The history of New Zealand dates back at least 700 years to when it was discovered and settled by Polynesians, who developed a distinct Māori culture centred on kinship links and land. The first European explorer to discover New Zealand was Abel Janszoon Tasman on 13 December 1642. From the late 18th century, the country was regularly visited by explorers and other sailors, missionaries, traders and adventurers. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and various Māori chiefs, bringing New Zealand into the British Empire and giving Māori equal rights with British citizens. There was extensive European and some Asian settlement throughout the rest of the century. War and the imposition of a European economic and legal system led to most of New Zealand's land passing from Māori to Pākehā (European) ownership, and most Māori subsequently became impoverished.
From the 1890s the New Zealand parliament enacted a number of progressive initiatives, including women's suffrage and old age pensions. From the 1930s the economy was highly regulated and an extensive welfare state was developed. Meanwhile, Māori culture underwent a renaissance, and from the 1950s Māori began moving to the cities in large numbers. This led to the development of a Māori protest movement which in turn led to greater recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi in the late 20th century. In the 1980s the economy was largely deregulated and a number of socially liberal policies, such as decriminalisation of homosexuality, were put in place. Foreign policy, which had previously consisted mostly of following the United Kingdom or the United States, became more independent. Subsequent governments have generally maintained these policies, although tempering the free market ethos somewhat.
New Zealand was originally settled by Polynesians from Eastern Polynesia. The most current reliable evidence strongly indicates that initial settlement of New Zealand occurred around 1280 CE. Previous dating of some Kiore (Polynesian rat) bones at 50 - 150 CE has now been shown to have been unreliable; new samples of bone (and now also of unequivocally rat-gnawed woody seed cases) match the 1280 CE date of the earliest archaeological sites and the beginning of sustained, anthropogenic deforestation.
The descendants of these settlers became known as the Māori, forming a distinct culture of their own. Separate settlement of the tiny Chatham Islands in the east of New Zealand about 1500 CE produced the Moriori people; linguistic evidence indicates that the Moriori were mainland Māori who ventured eastward.
The original settlers quickly exploited the abundant large game in New Zealand, such as moa, large flightless ratites that were pushed to extinction by about 1500. As moa and other large game became scarce or extinct, Māori culture underwent major change, with regional differences. In areas where it was possible to grow taro and kūmara, horticulture became more important. In the south of the South Island, however elsewhere wild plants such as fernroot were often available for harvest and cabbage trees were harvested and cultivated for food. Warfare also increased in importance, reflecting increased competition for land and other resources. In this period, fortified pā became more common, although there is debate about the actual frequency of warfare. As elsewhere in the Pacific, cannibalism was part of warfare. James Belich has written an overview of Māori history from the 11th to the 16th century.
Leadership was based on a system of chieftainship, which was often but not always hereditary, although chiefs (male or female) needed to demonstrate leadership abilities to avoid being superseded by more dynamic individuals. The most important units of pre-European Māori society were the whānau or extended family, and the hapū or group of whānau. After these came the iwi or tribe, consisting of groups of hapū. Related hapū would often trade goods and co-operate on major projects, but conflict between hapū was also relatively common. Traditional Māori society preserved history orally through narratives, songs, and chants; skilled experts could recite the tribal genealogies (whakapapa) back for hundreds of years. Arts included whaikōrero (oratory), song composition in multiple genres, dance forms including haka, as well as weaving, highly developed wood carving, and tā moko (tattoo).
Birds, fish and sea mammals were important sources of protein. Māori cultivated food plants which they had brought with them from Polynesia, including sweet potatoes (called kūmara), taro, gourds and yams. They also cultivated the cabbage tree, a plant endemic to New Zealand, and exploited wild foods such as fern root, which provided a starchy paste.
