 October 1899. › Back
  2. Otago Daily Times, 26 March 1900. › Back
  3. Evening Post, 21 February 1900. › Back
  4. Otago Daily Times, 23 January 1900. › Back
  5. Evening Post, 18 November 1905. › Back
  6. Jock Phillips, A man’s country? Auckland: Penguin, p. 117. › Back

Empire’s loyal sons

Birth of a nation?

Fighting on the South African veldt and competition on English rugby grounds proved small adventures once the First World War broke out in 1914. Over the next four years 124,211 New Zealand men served in the war, and almost half were either killed or wounded. This constituted a national trauma. The legend emerged that on the rocky slopes of Gallipoli in 1915 and in the muddy trenches of France and Flanders the New Zealand people achieved a sense of nationhood.

National independence

It is hard to prove that the war induced New Zealanders to consider themselves a separate people from the British. However, some New Zealand soldiers did acquire a contempt for many things British.

Sniping at Mother England

One New Zealand soldier, an officer and an Anglican, wrote back after some time in England that ‘the general opinion is that we should hand it over to the Germans and apologise to them for having nothing better to give them.’ 1

Other New Zealanders, socialists and supporters of the Māori King movement, also questioned any obligation to the British Empire. But their numbers were few. It was as Britons, albeit superior to the ‘old country’ variety, that most New Zealanders thought of themselves in the war years. New Zealanders’ encounters with Asian people in Colombo or with Arabs in Cairo reinforced their pride in belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.


Yet within this framework war helped New Zealanders define themselves, in part from the sense that they were different. The soldiers met Australians and judged them ‘a loose beery lot’, more rowdy and uncouth than themselves. They met the English and considered them ‘a lot of half-grown boys’. 2 They met Scots and warmed to their lack of class-consciousness. New Zealand soldiers used new terms to describe themselves – ‘Enzedders’, ‘Fernleaves’ (referring to the native fern) ‘Diggers’ (from the gold and gum diggers) and for the first time, towards the end of the war, ‘Kiwis’ (after the native flightless bird). They developed common swear words and banter. The mateship which grew among men enduring harsh conditions and starved of family cemented a sense of a common nationality.

Flower of the world’s manhood

Once again people at home consumed press reports and foreign judgements on ‘our boys’. The comment made by British poet John Masefield that the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were the ‘flower of the world’s manhood’ was quoted endlessly. The idea re-emerged that New Zealanders were better fitted for these struggles because of their pioneering heritage. While people at home viewed the New Zealand soldier as a ‘natural gentleman’, among the troops the reality of nights on the booze and queues at the brothel suggested another emerging type: the ‘hard-case’ Kiwi.

Meanwhile the widely recognised commitment of New Zealand women to the cause, as patient, long-suffering mothers, as raisers of funds, as nurses, as knitters of socks and bakers of Anzac biscuits, strengthened the perception that they too were capable, brave and adept in domestic virtues.

  1. Peter Howden to Rhoda Bristow, 3 April 1917, in Jock Phillips and others, The great adventure. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1988, p. 169. › Back
  2. George Bollinger, diary, 19 December 1914. Alexander Turnbull Library. › Back

‘Where Britain goes, we go’

That New Zealanders still thought of themselves as British became evident once the Great War of 1914–18 was over. Peace brought regulations restricting non-European immigrants, along with programmes to attract more people from Britain. In 1920 the Prince of Wales toured the country to crowds of adoring admirers. The next year, saluting the flag was made compulsory in schools once a week – but the flag was Great Britain’s Union Jack, just as the national anthem was still ‘God save the King’. A new history text for use in the last year of primary school called Our nation’s story concerned Britain, not New Zealand; just as New Zealand writer Alan Mulgan’s book Home concerned a tour of England, not New Zealand, his actual homeland.

New Zealand way of life

At the same time, during the 1920s a distinctive way of life continued to evolve. By 1921, three-quarters of the nation were born New Zealanders. The house and garden in the suburbs became most New Zealanders’ dream. With improved transport, especially cars, the beach became a popular attraction, identified as a highlight of the Kiwi lifestyle. Baches (weekend cottages) and camping grounds appeared. People discovered the mountains and the bush, and tramping and hunting became popular weekend pursuits.

