Apart from being considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world, New Zealand also has the distinction of being one of the youngest. It was the last major land mass to be discovered by Europeans, and today, this fascinating and unspoiled country offers many reminders of its Maori and Colonial history.
The earliest known settlers in the two islands were the seafaring Maori, who arrived sometime between 1000 and 1300 AD, although some evidence suggests they were there earlier. The Maoris named the new land Aotearoa, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud”, a name that still seems appropriate today.
The Maoris survived by hunting and farming and later by trading with the European settlers. Today, New Zealand boasts several places where you can still experience several fascinating glimpses into the Maori’s way of life and Maori culture is still an important part of what has become an increasingly multicultural society.
The Maoris were skilled fishermen, as well as expert sailors. One of their traditions was to throw back the first fish caught as a way of thanking the sea god for the catch – a tradition that continues today. They were also adept at hunting the world’s largest bird, the Moa, and harvesting and eating vegetables and potatoes.
One of the best places to gain an insight into their culture is the restored Maori village at Tamaki, which offers the chance to watch traditional singing, dancing and to purchase hand made crafts. The highlight of your visit may be the opportunity to sample a typical Maori meal, prepared the same way as it has been for centuries – cooked for several hours on hot stones buried under the ground.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to discover the two islands, naming them Nieuw Zeeland, after the Dutch province of the same name. The explorer Abel Tasman first sighted the land in 1642 – although the first visit was not a success as there was fighting between the Maoris and the Dutch. Tasman later named the bay where he had anchored “Murderer’s bay”.
The Maoris were left in peace for the next hundred years until the British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in the 18th century. Cook’s group had their misfortunes too – Maori warriors killed and ate nine members of the ship’s crew. New Zealand could just as easily have become a French colony – by coincidence, a French ship was exploring the area at the same time although neither ship sighted the other.
From the late 1790s onwards, the north coast of the North Island became a busy place, as traders, whaling ships and missionaries established settlements there. The settlers traded weapons with the Maoris – often trading muskets for fruit or pigs. This led to the tribes fighting among themselves – a bloody period in New Zealand’s history that has become known as the “Musket Wars”.
The British signed a treaty to colonize the islands in February, 1840 – the Treaty of Waitangi. While most Maoris were agreeable to this, not every tribe was amenable and this led to more fighting – a period known as the New Zealand Wars. One skirmish was triggered off by the Maoris repeatedly cutting down the ceremonial British flagpole in the settlement at Kororareka.
The following year New Zealand officially became a British colony and the New Zealand Constitution Act was established in 1852. The islands saw a further increase in immigrants, not only from the UK, but from other parts of Europe and the US as well. And the late 19th century also saw the beginning of immigration from China, with men arriving to work in the gold mines.
During the 1890s, New Zealand’s economy, which had previously relied mainly on trading and wool, was boosted by the increased export of frozen meat to Britain. The invention of refrigeration suddenly made it possible to keep meat cold for the duration of the long sea crossing – New Zealand would remain a key player in the refrigerated meat business until the 1970s.
New Zealand declared independence from the UK in 1907, although the country remained a part of the British Empire and New Zealanders fought alongside the British in both world wars. A period of cooperation with the United States led to the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951, guaranteeing that New Zealand, Australia and America would assist each other if any of the countries were to be invaded.
Today, New Zealand is an independent nation within the British Commonwealth and still retains strong bonds with Britain. The British Union Jack appears on the country’s flag and an image of the Queen can still be seen on some banknotes. People from all over the world visit this remote nation to experience its history and a taste of its unique culture.