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History of New Zealand

It seems the islands of New Zealand were the last permanently inhabited places on earth. People didn't arrive to the islands until about 1300 AD and prior to this no one even knew of the islands' existence. Due to their isolation and oceanic currents, people didn't discover these islands until Polynesians from the far eastern part of Polynesia arrived.

The Polynesian people are undoubtedly linked in terms of ethnicity, language, and culture, but they also believe they all originate from the same location, although the location of this almost mythical place is debated if not entirely a legend. The Maori of New Zealand claim their ancestors came from the island of "Hawaiki," the Polynesians on the Cook Islands claim their homeland is called "'Avaiki," and the Polynesians on the Society Islands call their home "Havai'i." Additionally, the Hawai'ians call their largest island "Hawai'i" and in Samoa the largest island is called "Savai'i." Due to linguistic differences, these names sound even more similar, pointing to a single origin of all these people or at least a single origin story that links all the Polynesians including the Maori.

These original settlers, later known as the Maori lived off the land by hunting, gathering, and fishing. With a very different landscape than the people likely had on their South Pacific islands, the people quickly exploited many of the natural resources, while at the same time they brought some of their own foods from the Pacific, including taro and yams.

The people initially turned from a base in fishing to a base diet formed on hunting as a large flightless bird called a Moa was commonly hunted. The Moa formed a significant base in their diet for nearly 200 years, after which time the bird went extinct and the diet and culture changed. The Maori primarily shifted from hunters to farmers, particularly in the north where taro was easily harvested. On the southern island farmland wasn't as common as the people primarily became scavengers. In addition to farming, the people continued to hunt and fish to make up a substantial part of their diets. Also, because of this dependence on the farm lands, most Maori settled on the North Island as the South Island remained significantly less populated until the gold rush of the 1860s.

The people were divided into tribes, primarily based on family, with each being led by a chief. These tribes were generally small and local as each seemed to have people with varying skills as these were passed from generation to generation. Wood carving and tattooing were among the more well-known of these trades, both of which often times indicate genealogy, which was, and still is, a very important part of Maori culture. There also seemed to be a belief in higher beings as they had a polytheistic religion. Despite the well organized and fairly advanced society, the tribes warred on a regular basis as they primarily fought over lands.

Maori culture and society continued to progress through the centuries when, in the 1640s, the Europeans first arrived (although some believe Europeans arrived much earlier than this). Dutchman Abel Tasman landed briefly on the southern tip of the North Island in 1642, but after encountering aggressive Maori he quickly packed up and moved north. None-the-less the islands got their name based after the region in the Netherlands called Zeeland.

The next well-known explorer to land on New Zealand was James Cook from the United Kingdom in 1769. Again he didn't make any attempt to settle the islands and Maori culture continued on with no real changes, much as it had after Tasman's first trip.

After Cook came numerous other foreigners including many whaling ships and traders. These were the first Europeans and Americans to have regular contact with the Maori as they began to land on the islands to trade. The Europeans got food, water and other goods in exchange for guns and other European tools. Obviously these new goods changed the Maori culture (especially among the costal Maori who traded directly with the ethnic Europeans) as guns made wars more violent, but they also helped hunting, as did the metal traps the ethnic Europeans traded. These guns also led to a series of wars on the islands between the Maori called the Musket Wars, which lasted until the 1820s.

The first significant ethnic European settlers came in the early 1800s as missionaries arrived. The Maori quickly converted to Christianity and by the 1830s the islands were fairly peaceful as the wars had ended and the people were quickly converting. These movements spread throughout the islands, beginning on the coasts and later spreading further inland.

At the same time the missionaries were arriving, small private trading posts were also set up along the coasts, most commonly on the North Island. These settlements later turned into expanding ethnic European-controlled lands and potential colonies, which led to wars and battles between the ethnic Europeans and the Maori. This raising violence eventually led to intervention by the British government.

In 1834, under the encouragement of British representative James Busby, the Maori declared themselves independent, an act that was recognized by the British government. However, this only encouraged the ethnic European settlers on the islands, who were private citizens, to further exploit the lands and to further expand their boundaries, taking more lands and creating more conflicts. The only difference was that after the British had left, their government had no power to intercede and the Maori struggled to defend their lands, despite international recognition.

These conflicts eventually led to the British and Maori chiefs (more than 500 in total) to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which gave both ethnic Europeans and Maori equal rights, although it was interpreted by the British as giving them power over the lands as a colony. Whatever the intention, in reality the ethnic Europeans dominated this relationship and soon settled most of the lands, pushing the Maori into small settlements or onto poor farm lands.

This loss of land, which took place over decades (particularly on the North Island), was truly a loss of Maori identity and a destruction of their culture in many ways. Land was very important to the Maori as it was home to their ancestors and viewed as public space that must be protected (although land ownership wasn't recognized or accepted since it was for everyone's use). The loss of land also changed the lifestyle of many Maori as their dependence on farming, hunting, and fishing was being lost as they were forced onto smaller plots of land.