The building of large grandstands at race courses and rugby grounds signalled the arrival of these major spectator sports, and when the Invincibles rugby team paraded after their unbeaten tour of Britain there were crowds six deep. During the war the ritual pre-closing ‘six o’clock swill’ at pubs had been introduced, becoming a part of many New Zealanders’ lives. Observers noted the emergence of a distinct accent and particular phrases.

Far from Home

In the 1920s there were efforts to settle British immigrants as farm labourers where they might ‘become true New Zealanders’, but those who settled in the city faced considerable antipathy as ‘homies’ 1 :

‘Who moans and always has a grouse,
But never seems to have the nouse
To know five bob won’t rent a house?
The Homie …’ 2


During the years between the world wars, writers began to portray the New Zealand character. Returned soldier Frank Anthony wrote humorous tales in his ‘Me and Gus’ collections. His heroes were backblocks men, speaking a Kiwi lingo. In Europe the expatriate Katherine Mansfield wrote in a different style, but still in search of her roots. As the economic depression arrived in the late 1920s, there was a stronger push for nationalist writing. Neither the prose of John Mulgan, Robin Hyde and Frank Sargeson, nor the poetry of Allen Curnow and Denis Glover achieved a large public following over the next few decades. However, they all explored the particularities of the New Zealand condition, whether through the characters of Glover’s ‘Arawata Bill’ or Mulgan’s ‘man alone’, or the vernacular of Sargeson.

Centennial year

From 1935 the Labour government’s expansion of the welfare state heightened New Zealanders’ sense that theirs was a distinctively experimental, egalitarian and humanitarian country. The government saw the 1940 centennial of the Treaty of Waitangi as a way of encouraging national identity. The displays at the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington and the 30-part publication Making New Zealand were conscious efforts at promoting and articulating a national consciousness. Frank Sargeson won the centennial short story competition with a piece entitled ‘The making of a New Zealander’.

Yet these developments did not challenge the sense that New Zealanders were essentially British. When the world again went to war in September 1939, the cry was ‘where Britain goes, we go.’

  1. The Country (20 September 1923): 20. › Back
  2. N.Z. 1, no. 2 (1 August 1925). › Back


War heroes

Like previous conflicts, the Second World War allowed New Zealanders to judge themselves against the world. Abroad, soldiers compared themselves with others; at home, newspaper and radio accounts, tributes of Allied leaders, and a flood of books, official and unofficial, provided a picture of New Zealanders – or at least of their adult men. They continued to be regarded as good at war. Defeats in Greece and Crete and initially in North Africa were blamed on poor British decision-making. Victories at El Alamein (North Africa) and in Italy were attributed in part to the New Zealanders’ courage and strength. On meeting his compatriots in North Africa in 1942, the writer John Mulgan noted, ‘Everything that was good from that small, remote country had gone into them – sunshine and strength, good sense, patience, the versatility of practical men. And they marched into history.’ 1

Backblocks hero

The secret of New Zealanders’ success in war was said to be the rigours of rural life. The double Victoria Cross winner Charles Upham was described as ‘the typical New Zealand soldier’ who developed his qualities as a musterer in high country Canterbury, ‘where men have to match the ruggedness of nature with their own ruggedness of physique and temperament.’ 2

Hard men

While there was much that was familiar in the image of the New Zealander at war – the egalitarian spirit of the officer who led from the front ‘as one of the boys’, the emphasis on the quiet unemotional nature of mateship – there were subtle changes. New Zealand men were no longer regarded as notably tall, but as strong and wiry. And there was a growing acceptance that they not only fought hard, but also played hard. New Zealand writer Dan Davin wrote, ‘you couldn’t have the wild dash of the Galatas counterattack or, after it, the grim steadiness of that ferocious withdrawal over Crete’s spine without this same discharge of vigour in the drunken backstreets of Cairo where pimps prospered and gutters stank of piss.’ 3 The war also saw a full acceptance by both Māori and Pākehā of their joint identity as New Zealanders. This time Waikato Māori enlisted, and while the Māori Battalion was a separate unit, both peoples joined in a mutual pride in its reputation.

Corker lingo

When American servicemen arrived in 1942 the New Zealand government gave them a booklet, Meet New Zealand, which gave definitions of Kiwi slang. Here are some examples:

BLOKE: a man
CORKER: very good
COW: may just mean cow, but may also mean an unpleasant man, woman or situation. These things may also be called, progressively, a FAIR COW, and a FAIR ADJECTIVAL COW.

