from the New Zealand Handbook by Jane King


The Moa-hunters

Exactly when the first Polynesians arrived in New Zealand is unknown. Maori legends claim the Polynesian navigator Kupe first sighted New Zealand in the 10th century, naming it Aotearoa, "Land of the Long White Cloud" (one of many translations), but archaeological evidence suggests that an archaic Maori population originating in Polynesia may have been established in New Zealand as early as A.D. 700. The first arrivals were hunters--stalking flightless birds, predominantly the large emu-like moa (now extinct)--gatherers, and excellent fishermen. No evidence suggests that the moa-hunters were a warrior society. Their camps were originally concentrated in the South Island, but by the 12th century they also inhabited the North Island.

Classic Maori Society

By the 13th and 14th centuries, a new kind of Polynesian culture began to replace moa-hunter society. Dwindling moa caused an increasing dependence on other fowl and fish. Legends speak of the arrival at this time of East Polynesians and the "Great Migration" of the 14th century. Crossing the Pacific in many large canoes, they came from the Society Island Group (Hawaiiki of Maori legends) where overpopulation, food shortages, and war had been a part of everyday life. Most present-day Maori claim their descent from these legendary canoe voyagers. With the new arrivals came a change in lifestyle. About 40 tribes developed, each a territorially based social unit; subtribes were based on kinship and ancestral descent. Cultivation of the fleshy kumara (sweet potato) became important; since the kumara needed warmth and sunshine to flourish, the Maori spread to the north of the North Island.

The new Polynesian culture placed great emphasis on a strict warrior code. The Maori took pride in being fierce warriors. Pa (fortified villages) were skillfully built on top of hills or ridges, with at least one side blocked by a natural barrier such as a river or the sea; fences and trenches further protected the thatched cottages within from enemy attack. Mana (prestige) and utu (retribution) were important qualities. If one Maori insulted another, the offended family would demand utu, eventually leading to war.

The focus of community life was the marae (central square) in front of the large, intricately carved meeting house (today the term also covers the meeting house itself and any auxiliary buildings). Maori leaders were usually hereditary chiefs or priests. The people were governed by strong family loyalties and religious beliefs and traditions. Tapu (sacred) was a positive force from the gods--certain places, acts, and people were tapu. Noa was the opposing negative or evil force; together these elements regulated every area of Maori life.

To the Maori, all nature was alive and had magic or supernatural powers; the people lived in harmony with the land, respecting it as property of the gods. They had many gods; different gods looked after such things as the sea, forests, and crops. With no written language, they passed on their tribal history through song and dance, story-telling, and arts and crafts. They were (and still are) excellent craftsmen, expressing great symbolism in their intricate, decorative carvings. Rituals were another important part of life. Some, such as offering the first fish of a catch to the god Tangaroa and first bird to Tanemahuta, are still performed, and those associated with traditional arts such as weaving and carving, and Maori ceremonial gatherings, are strictly maintained and an integral part of society today.


Tasman and Cook

The Dutch navigator Abel Tasman is believed to have been the first European to discover "Aotearoa" in 1642. Seeking a great unknown continent in the South Pacific with which to trade, he stumbled across the west coast of the South Island. He named the new land "Staten Landt" to honor the States-General of the United Netherlands, and because he thought it might be connected with Staten Landt, an island off the tip of South America. Tasman's theory was disproved within the year, and the name was changed to "Nieuw Zeeland"--no doubt after the Dutch island province of Zeeland. In one encounter with the Maori, several of his men were killed, and Tasman sailed away disillusioned by the lack of friendly trading prospects.

In 1769 the British navigator Capt. James Cook landed on the east coast of the North Island. He was also in search of the vast unknown continent, but for scientific purposes. On arrival at Gisborne, Cook also had misunderstandings with the natives that led to bloodshed, but he persevered, circumnavigating both islands, charting the coastline in great detail, and concluding that most Maori were helpful and friendly. Cook took possession of "New Zealand" for Britain, and New Zealand became known to the world. Many French explorers followed Cook, some for scientific reasons, some for trade.

Whalers and Sealers

Within 30 years of Cook's discovery, other Europeans sailed to New Zealand shores and began a period of great exploitation. Whaling stations sprang up around the coast, sealers slaughtered the colonies along the southern shores (almost to extinction), and loggers drastically cut magnificent kauri trees for shipbuilding. Trade in whale oil, seal skins, timber, and flax began with New South Wales in Australia. In the late 1820s, Kororareka (now called Russell) in the Bay of Islands became the first European settlement--a refuge for whalers, sealers, adventurers, and escaped Australian convicts, it earned the name "Hell-hole of the Pacific." With the traders came disease, alcohol, and muskets, all of which had devastating impact on the Maori.