The effects of the treaty were also very dependent on the United Kingdom representative in New Zealand. Some governors recognized Maori customs, languages, and other aspects of their culture, while other governors sought to indirectly suppress them by trying to assimilate the Maori into the European-based culture that was being established in New Zealand at the time.

The treaty also encouraged ethnic European settlement throughout the 1800s as many young Englishmen settled, at first many who were self-sufficient. As farmers and settlers occupied the most fertile lands (primarily on the North Island), additional labor was needed so more immigrants were brought in. Among the many industries these ethnic European settlers engaged in, raising sheep and selling their wool was among the most common.

Another significant source of immigration came in the early 1860s when gold was discovered on the South Island. While this vastly increased the population, it also established greater trade routes to New Zealand, and better infrastructure in the country. It also experienced a shift in focus from the North to the South Island. Since most of the fertile lands in the country are on the North Island, nearly all early settlement took place there, but with the gold rush on the South Island, this now became the center of immigration and soon after held the majority of the population.

With the rising population, and the rising wealth of the people of New Zealand, at least the rising wealth of the ethnic Europeans, numerous social changes took place in New Zealand's European culture. Numerous public projects were established or expanded as education was stressed. Women's movements also rose as women gained the right to vote in 1893. Worker's rights were also expanded, limiting working hours and maintaining minimum working conditions. In all, the country, society, and culture were beginning to look more and more like Europe, but were perhaps ahead of Europe in some areas of social equality.

The shift from a Maori-focused culture to a very ethnic European-focused culture put strain on the relationship between the two groups. During the late 1800s the Maori lost much of their culture and identity, as well as their lands and their incomes. The people were divided both geographically as well as culturally, economically, and politically.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the ethnic European population sought independence from the United Kingdom and briefly considered joining Australia. Eventually New Zealand decided against this move and a few years after Australia declared independence (1901), New Zealand did the same in 1907. However, this change didn't give New Zealand full independence, as New Zealand was considered a "dominion" with the United Kingdom still holding many rights over their former colony, including great power over their military and foreign policies. Today New Zealand remains a dominion and member of the Commonwealth of Nations, although there are movements to become a republic, hence ending this status.

In 1914 World War I broke out in Europe and New Zealand immediately volunteered to assist the United Kingdom. Many of these volunteers were sent to Gallipoli, in Turkey. The battle seemed to be one the Allies were guaranteed to lose and thousands of New Zealand soldiers lost their lives. To this day, this battle represents all those lost in wars and remains a pilgrimage sight for Kiwis (New Zealanders).

After the war, things didn't get much better for New Zealand as the Great Depression hit the country and their economy, primarily based on trade, plummeted. This economic breakdown was followed by World War II (WWII), in which New Zealand naturally sided with the United Kingdom and the Allies. Despite being in the South Pacific, New Zealand never came under direct threat from the Japanese and most of the soldiers from New Zealand who fought served in Europe.

The war changed life at home as the cultural landscape was forever altered. Despite having equal rights for ethnic European women for a number of decades, women went to work more than at any time in the past as industry boomed (primarily due to wartime production).

Life also changed dramatically for the Maori during WWII and in the post-war years. Some enlisted in the army, but more commonly, many took jobs in the cities to replace the lost workers. This urbanized a huge percentage of the Maori population and integrated the Maori and ethnic Europeans in a rapid time period. It also seemed to destroy more aspects of traditional Maori culture. Although the Maori had been losing lands for over a century, their move to the cities was a true shift in focus and priorities as their previously strong attachment to their native lands took a back seat to economic survival.

After the war New Zealand, as a whole, had to re-discover their economic identity as trade had fallen during the Great Depression, then during World War II their economy shifted from one focused on agriculture to one more focused on industry. Also at this time many women left the workforce and started families. With the WWI and post-war economic growth came extra spending money as the people began to engage their free time in entertainment. The arts, music, sports, and movies all became popular. More people began to purchase houses and cars during this time as suburban areas grew.

In 1973 the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (a pre-cursor to the European Union) and hence altered their trading habits. With free trade among numerous European nations, New Zealand could no longer compete on the European market and their largest trading partner, the United Kingdom, significantly decreased the number of imports from New Zealand. This was partially countered by signing a free trade treaty with Australia and greater trade with the United States, but it still slowly the economy and forced the country to shift focus.

In the 1980s and 1990s the government continued to face economic hardships, which led to vast changes. Many social programs were cut or reduced, defense spending was re-evaluated, Maori rights expanded, and immigration, especially from Asia's Far East, increased.

Today the economy in New Zealand has stabilized as tourism has expanded and is rapidly growing while agricultural production is still a significant part of the economy. The Maori are becoming more and more recognized in society as many young Kiwis (both ethnic European and Maori) are learning about Maori culture and history.

This page was last updated: February, 2013