The first Europeans known to reach New Zealand were the crew of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who arrived in his ships Heemskerck and Zeehaen. Tasman anchored at the northern end of the South Island in Golden Bay (he named it Murderers' Bay) in December 1642 and sailed northward to Tonga following a clash with local Māori. Tasman sketched sections of the two main islands' west coasts. Tasman called them Staten Landt, after the States-General of the Netherlands, and that name appeared on his first maps of the country. Dutch cartographers changed the name to Nova Zeelandia in Latin, from Nieuw Zeeland, after the Dutch province of Zeeland. It was subsequently Anglicised as New Zealand by British naval captain James Cook of HM Bark Endeavour who visited the islands more than 100 years after Tasman during 1769–1770. Cook returned to New Zealand on both of his subsequent voyages. Various claims have been made that New Zealand was reached by other non-Polynesian voyagers before Tasman, but these are not widely accepted. Peter Trickett, for example, argues in Beyond Capricorn that the Portuguese explorer Cristóvão de Mendonça reached New Zealand in the 1520s.
From the 1790s, the waters around New Zealand were visited by British, French and American whaling, sealing and trading ships. Their crews traded European goods, including guns and metal tools, for Māori food, water, wood, flax and sex. Māori were reputed to be enthusiastic and canny traders. Although there were some conflicts, such as the killing of French explorer Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne and the destruction of the Boyd, most contact between Māori and European was peaceful. From the 19th century missionaries began settling in New Zealand and attempting to convert Māori to Christianity and control the considerably lawless European visitors.
The effect of contact on Māori varied. In some inland areas life went on more or less unchanged, although a European metal tool such as a fish-hook or hand axe might be acquired through trade with other tribes. At the other end of the scale, tribes that frequently encountered Europeans, such as Ngā Puhi in Northland, underwent major changes.
Pre-European Māori had no distance weapons except for tao (spears) and the introduction of the musket had an enormous impact on Māori warfare. Tribes with muskets would attack tribes without them, killing or enslaving many. As a result, guns became very valuable and Māori would trade huge quantities of goods for a single musket. The Musket Wars died out in the 1830s after most tribes had acquired muskets and a new balance of power was achieved. In 1835, the peaceful Moriori of the Chatham Islands were attacked, enslaved, and nearly exterminated by mainland Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama Māori. In the 1901 census, only 35 Moriori were recorded although the numbers subsequently increased.
Around this time, many Māori converted to Christianity. The reasons for this have been hotly debated, and may include social and cultural disruption caused by the Musket Wars and European contact. Other factors may have been the appeal of a religion that promotes peace and forgiveness, a desire to emulate the Europeans and to gain a similar abundance of material goods, and the Māori's polytheistic culture that easily accepted the new God.
European settlement increased through the early decades of the 19th century, with numerous trading stations established, especially in the North. The first full-blooded European infant in the territory, Thomas King, was born in 1815 in the Bay of Islands. Kerikeri, founded in 1822, and Bluff founded in 1823, both claim to be the oldest European settlements in New Zealand.
Many Europeans bought land from Māori, but misunderstanding and different concepts of land ownership led to conflict and bitterness. In 1839, the New Zealand Company announced plans to buy large tracts of land and establish colonies in New Zealand. This alarmed the missionaries, who called for British control of European settlers in New Zealand.
In 1788 the colony of New South Wales had been founded. According to Captain Phillip's amended Commission, dated 25 April 1787, the colony included all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean within the latitudes of 10°37'S and 43°39'S which included most of New Zealand except for the southern half of the South Island. In 1825 with Van Diemen's Land becoming a separate colony, the southern boundary of New South Wales was altered to the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean with a southern boundary of 39°12'S which included only the northern half of the North Island. However, these boundaries had no real impact as the New South Wales administration had little interest in New Zealand.
In response to complaints about lawless white sailors and adventurers in New Zealand, the British government appointed James Busby as Official Resident in 1832. In 1834 he encouraged Māori chiefs to assert their sovereignty with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1835. This was acknowledged by King William IV. Busby was provided with neither legal authority nor military support and was thus ineffective in controlling the European population.