CROOK: ill, bad. To FEEL CROOK, to feel ill. A CROOK BOSS, a bad employer.
PINCH: steal
SKITE: boast, brag (verb), boaster (noun)
TOO RIGHT: certainly, sure

Brave women

Once again war reinforced the reputation of New Zealand women as physically and emotionally capable. Whether serving overseas as nurses or working in factories, they too came to be regarded as strong and adaptable, and their stoicism while the men were overseas reinforced their image as committed and effective home-makers. By the late 1940s their ability to ‘make do’ was legendary.

Still British

The war did not disrupt the sense that New Zealanders were essentially British. Most New Zealanders approved when, at the end of the North African campaign, the troops stayed in Europe to fight Britain’s fight rather than return like the Australians to the Pacific, and there was a strong commitment to the ‘food for Britain’ campaigns. The presence of up to 100,000 Americans in Auckland and Wellington from 1942 reinforced a sense of how different New Zealanders were from the ‘Yankees’.

  1. John Mulgan, Report on experience. London: Oxford University Press, 1947, p. 15. › Back
  2. Kenneth Sandford, Mark of the lion: the story of Charles Upham, V.C. and Bar. London: Hutchinson, 1962, p. 20. › Back
  3. Dan Davin, For the rest of our lives. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1947, p. 56. › Back

Post-war New Zealanders

In July 1952 Yvette Williams won the long jump at the Olympic Games and became the darling of the nation. New Zealanders’ athletic abilities were displayed to the world. Less than a year later in May 1953 the New Zealand beekeeper, Edmund Hillary, ‘knocked the bastard off’ – he and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mt Everest. The feat was accomplished as part of a British expedition on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and was seen as a British achievement. At the same time the craggy-featured, modest, immensely strong New Zealander became the face of the nation, and 50 years later that face still stared from the Kiwi $5 bill.

The royal tour

Six months later the new Queen and Prince Philip toured the country. The crowds turned out in hordes, waving the Union Jack in adoration. While they waited they sang British favourites such as ‘Land of hope and glory’ and ‘There’ll always be an England.’ The tour stimulated national loyalty to the empire and presented New Zealanders to the world. At Dunedin’s Carisbrook sports ground Yvette Williams performed for the royal visitors.

True colours

When Queen Elizabeth II toured in the summer of 1953–54, New Zealanders went to extraordinary lengths to express their patriotism. Some dyed sheep and horses in the British flag’s red, white and blue. In Invercargill a loaf of bread was baked in the same colours, while in New Plymouth bowling club members on their greens, the pony club with their horses and the aero club with their planes high above the city all formed the letter E. It stood for Elizabeth, but it might well have stood for Empire, or England.

The world saw a people whose prosperity was based on the hard work of pioneers, which had turned the country into a productive garden; a people protected by a generous welfare state, who believed New Zealand was the best place to bring up children.

When the Queen visited the Truby King–Harris hospital for babies and children in Dunedin, she was told that the children were ‘so scrubbed and shining, so healthy and tanned, so wholesomely fed and sensibly clad, they have been the best possible advertisement for our climate, our products, our health education, and above all, our way of life.’ 1

New Zealanders were also a harmonious people with the ‘best race relations in the world’. Yet during the royal tour there was no display of Māori culture in its tribal variety or richness. There was just one major Māori reception at Rotorua, and the emphasis was on demonstrating how well Māori were assimilated – ‘to show the royal visitors the relationship existing between the two races – both forming what we call New Zealanders.’ 2

Not an intellectual people

Other aspects of New Zealand culture were not a feature on the royal tour. The Queen saw no local plays or films, visited no galleries, read no New Zealand novels. In 1953 most New Zealanders did not think of themselves as a highly cultured people. Not surprisingly, intellectuals, feeling ignored and isolated, painted a less positive view of their fellow nationals. Appalled at the suppression of civil liberties in the 1951 waterfront industrial dispute, writer Bill Pearson left the country to pen a fierce portrait of New Zealanders as ‘fretful sleepers’, a people who were puritanical and repressive, given over to small-town prejudices and a hypocritical concern for respectability. 3

Others, such as Robert Chapman and Phoebe Meikle, attacked the separation of gender roles; and novelists such as Janet Frame, Ian Cross and Sylvia Ashton-Warner presented an unhappy picture of a society where creative individuals were repressed and race relations poor. Foreign commentators too began to criticise New Zealanders. In The fern and the tiki (1960) a visiting American, David Ausubel, argued that New Zealanders suffered from an authoritarian education which created a repressed hostility beneath their calm exterior. His analysis was not well received.