Intertribal Wars

The musket was of great interest to Maori warriors and quickly became a coveted weapon. The warriors welcomed the traders and their muskets and Maori society was irrevocably changed. Hongi Hika, chief of the Northland Ngapuhi tribe, was the first to recognize the weapon's potential. With its aid he, followed by other great chiefs, slaughtered many rival tribes throughout the North Island. As the wars spread to the south, many tribes began trading for muskets, eventually equalizing the balance of power. With the realization in the 1830s that the weapon was annihilating the race, the Maori gradually ended the intertribal wars.


Missionaries of many denominations spent the early 1800s establishing missions. Many recognized the exploitation of the Maori by the Pakeha (white man) and tried to protect them. They also taught the Maori the latest European agricultural techniques. Until 1832 there had been no law and order in New Zealand. James Busby, a New South Wales civil servant, was the first to be sent over from Australia as "British Resident" to protect the Maori from further exploitation and establish some order. Busby had an impossible task and no police; he became known as "a man-of-war without guns." When he proved ineffective, Capt. William Hobson was sent from Britain in 1840 to be Lieutenant-Governor, and to unite the Maori chiefs with Britain by extending British sovereignty to New Zealand. On 6 February 1840, Hobson, representatives of the Crown, and a number of leading Maori chiefs signed "The Treaty of Waitangi." New Zealand became a British colony. Though this made land available for European settlement, it also specified that all property belonged to the Maori and guaranteed that it could not be taken without their consent and/or payment. It gave them the "rights and privileges of British subjects." Though meant to protect the Maori, it later became obvious that they had not fully understood the treaty they had signed. Colonists began flooding into the new country.

The Land Wars

The early Europeans found the concept of Maori land use and ownership hard to comprehend. The kumara fields and burial grounds made sense, but tapu areas, and land specifically designated for fishing and hunting, were considered a waste of good agricultural land. The land belonged to entire tribal groups and consent for a change in ownership had to be agreed by all--new occupation had previously occurred only by conquest. At first the Maori were eager to "sell" their land (they thought they were selling the "shadow of the land" like a lease) for money and alcohol. However, the growing number of colonists demanding land put increasing pressure on the Maori, and the ideals of the Waitangi Treaty were soon overlooked. As the European population grew and the Maori became increasingly reluctant to sell land, antagonism also grew. Fighting broke out in 1843 and continued sporadically as more settlements were established. Between 1860 and the early 1880s, war raged between the Maori tribal chiefs and government troops over land purchase (even the Maori were divided--some tribes joined the government side to even old scores with rival tribes), and the fighting spread across the central regions of the North Island.

The Maori lacked any kind of unifying nationalism, and tradition forced them to prove they were the best fighters; against artillery, they had no chance. Ancestral land was confiscated from "rebel tribes" and given as a reward to "friendly tribes," further destroying unity, and to military settlers who fought for the government, or sold to recoup some of the cost of the wars. In 1862, Land Courts forced the Maori to name 10 owners, and then only one owner of each block of land--this destroyed any remaining unity and made it relatively easy for crooked land agents to buy the land for less than its worth with money or alcohol. Traders deliberately let the Maori run into debt, forcing them to sell or go to jail. By 1982 only 4.5 million hectares of land remained under Maori ownership--some of it leased to settlers, the rest too rugged to be useful.

Wool and Gold

While the North was at war, the South Island forged ahead. The small Maori population was still eager to sell land. Settlement spread rapidly and farmers established many large sheep runs on the vast areas of tussockland. Thousands of sheep, predominantly merino for their fine wool, were shipped from Australia. Between 1850 and 1880, many Australian squatters came over to lease large areas of tussockland for their flocks. This became known as the "wool period." However, sheep scab came with the Australian flocks, killing thousands of sheep, and in the 1860s, a plague of rabbits forced many runholders into abandonment and bankruptcy. Some turned to rabbiting as the export in rabbit skins soared.

In 1861, gold was discovered in the South Island's Otago district. The rush lasted for less than a decade, but for those years the Shotover River became "the richest river in the world," soon followed by the Arrow River. The discovery attracted thousands of miners from the goldfields of California and Australia, further stimulating growth and establishing the south as a commercial and industrial center. Railways and roads were built. After the rush in Otago, miners moved to the west coast, where Hokitika temporarily became a busy port.


Auckland had been chosen as the capital in 1840, and Wellington, New Plymouth, Nelson, Dunedin, and Christchurch were founded during the next 10 years. In 1852 direct rule from Britain ended, marking the beginning of "self-government." New Zealand's central government was made up of a governor appointed by London, a Legislative Council appointed by the governor, and a House of Representatives elected by the people. The country was divided into six provinces--Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago, each with its own government. In 1865, Wellington replaced Auckland as capital of New Zealand, and by 1873, four more provinces had been added--Hawke's Bay, Marlborough, Westland, and Southland.