In 1839, the New Zealand Company announced its plans to establish colonies in New Zealand. This, and the continuing lawlessness of many of the established settlers, spurred the British to take stronger action. Captain William Hobson was sent to New Zealand to persuade Māori to cede their sovereignty to the British Crown. In reaction to the New Zealand Company's moves, on 15 June 1839 a new Letters patent was issued to expand the territory of New South Wales to include all of New Zealand. Governor of New South Wales George Gipps was appointed Governor over New Zealand. This was the first clear expression of British intent to annex New Zealand.
On 6 February 1840, Hobson and about forty Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. Copies of the Treaty were subsequently taken around the country to be signed by other chiefs. A significant number refused to sign or were not asked but, in total, more than five hundred Māori eventually signed.
The Treaty gave Māori sovereignty over their lands and possessions and all of the rights of British citizens. What it gave the British in return depends on the language-version of the Treaty that is referred to. The English version can be said to give the British Crown sovereignty over New Zealand but in the Māori version the Crown receives kawanatanga, which, arguably, is a lesser power (see Treaty of Waitangi#Meaning and interpretation). Dispute over the true meaning and the intent of either party remains an issue.
Britain was motivated by the desire to forestall other European powers (France established a very small settlement at Akaroa in the South Island later in 1840), to facilitate settlement by British subjects and, possibly, to end the lawlessness of European (predominantly British and American) whalers, sealers and traders. Officials and missionaries had their own positions and reputations to protect.
Māori chiefs were motivated by a desire for protection from foreign powers, the establishment of governorship over European settlers and traders in New Zealand, and to allow for wider settlement that would increase trade and prosperity for Māori.
Hobson died in September 1842. Robert FitzRoy, the new governor, took some legal steps to recognise Māori custom. However, his successor, George Grey, promoted rapid cultural assimilation and reduction of the land ownership, influence and rights of the Māori. The practical effect of the Treaty was, in the beginning, only gradually felt, especially in predominantly Māori regions.
Having been administered, through 1840 when the treaty was signed, as a part of the Australian colony of New South Wales, New Zealand became a colony in its own right on 3 May 1841. It was divided into provinces that were reorganised in 1846 and in 1853, when they acquired their own legislatures, and then abolished in 1876. The country rapidly gained some measure of self-government through the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, which established central and provincial government.
From 1840 there was considerable European settlement, primarily from England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland; and to a lesser extent the United States, India, and various parts of continental Europe, including the province of Dalmatia in what is now Croatia, and Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. Already a majority of the population by 1859, the number of white settlers (called Pākehā by Māori) increased rapidly to reach a million by 1911.
In the 1870s and 1880s, several thousand Chinese men, mostly from Guangdong province, migrated to New Zealand to work on the South Island goldfields. Although the first Chinese migrants had been invited by the Otago Provincial government they quickly became the target of hostility from white settlers and laws were enacted specifically to discourage them from coming to New Zealand.
Māori had welcomed Pākehā for the trading opportunities and guns they brought. However it soon became clear that they had underestimated the number of settlers that would arrive in their lands. Iwi (tribes) whose land was the base of the main settlements quickly lost much of their land and autonomy through government acts. Others prospered—until about 1860 the city of Auckland bought most of its food from Māori who grew and sold it themselves. Many iwi owned flour mills, ships and other items of European technology, some exported food to Australia. Although race relations were generally peaceful in this period, there were conflicts over who had ultimate power in particular areas—the Governor or the Māori chiefs. One such conflict was the Northern or Flagstaff War of the 1840s, during which the town of Kororareka was destroyed.
As the Pākehā population grew, pressure grew on Māori to sell more land. A few tribes had become nearly landless and others feared losing their lands. Land is not only an economic resource, but also the basis of Māori identity and a connection with their ancestors. Land was held communally, it was not given up without discussion and consultation—or loss during warfare.