A sporting paradise

The best selling novel in 1960 was Barry Crump’s A good keen man – the tough deer-culler, a man alone, uncomfortable with women or cities, accorded with the stereotype of the New Zealand male. The most popular outside view came from Englishman Austin Mitchell in 1972, with his Half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise. This affectionately presented New Zealanders as a decent but quaint people, characterised by big drinking and bigger partying. Mitchell’s was a gentler version of the stereotype which had by the 1960s become standard: that New Zealanders were governed by the triumvirate of rugby, racing and beer.

    • Plunket News, February 1954, pp. 3–4. › Back
    • IA (Internal Affairs), 1,184/40, part 1 (Archives New Zealand). › Back
    • Bill Pearson, ‘Fretful sleepers: a sketch of New Zealand behaviour and its implications for the artist.’ Landfall 6, no. 23 (September 1952): 201–230. › Back

Ordinary blokes and extraordinary sheilas

A changing people

From the mid-1960s social change brought the stereotypes of men and women into question. As higher education expanded and cities grew, the backblocks image became an anachronism. New Zealanders were exposed to wider influences through education, television and travel. In the early 1970s the satirist John Clarke created the popular television persona of Fred Dagg, a laconic farmer in black singlet and gumboots. People laughed at the caricature, in part because it was of an earlier era.

Decline of British power

The sense of belonging to the British Empire faded as British power diminished and the empire disappeared. When Britain entered the European Economic Community in 1973, New Zealanders confronted the reality that the empire would no longer pay the bills. In 1975 assisted immigration from Britain was stopped, and by then New Zealanders had one of their own as governor-general rather than the traditional lesser British aristocrat. Although Prime Minister Robert Muldoon sent off a New Zealand frigate to support the mother country in the Falklands War in 1982, many greeted the move with derision.

Peacekeepers, not war heroes

When, at the request of the United States, the New Zealand government sent troops to fight in the Vietnam War, widespread protest erupted on the streets. Some proposed that New Zealand assert itself as a small independent country with a role as peacemaker in the age of nuclear warfare. This vision grew during the 1970s and early 1980s with protests against visiting American nuclear ships, and climaxed when New Zealand became nuclear free in 1985. In that year Prime Minister David Lange won the argument for an anti-nuclear world at the Oxford Union Debate, presenting a very different stance from the traditional, triumphant hero of the battlefield. Since 1985 New Zealanders have served as peacekeepers, travelling to trouble spots in the Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Protesters, not rugby players

As late as 1975 a book entitled The New Zealanders featured an image of the All Black rugby forward Colin Meads carrying a sheep under each arm. But this stereotype was being challenged. The catalyst was the attempt to isolate South Africa for its apartheid policies. In 1973 Prime Minister Norman Kirk cancelled a proposed tour by South Africa’s Springbok rugby team, but a subsequent leader, Robert Muldoon, appealing to the ‘ordinary bloke’, determined that rugby would proceed and refused to stop the 1981 tour. The result was 56 days of conflict. At one level the argument was about playing sport with apartheid South Africa. At another level it was about what it meant to be a New Zealander: defined by feats on the rugby field, or an example to the world, a fighter for racial justice?

Women’s changing role

A strong feminist movement emerged in the early 1970s. Women questioned the definition of the New Zealander in exclusively male terms, and promoted a fuller and more public identity for themselves. In politics there was a concerted effort to increase women’s representation – until 1970 there had only ever been 11 women members of Parliament. By 2004 there were 34 women in the House. The prime minister, the chief justice, the governor-general and the head of the largest company were also women.

In sport at this time it was women who were carrying the nation’s pride. The rowing duo of Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell and cyclist Sarah Ulmer won gold at the 2004 Olympics, and the Silver Ferns netball team beat Australia – a feat which their rugby-playing brothers could no longer regularly achieve.

