History of New Zealand

The Maori and the European Heritage

Important Dates in New Zealand History

AD 1200The Maori settle New Zealand
1642Abel Tasman becomes the first European to sight New Zealand
1769Captain James Cook claims New Zealand for the British Crown
1840The Maori sign the Treaty of Waitangi, giving Britain sovereignty over New Zealand
1845 - 1848The Maori Wars
1860 - 1872The Maori Wars
1861The New Zealand Gold Rush
1893New Zealand is the first country to grant women the right to vote
1907New Zealand received dominion status with the British Commonwealth
1984New Zealand bans nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered ships from its ports


New Zealand is a relatively young country, but it has a rich and fascinating history, reflecting both the Maori and European heritage. Amazing Maori historic sites, some dating back almost a thousand years, are a contrast to many beautiful colonial buildings. A walk around any New Zealand city today shows what a culturally diverse and fascinating country New Zealand has become.


Maori and a Pakeha (European)
in the traditional greeting
of rubbing noses.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and the British Crown in New Zealand was signed. It established British law in New Zealand, while at the same time guaranteeing Maori authority over their land and culture. The Treaty of Waitangi remains central to New Zealand law and society. It is considered by many to be the country’s founding document. However, ever since its signing, the Treaty of Waitangi has presented many problems of interpretation. The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 to honor the treaty as a relevant and living document. The tribunal has ruled on a number of claims bought by Maori tribes. If you visit the Bay of Islands and Waitangi you can visit the museum and see the place where the treaty was signed.

The Maori People

Voyaging across the Pacific Ocean from their ancestral homeland hundreds of years ago, Maori made New Zealand their home. There are many interpretations as to from where the Maori originated. In pre-European times, skirmishes between Maori tribes would often occur. To protect themselves from being attacked, the Maori would construct a Pa (fortified village). These Pa were often built in strategic locations, such as at the top of hills and on ridges. Most Pa were cleverly constructed, with a series of stockades and trenches protecting the inhabitants from intruders. Today, many historic Pa sites can be found throughout the country. The marae (meeting grounds) was a focal point of Maori communities, and still fulfils a crucial role in Maori society today. Both before and after the arrival of European settlers, Maori have proved to be excellent warriors. A warrior with a full tattoo on his face makes a fearsome sight.

The European People

Prior to 1840, about 2000 Europeans were in New Zealand. They were mainly whalers, sealers, and missionaries who came to New Zealand. These settlers had considerable contact with Maori, especially in coastal areas. Maori and Europeans traded extensively, and some Europeans lived among Maori. At this time, intertribal Maori warfare was frequent, and the arrival of guns, which Maori traded from Europeans made it deadly. This, and the diseases brought by the Europeans, had a terrible effect on the Maori population, and their numbers started to steeply decline. With the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, New Zealand became a British colony. This saw a great increase in the number of British immigrants coming to New Zealand. The colonial settlement of New Zealand was largely based on the ideas of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who believed the colonial settlements should be modeled on the structures of British society. Many New Zealand cities and towns were established and populated in this way. These settlements were intended to be civilized and self-sufficient, with small farmers cultivating their land, and living in peace with the native people.

Maori and European Wars

As more migrants arrived and more land was needed for them, land disputes with the Maori increased. The ambiguity and lack of adherence to the Treaty of Waitangi saw grievances increase and skirmishes multiply. These turned into full-scale war in Northland during the mid 1840s, and in the rest of the country during the 1860s. British troops helped the New Zealand colonial forces during these conflicts, as did some Maori.

Decline in Maori Population

During the land wars, Maori were victorious on many occasions. However, the force and greater number of the colonial military eventually saw the New Zealand Wars end in defeat for the Maori tribes. Soon afterwards, the government seized vast tracts of Maori land including prime farmland in Waikato and Taranaki. The major loss of land, combined with continued deaths from disease, saw the Maori population steeply decline, dropping to only about 40,000 by 1900.

British Cultural Ties

British culture dominated New Zealand life throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. However, since World War II, New Zealand has moved towards its own unique national identity and place in the world. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, the ‘homeland’ of Britain had an enormous influence on New Zealand. Government administration, education, and culture were largely built on British models. New Zealand troops fought, and suffered severe casualties in the Boer War and the two World Wars. As New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Savage said about England in 1939, ‘where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand’.

United States as an Ally

After World War II, cultural ties with Great Britain remained strong. However, successive New Zealand governments saw the USA as their major ally and protector. New Zealand signed the joined SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organization) and signed the ANZUS (Australian New Zealand and United States) Pact. New Zealand troops also fought with US forces during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

New Zealand