Pākehā had little understanding of all that and accused Māori of holding onto land they did not use efficiently. Competition for land was a primary cause of the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s and 1870s, in which the Taranaki and Waikato regions were invaded by colonial troops and Māori of these regions had much of their land taken from them. The wars and confiscation left bitterness that remains to this day.
Some iwi sided with the government and, later, fought with the government. They were motivated partly by the thought that an alliance with the government would benefit them, and partly by old feuds with the iwi they fought against. One result of their co-operation strategy was the establishment of the four Māori seats in parliament, in 1867.
After the wars, some Māori began a strategy of passive resistance, most famously at Parihaka in Taranaki. Others continued co-operating with Pākehā. For example, tourism ventures were established by Te Arawa around Rotorua. Resisting and co-operating iwi both found that the Pākehā desire for land remained. In the last decades of the century, most iwi lost substantial amounts of land through the activities of the Native Land Court. This was set up to give Māori land European-style titles and to establish exactly who owned it. Due to its Eurocentric rules, the high fees, its location remote from the lands in question, and unfair practices by many Pākehā land agents, its main effect was to directly or indirectly separate Māori from their land.
The combination of war, confiscations, disease, assimilation and intermarriage, land loss leading to poor housing and alcohol abuse, and general disillusionment, caused a fall in the Māori population from around 86,000 in 1769 to around 70,000 in 1840 and around 48,000 by 1874, hitting a low point of 42,000 in 1896. Subsequently their numbers began to recover.
While the North Island was convulsed by the Land Wars, the South Island, with its low Māori population, was generally peaceful. In 1861 gold was discovered at Gabriel's Gully in Central Otago, sparking a gold rush. Dunedin became the wealthiest city in the country and many in the South Island resented financing the North Island’s wars. In 1865 Parliament voted on a Bill to make the South Island independent: it was defeated 17 to 31.
The South Island contained most of the Pākehā population until around 1900 when the North Island again took the lead and has supported an ever greater majority of the country's total population through the 20th century and into the 21st.
Major changes occurred during this decade. The economy—based on wool and local trade—changed to the export of frozen meat and dairy products to Britain. This change was enabled by the invention of refrigerated shipping that allowed foodstuff to be transported over long distances. Refrigerated shipping remained the basis of New Zealand’s economy until the 1970s. In the 21st century, New Zealand's trade in skim milk and butter increased, thanks to their high price.
The decade also saw the advent of party politics, with the establishment of the First Liberal government. This government established the basis of the welfare state, with old age pensions, developed a system for settling industrial disputes, which was accepted by both employers and unions, and in 1893 extended voting rights to women, making New Zealand the first country in the world to enact universal female suffrage.
New Zealand decided against joining the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and instead changed from being a colony to a separate "dominion" in 1907, equal in status to Australia and Canada.
In New Zealand, prohibition was a moralistic reform movement begun in the mid-1880s by the Protestant evangelical and Nonconformist churches and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and after 1890 by the Prohibition League. It never achieved its goal of national prohibition. It was a middle-class movement which accepted the existing economic and social order; the effort to legislate morality assumed that individual redemption was all that was needed to carry the colony forward from a pioneering society to a more mature one. However, both the Church of England and the largely Irish Catholic Church rejected prohibition as an intrusion of government into the church's domain, while the growing labor movement saw capitalism rather than alcohol as the enemy. Reformers hoped that the women's vote, in which New Zealand was a pioneer, would swing the balance, but the women were not as well organized as in other countries. Prohibition had a majority in a national referendum in 1911, but needed a 60% vote to pass. The movement kept trying in the 1920s, losing three more referenda by close votes; it managed to keep in place a 6pm closing hour for pubs and Sunday closing. The Depression and war years effectively ended the movement.