New Zealanders could no longer think of themselves as living in ‘a man’s country’.

Burn your aprons

The feminist magazine Broadsheet, which ran from 1972 to the 1990s, challenged gender stereotypes, including the domestically resourceful New Zealand woman. The cover of a 1981 issue featured the headings ‘Kiss cake baking goodbye’, ‘No colour schemes for the little house’, and ‘No fireside handicraft supplement’.

There was a significant move to uncover women’s contribution to New Zealand life. This was especially strong in 1993, the centenary of women’s suffrage in the country. If Edmund Hillary was on New Zealand’s $5 bill, the suffrage leader Kate Sheppard was on the $10 bill.

City culture

Urban culture flourished. By the end of the 20th century a small minority of New Zealanders worked on the land, while almost half were living in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch. The city was a place of educated specialised workers, many of whom had travelled widely. They spent their weekends going to museums or films as much as watching rugby. As increasing numbers of women entered paid employment, people were more likely to eat in restaurants. Wellington was known as the ‘coffee capital’. New Zealand gained recognition for its wines, not its beers, and horse racing became less popular. Film-maker Peter Jackson became perhaps the world’s best-known New Zealander, and a series of awards were established to promote the achievement of writers, artists and musicians.

From the 1990s the boom in tourism helped shape a sense of self. The fact that millions of outsiders appreciated certain aspects of the national character – friendliness, tolerance, inventiveness, creativity – heightened New Zealanders’ own awareness of these qualities.

Many New Zealanders still treasured the outdoor life. They tramped and skied. At the end of the 20th century a focus of national pride was the America’s Cup yachting competition, which at one level was an expression of Auckland’s urban culture – of money and technical expertise. But at another it was a reworking of the old characteristic of being good team men, modest and physically strong.

Bicultural New Zealand


By the first half of the 20th century Māori were participating in the major rituals of New Zealand life. They voted, had their own members of Parliament, played rugby, fought in wars, and intermarried with other New Zealanders.

However, because most Māori lived in the country their distinctive traditions were kept on the marae, out of sight of most Europeans. After the Second World War, and increasingly during the 1950s and 1960s, there was a major migration of Māori into the city. In response efforts were intensified to turn Māori into British New Zealanders. In schools and workplaces Māori were discouraged from speaking their own language, and housing policy encouraged ‘pepper potting’ – dispersing the Māori population to prevent residential concentrations. The Hunn Report (1960) recommended that New Zealand move beyond ‘assimilation’ to ‘integration’, whereby New Zealanders would become one people through mixing the two cultures. In practice, because Māori were a minority, this tended to mean the swallowing of the smaller fish by the bigger.

Māori sovereignty

From the late 1960s on, some Māori challenged this policy. Urban movements led by groups such as Ngā Tamatoa emphasised the need to strengthen Māori language, culture and political power. In 1975 there was a protest march from one end of the North Island to the other expressing unrest at the loss of Māori land. In the same year the Waitangi Tribunal was established to deal with infringements of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

In 1981 the activist Donna Awatere published an argument for Māori sovereignty, and as Māori began to promote their own traditions and values, the term ‘biculturalism’ appeared. For some, this meant that New Zealanders could exist in one nation but as two peoples. Māori could speak their own language, pursue their own traditions, have their own educational institutions such as kōhanga reo (preschool language nests), kura kaupapa Māori (schools using Māori language) and wānanga (universities), provide their own social services, and control their own businesses. The financial settlements which flowed from Waitangi Tribunal recommendations began to make this possible.

Bicultural institutions

Some institutions made a concerted effort to implement a bicultural approach. When Te Papa Tongarewa, the new national museum, began operations in 1993 its exhibition programme was divided between those areas which represented the tangata whenua (people of the land – Māori) and the tangata tiriti (the people here by virtue of the Treaty of Waitangi – non-Māori). Increasingly institutions gave themselves Māori names and adopted Māori rituals such as the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony).

