New Zealand has a rich and fascinating history, reflecting our unique mix of Māori and European culture.
Māori were the first inhabitants of New Zealand or Aotearoa, meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’.Arriving in Aotearoa
According to Māori, the first explorer to reach New Zealand was Kupe. Using the stars and ocean currents as his navigational guides, he ventured across the Pacific on his waka hourua (voyaging canoe) from his ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. It is thought that Kupe made landfall at the Hokianga Harbour in Northland, around 1000 years ago.
Where is Hawaiki?
You will not find Hawaiki on a map, but it is believed Māori came from an island or group of islands in Polynesia in the South Pacific Ocean. There are distinct similarities between the Māori language and culture and others of Polynesia including the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti.
More waka hourua followed Kupe over the next few hundred years, landing at various parts of New Zealand. It is believed that Polynesian migration was planned and deliberate, with many waka hourua making return journeys to Hawaiki. Today, iwi (tribes) can trace their entire origins and whakapapa (genealogy) back to certain waka hourua. The seven waka that arrived to Aotearoa were called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.
Hunters, gatherers and growers
Māori were expert hunters and fishermen. They wove fishing nets from harakeke (flax), and carved fishhooks from bone and stone. They hunted native birds, including moa, the world’s largest bird, with a range of ingenious traps and snares. Māori cultivated land and grew introduced vegetables from Polynesia, including the kumara (sweet potato). They also ate native vegetables, roots and berries. Woven baskets were used to carry food, which was often stored in a pātaka — a storehouse raised on stilts.
In pre-European times, Māori tribal warfare was common. Māori warriors were strong and fearless, able to skillfully yield a variety of traditional weapons, including the spear-like taiaha and club-like mere. Today, these weapons may be seen in Māori ceremonies, such as the wero (challenge).
To protect themselves from being attacked by other iwi, Māori would construct pā (fortified village). Built in strategic locations, pa were cleverly constructed with a series of stockades and trenches protecting the inhabitants from intruders. Today, many historic pā sites can be found throughout the country.
While Māori lived throughout the North and South Islands, the Moriori, another Polynesian tribe, lived on the Chatham Islands, nearly 900 kilometres east of Christchurch. Moriori are believed to have migrated to the Chathams from the South Island of New Zealand. In the late 18th century, there were about 2000 Moriori living on the Chathams. However, disease and attacks from Māori saw the numbers of this peace-loving tribe become severely depleted. The last full-blooded Moriori is believed to have died in 1933.
Though a Dutchman was the first European to sight the country, it was the British who colonised New Zealand.
Early visitor from the Netherlands
The first European to sight New Zealand was Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. He was on an expedition to discover a great Southern continent ‘Great South Land’ that was believed to be rich in minerals. In 1642, while searching for this continent, Tasman sighted a ‘large high-lying land’ off the West Coast of the South Island.
Abel Tasman annexed the country for Holland under the name of ‘Staten Landt’ (later changed to ‘New Zealand’ by Dutch mapmakers). Sailing up the country’s West Coast, Tasman’s first contact with Māori was at the top of the South Island in what is now called Golden Bay. Two waka (canoes) full of Māori men sighted Tasman’s boat. Tasman sent out his men in a small boat, but various misunderstandings saw it rammed by one of the waka. In the resulting skirmish, four of Tasman’s men were killed.
Tasman never set foot on New Zealand, and after sailing up the West Coast, went on to some Pacific Islands, and then back to Batavia (now Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). His mission to New Zealand was considered unsuccessful by his employers, the Dutch East India Company, Tasman having found ‘no treasures or matters of great profit’.
Captain James Cook, sent to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, was also tasked with the search for the great southern continent thought to exist in the southern seas. Cook’s cabin boy, Young Nick, sighted a piece of land (now called Young Nick’s Head) near Gisborne in 1769. Cook successfully circumnavigated and mapped the country, and led two more expeditions to New Zealand before being killed in Hawaii in 1779.
Early European settlers
Prior to 1840, it was mainly whalers, sealers, and missionaries who came to New Zealand. These settlers had considerable contact with Māori, especially in coastal areas. Māori and Pakeha (Europeans) traded extensively, and some Europeans lived among Māori. The contribution of guns to Māori intertribal warfare, along with European diseases, led to a steep decline in the Māori population at this time.