The country remained an enthusiastic member of the British Empire, and 100,000 men fought in World War I (see New Zealand Expeditionary Force). New Zealand forces took Western Samoa from Germany in the early stages of the war, and New Zealand administered the country until Samoan Independence in 1962.
Like most other countries, New Zealand was hard hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which affected the country via its international trade, with farming export drops then going on to affect the money supply and in turn consumption, investment and imports. The country was most affected around 1930-1932, when average farm incomes for a short time dipped below zero, and the unemployment rates peaked. Though actual unemployment numbers were not officially counted, the country was affected especially strongly in the North Island.
Unlike later years, there were no public benefit ('dole') payments — the unemployed were given 'relief work', much of which was however not very productive, partly because the size of the problem was unprecedented. Women also increasingly registered as unemployed, while Maori received government help through other channels such as the land development schemes organised by Apirana Ngata. In 1933, 8.5% of the unemployed were organised in work camps, while the rest received work close to their homes. Typical occupations in relief work were road work (undertaken by 45% of all part-time and 19% of all full-time relief workers in 1934, with park improvement works (17%) and farm work (31%) being the other two most common types of work for part-time and full-time relief workers respectively).
Attempts by the conservative Liberal-Reform coalition to deal with the situation with spending cuts and relief work were ineffective and unpopular. In 1935, the First Labour Government was elected, and the post-depression decade showed that average Labour support in New Zealand had roughly doubled comparable to pre-depression times. By 1935 economic conditions had improved somewhat, and the new government had more positive financial conditions, under which it established a full welfare state, which included free health care and education and state assistance for the elderly, infirm, and unemployed. The programme was retained and expanded by successive National and Labour governments.
When World War II broke out, New Zealand contributed some 120,000 troops. They mostly fought in Europe, relying on the Royal Navy and later the United States to protect New Zealand from the Japanese forces, who never reached as far as the New Zealand mainland except with some highly publicised but essentially ineffective scouting incursions. The cooperation with the United States meanwhile set a direction of policy which resulted in the ANZUS Treaty between New Zealand, America and Australia in 1951, which was to hold until disagreements over nuclear armaments decades later.
Many Māori fought in World War II, and many others moved from their rural homes to the cities to take up jobs vacated by Pākehā servicemen. The shift to the cities was also caused by their strong birth rates in the early 20th century, with the existing rural farms in Māori ownership having increasing difficulty in providing enough jobs. Māori culture had meanwhile undergone a renaissance thanks in part to politician Apirana Ngata. World War II saw the beginning of a mass Māori migration to the cities, and by the 1980s 80% of the Māori population was urban, in contrast to only 20% before the war. The migration led to better pay, standards of living and education for most Māori, but also exposed problems of racism and discrimination. By the late 1960s, a protest movement had emerged to combat racism, promote Māori culture and seek fulfillment of the Treaty of Waitangi.
The urbanisation of the country was far from restricted to Māori. In the late 1940s, town planners noted that the country was "possibly the third most urbanised country in the world", with two thirds of the population living in cities or towns. There was also increasing concern that this trend was badly managed, with it being noted that there was an "ill-defined urban pattern that appears to have few of the truly desirable urban qualities and yet manifests no compensating rural characteristics."
The Māori protest movement was just one of several movements which emerged at this time to challenge the conservatism of mainstream New Zealand culture. This culture, and the country's economy, was based on being an offshoot of Britain. From the 1890s, the economy had been based almost entirely on the export of frozen meat and dairy products to Britain, and in 1961, the share of New Zealand exports going to the United Kingdom was still at slightly over 51%, with approximately 15% more going to other European countries. This system was irreparably damaged by Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973. Britain's accession to the European Community forced New Zealand to not only find new markets, but also re-examine its national identity and place in the world.