Mixing it up

Some New Zealanders avoid an exclusive Māori or Pākehā identity and appreciate their heritage from both. Artist Alan Wehipeihana from Paekakariki, who uses both Māori and European symbols in his work, says he is one of those ‘of mixed heritage who stand in this space scratching our skulls, not sure whether to tick the “Māori”, “Non Māori” or “Other” box on official forms, feeling like we leak through any definition of race and culture.’ 1

Pākehā identity

Other New Zealanders played with the idea of a distinct Pākehā culture. This was the culture of those whose families had inhabited the land for – in some cases – 150 years or more, and had developed their own traditions and identities, such as a love of the beach and the bush, and the ritual of rugby games.

The historian Michael King wrote Being Pakeha to explore this idea. When first published in 1985 its subtitle was ‘an encounter with New Zealand and the Maori renaissance’. On re-publication in 1999, the subtitle had changed, significantly, to ‘reflections and recollections of a white native’. But the number of white natives who were really comfortable about being considered Pākehā was small. They preferred to think of themselves as ‘real New Zealanders’.

At a popular level, however, the idea that non-Māori New Zealanders did have a distinctive culture was reflected in a heightened interest in ‘kiwiana’ – iconic objects such as Buzzy Bee toys, pavlova, Marmite and meat pies, or clothes like jandals and bush shirts.

  1. Kapiti Observer, January 19 2004, p. 23. › Back

Multicultural New Zealand

New immigrants

While Māori were presenting New Zealanders with a bicultural perspective, immigration was making the country multicultural. Until the 1960s most immigrants to New Zealand were British and easily adjusted to New Zealand life. The considerable Dutch community who arrived in the 1950s were expected to adopt local customs. But in the 1970s there were two important changes.

First, the end of assistance to British immigrants in 1975 challenged expectations that the British were the best potential New Zealanders. From then on, immigrants were to be chosen on non-ethnic grounds.

Second, there were significant migrations from other countries. There was an influx first from the Pacific Islands, and from the mid-1980s an increasing number from other places – predominantly Asia, but also, from the 1990s onwards, from Africa and the Middle East. In 1986, over 80% of New Zealanders identified as European, and this dropped to 72% in 1996. During that period, the proportion of people identifying with Māori, Pacific and Asian ethnicities increased. In 2013, 74% of New Zealanders identified with one or more European ethnic groups.

The multicultural idea

Many of these people, from a wide range of cultures, settled down, took up citizenship and brought up New Zealand-born children. This was a major challenge to the idea of who New Zealanders were. Initiated in Canada and picked up in the 1970s in Australia, the concept of multiculturalism quickly spread to New Zealand. It was proposed that people could be legitimate members of the New Zealand nation while retaining their own language, foods and traditions. At the first New Zealand Day ceremony at Waitangi in 1974 there were ostentatious efforts to put New Zealand’s ethnic variety on display.

Non-British New Zealanders

As the numbers of non-British people increased, their cultural differences became more evident. In South Auckland, Pacific Islanders congregated and evolved a distinctive New Zealand Pacific culture which was more than the sum of their different cultures. Large Asian communities who had originally been settled throughout the country came together in areas with their own schools and styles of housing.

Not everyone accepted these developments with equanimity. A new political group emerged, significantly called the New Zealand Party, which expressed unease at the challenge to older traditions of New Zealandness. Yet the issue was made more complex because by the early 2000s in some very traditional areas, particularly sport and music, Pacific Islanders were playing an important role. Prominent figures such as All Black rugby players Tana Umaga and Jonah Lomu, Silver Fern netballer Bernice Mene, discus champion Beatrice Faumuina, and hip hop artists Che Fu and Scribe had become national heroes, and it was difficult to argue they were not ‘real New Zealanders’. In another arena, Cambodian bakeries were now making a classic New Zealand dish, the meat pie, and winning national awards.

Challenge for a new century

At the beginning of the 21st century it was not easy to define the New Zealander, nor even to explain the origin of many New Zealand characteristics. The character of the country’s people had been in part shaped by the physical environment – the outdoor climate, the proximity to beach and bush, the location in the South Pacific. No less important were the very different cultures brought to the country by waves of settlers – Māori who arrived some 700 years ago from the Pacific, the British and Irish who dominated the population for over a century from 1850, and more recent immigrants from Asia and the Pacific. All of these groups would have agreed that each were New Zealanders. All would have accepted that New Zealanders were no longer ‘Better Britons’. But the cultural meaning of the New Zealander had become uncertain. How it would evolve was one of the major issues for the new century.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'The New Zealanders', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 May 2015