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New Zealand’s first wave of settlement was by Polynesians (Maori) from the Marquesas, Society, and Cook Islands. Their landing on the beaches of the North Island in about AD 1300 signaled the end of the 5,000-year migration of these “Vikings of the Pacific” across the vast ocean.
Though Abel Tasman, a Dutch navigator working for the Dutch East India Company, was the first European to sight New Zealand in 1642, for over a century New Zealand was largely left alone by explorers. Then, between 1769 and 1777, British Captain James Cook made three voyages to the islands aboard the HMS Endeavour. While he was met with some initial hostility from the islands’ residents, Cook was able to forge a peaceful relationship with the Maori—but he soon claimed the islands for the British Crown without their consent.
The British incursion had far-reaching and damaging consequences for the local population, particularly the introduction of liquor and European diseases, against which the Maori had no immunity. By 1830, New Zealand’s Maori population had been dramatically reduced. Missionaries, too, traveled to the new land with hopes of spreading the doctrine of Christianity. However, as more and more Maori embraced Christianity, fewer aspects of the centuries-old Maori society were observed. Traditional Maori culture began to dissolve.
On February 6, 1840, representatives of the British Crown and various Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, a key date in New Zealand’s history. In the English-language version, the treaty grants the Maori land rights and the right of British citizenship in exchange for ceding the sovereignty of New Zealand to the British crown. But in the Maori-language version, the word for sovereignty is weaker, suggesting governship or the right to make the first offer on land for sale, rather than ownership. The result is a controversy that continues to this day.
Colonists arriving from England found the semi-mountainous, thickly forested lands of New Zealand difficult to cultivate. Eventually they turned their efforts to sheep farming, which remains a vital part of New Zealand’s economy. The discovery of gold in the mid-1800s brought bright new economic prospects, and a surging population, to the South Island.
New Zealand achieved complete independence from Britain in 1947. The economy soared following World War II, as agricultural prices rose dramatically. Soon, the country would boast one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.
The 1970s saw a revival of Maori culture, driven by a demand for recognition and participation in
economic prosperity. In 1985, the Treaty of Waitangi was amended to include claims dating back to the original signing of the treaty in 1840. Financial reparations were made to several Maori tribes whose lands were unjustly confiscated.
Major events taking place in New Zealand in recent years include the 1996 eruption of Mount Ruapehu, whose ash clouds made air travel problematic all across the country. On the political front, Jenny Shipley became the nation’s first female prime minister in 1997. The Christchurch earthquakes of February 2011 drew international outreach and support. Many countries—the U.S. included—sent search and rescue teams or other aid.