Robert Muldoon, Prime Minister from 1975 to 1984, and his Third National government responded to the crises of the 1970s by attempting to preserve the New Zealand of the 1950s. His conservatism and antagonistic style helped create an atmosphere of conflict in New Zealand, most violently expressed during the 1981 Springbok Tour. Some innovations did take place, for example the Closer Economic Relations agreement with Australia, and in 1983 the term "dominion" was replaced with "realm" by letters patent.
In 1984, the Fourth Labour government was elected. Propelled into office amid a constitutional and economic crisis, the new government embarked on a policy of restructuring, known as Rogernomics. This involved floating the New Zealand dollar, cutting government spending, reducing most taxes and introducing a sales tax (GST), and removing almost all industry subsidies. Although many of these changes improved the economy, they also created widespread unemployment, which was made worse by the 1987 stock market crash.
The Fourth Labour Government also revolutionised New Zealand's foreign policy, making the country a nuclear-free zone and effectively leaving the ANZUS alliance. Immigration policy was liberalised, allowing an influx of immigrants from Asia. Previously most immigrants to New Zealand had been European and especially British, apart from some migrants from other Pacific Islands such as Samoa. Other fourth Labour government innovations included greater recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi through the Waitangi Tribunal, Homosexual Law Reform, the Constitution Act 1986 and the New Zealand Bill of Rights.
Unhappy with the speed and extent of reforms, voters elected a National government in 1990, led by Jim Bolger. However the new government continued the economic reforms of the previous Labour government. Unhappy with what seemed to be a pattern of governments failing to reflect the mood of the electorate, New Zealanders voted to change the electoral system to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), a form of proportional representation. New Zealand's first MMP election was held in 1996. Following the election National was returned to power in coalition with the New Zealand First Party.
The Fifth Labour government led by Helen Clark was elected in 1999. It maintained most of the previous governments' economic reforms — restricting government intervention in the economy much more so than previous governments — while putting more of an emphasis on social policy and outcomes. For example, employment law was modified to give more protection to workers, and the student loan system was changed to eliminate interest payments for New Zealand resident students and graduates. Helen Clark's Labour government remained in power for nine years before being replaced in 2008 by New Zealand's Fifth National government led by John Key.
New Zealand retains strong but informal links to Britain, with many young New Zealanders travelling to Britain for their "OE" (overseas experience) due to favourable working visa arrangements with Britain. Despite New Zealand's immigration liberalisation in the 1980s, Britons are still the largest group of migrants to New Zealand, due in part to recent immigration law changes which privilege fluent speakers of English. A few constitutional links to Britain remain — the New Zealand Sovereign is a British resident, for example. However, British imperial honours were discontinued in 1996, the Governor-General has taken a more active role in representing New Zealand overseas, and appeals from the Court of Appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council were replaced by a local Supreme Court of New Zealand in 2003. From time to time there is public debate about whether New Zealand should become a republic, and public sentiment is divided on the issue.
Foreign policy has been essentially independent since the mid 1980s. New Zealand contributed troops to the Afghanistan War, but did not contribute troops to the Iraq War although some medical and engineering units were sent.
For a developed country, New Zealand's economy is still very dependent on farming, although the old trinity of meat, dairy and wool has been supplemented by fruit, wine, timber and other products. Tourism is a major industry, and the country has been successful in attracting several major film productions, most notably the Lord of the Rings trilogy, directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson, which in turn bolstered New Zealand's tourism image.
On 16 August 2011 a period of cold south winds and heavy snow started. This was the heaviest snowfall in New Zealand for 80 years.
New Zealand's location at the southern end of the Pacific Rim of Fire has produced many earthquakes. Attracting worldwide attention was one on 22 February 2011 that hit the second largest city Christchurch with 6.3 magnitude. This earthquake was an aftershock of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake the previous September. The 2010 earthquake caused severe damage to Christchurch and the Canterbury region, but there was no loss of life. However, the 2011 earthquake's shallow depth and closer proximity to Christchurch caused severe damage to the city and the loss of over 170 lives.