In 1882 the introduction of refrigeration produced a major change in farming. Many of the big wool runs were abandoned as farmers recognized new export possibilities. Many turned to meat and dairy production. The high country became the merino area for wool production, the hill country became lamb-breeding land, and fat-lamb farms were developed to breed lambs specifically for export. With the introduction of refrigerated cargo ships, Britain and Europe became eager consumers of the meat, and New Zealand entered the overseas market as a major food producer.


Social Welfare

The 20th century became the era of advanced social legislation. Two major political groups, the Liberal and Labour parties, emerged in 1890. The Liberal Party held power until 1912, introducing many changes in social policy. Its first landmark legislation was the introduction of the Old Age Pension. New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote (1893). In 1894 the world's first form of compulsory state arbitration for industrial disputes was introduced. The Liberals successfully combined capitalism with socialism, and New Zealand became a country of progressive social policies. With the interruption of WW I and the following Depression, it was not until the first Labour government in 1935 that New Zealand again took up the social welfare banner. The Social Security Act was introduced, guaranteeing free health care, education, and welfare benefits for all. Sickness pensions, low-cost housing, and a 40-hour work week were introduced over the years, and in 1972, the Accident Compensation Act was passed, insuring all people against accidental injury. These were the foundations of New Zealand's modern welfare state.

World Wars

During WW I, New Zealand sent 100,000 troops to support Britain--16,000 were killed, 45,000 wounded in action. After WW I, New Zealand became a member of the League of Nations. In WW II, 150,000 New Zealanders joined the Allied War effort; more than 11,000 were killed and 17,000 wounded. After WW II, ties with "the mother country" weakened. New Zealand claimed full independence in 1947. For most of the years between 1949 and 1978, the National Party held power. National and Labour have been the two major parties in recent years.

Modern Maori

For years New Zealand has been promoted as a country of racial harmony, though there's considerable unrest and ongoing land disputes between some Maori and Pakeha--problems that date from the Treaty of Waitangi. The Maori population grew rapidly with improved health opportunities and social education, but the adjustment to urban life further weakened Maori culture. By 1962 the Maori annual growth rate was more than twice the Pakeha rate--and one of the highest in the world. Pakeha had to adjust to an increasingly assertive, fast-growing Maori and Polynesian population. Maori language, arts and crafts, and song and dance are being taught in schools all over the land, and many Maori are looking back to the ways of their ancestors, searching for their identity and regaining a culture till recently submerged in the ways of the Pakeha. Although many New Zealanders are showing a renewed interest in Maoritanga, the Maori way of life, resentment between Maori and Pakeha continues to escalate. Despite protest from present-day Pakeha land owners, an increasing number of Maori plan to reclaim land they believe was wrongfully stolen years ago. They have rejected government intervention in the form of a lump sum payment. They want only the land they believe is rightfully theirs.


New Zealand is a sovereign independent state, its government based on the British parliamentary system. The head of state, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, is represented in New Zealand by a resident governor general. Appointed for five years, he's advised by the ministers of cabinet.

Since 1950, the New Zealand Parliament has had only one chamber, the House of Representatives. Made up of 92 members, this number includes four Maori members elected by the Maori population. The House of Representatives is primarily responsible for keeping the government in check; no tax or expenditure can be made until the proposed bill has been read, debated, and authorized. The governor general gives final authorization, and if approved by all these channels, the bill becomes law.

The National (Conservative), Labour, and Social Credit Political League are the three political parties in the House of Representatives. Elections are held every three years, but a government may request an earlier election to vote on a topic of national importance. The party that wins the most seats becomes government; its leader automatically becomes prime minister. The leader of the other major party is called the leader of the opposition. At present the Labour Party is in its third term of office. The cabinet is made up of the prime minister and selected ministers of his party; they form policy, promote legislation, and become the heads of the Departments of State. Cabinet ministers and other government members are together called the Caucus.

The 40 or so government departments are staffed by members of the Public Service who retain their jobs despite government changes. The departments provide services for the country: mail, telephone, media, transportation, education, finance, health, housing, etc.

Local government consists of county, borough, and district councils, special-purpose bodies, and regional government.

The High Court deals with major crimes, important claims, and appeals, Lower or District Courts deal with all minor offenses, and Family Courts deal with most family matters and divorce proceedings.

The voting age is 18. In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. Registration to vote became compulsory in 1924--though not obliged to actually vote, more than 80% usually do. Some New Zealanders would like New Zealand to become a republic within the Commonwealth by the year 2000.

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