New Zealand History

New Zealand

New Zealand (zē´lənd), island country (2015 est. pop. 4,615,000), 104,454 sq mi (270,534 sq km), in the S Pacific Ocean, over 1,000 mi (1,600 km) SE of Australia. The capital is Wellington; the largest city and leading port is Auckland.

Land and People

New Zealand comprises the North Island and the South Island (the two principal islands), Stewart Island, and the Chatham Islands. Small outlying islands belonging to New Zealand include the Auckland Islands, the Kermadec Islands, Campbell Island, the Antipodes, Three Kings Island, Bounty Island, the Snares Islands, and the Solander Islands. Dependencies are Tokelau and Ross Dependency. The Cook Islands and Niue, both internally self-governing, are in free association with New Zealand.

The North Island is known for its active volcanic mountains and its hot springs. The country's longest river (the Waikato) and largest lake (Taupo) are both on the North Island. On the South Island, the massive Southern Alps extend almost the length of the island, and in the southwest are beautiful fjords. The largest areas of virgin forest are in the southern and northern extremities of the South Island. Among the unusual animals native to New Zealand are the kiwi, certain species of parrot, the tuatara (survivor of a prehistoric order of reptiles), and various frogs and reptiles. New Zealand has no native land mammals other than bats. Large oyster beds are found in the Foveaux Strait between Stewart Island and the South Island. Extensive areas of New Zealand have been set aside as national parks, including the Fiordland, Mt. Aorangi-Cook, and Tongariro parks.

More than 85% of the population lives in urban areas. In addition to Wellington and Auckland, the principal cities are Christchurch, Dunedin, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Hutt City, and Invercargill. People of European descent constitute about 74% of the population. The Maori, New Zealand's indigenous inhabitants, now make up about 15% of the population, with most living on the North Island. Some 12% of the population is of Asian descent, while Pacific Islanders make up over 7%, and an increasing portion of the population is born overseas (25% in 2013). (Intermarriage has resulted in mixed descent and overlap in the various ethnic groupings.) Both English and Maori are official languages. New Zealand has no established religion; the three largest faiths are Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian.


Agriculture, historically the mainstay of the economy, now employs only 10% of the population. Beginning in the 1980s, New Zealand transformed its highly protected and regulated economy into one that was much more privatized, market oriented, and deregulated, and services and industry now make up a much greater percentage of the gross domestic product. The agricultural sector has diversified from a reliance on sheep raising to such additional enterprises as dairying, forestry, and horticulture. Wheat, barley, potatoes, legumes, fruits (including wine grapes), and vegetables are grown; wool, beef, lamb, mutton, and fish are additional agricultural products. The mining sector produces coal, gold, iron, and natural gas. There is extensive food processing and wood and paper products, textiles, machinery, and transportation equipment are manufactured. Banking, insurance, and tourism are also important. The principal exports are dairy products, meat, wood and wood products, fruit, crude oil, wine, and fish. Imports include petroleum and petroleum products, machinery and equipment, vehicles and vehicle parts, textiles, electronics, and plastic. The main trading partners are China, Australia, the United States, and Japan.


New Zealand is governed under The Consitution Act of 1986, adopted in 1987, as well as other legal documents. The monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, represented by the governor-general, is the head of state. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the governor-general following legislative elections. Members of the 120-seat unicameral parliament (the House of Representatives) are elected by popular vote for three-year terms using a system of mixed constituency and proportional representation. Administratively, the country is divided into 16 regions and one territory (the Chatham Islands). New Zealand is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.


New Zealand has been inhabited since at least AD 1000 by Polynesian Maoris. The first European to visit was the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, who stopped there during his voyage of 1642–43. New Zealand was charted by Capt. James Cook on his three voyages (1769–78). Between 1792 and 1840, sealing, whaling, and trading led to European settlement. In a series of intertribal wars between 1815 and 1840, tens of thousands of Maoris died.

In 1840 the first settlement was made at Wellington by a group sent by the New Zealand Company, founded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. In that year the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed to the Maoris the full possession of their land in exchange for their recognition of British rule. But as European settlement increased, Maori opposition to land settlement resulted in continuing conflict from 1860 to 1872.

Originally part of New South Wales (Australia), New Zealand became a separate colony in 1840 and received a large measure of self-government after 1852. In 1907 it assumed complete self-government as the Dominion of New Zealand, but, preferring that Great Britain handle most of its foreign affairs, did not confirm the Statute of Westminster (1931) until 1947.

New Zealand has been a leader in progressive social legislation. It was the first country to grant (1893) women the right to vote. A comprehensive social security system was begun in 1898 with the enactment of an old age pension law.

During World War I and World War II, New Zealand fought on the side of the Allies, and it joined the UN forces in the Korean War. New Zealand also sent troops to aid U.S. forces in South Vietnam in the 1960s. In 1951, New Zealand joined in a mutual defense treaty with the United States and Australia. This pact was suspended in 1986 after David Lange's Labor government refused to let U.S. ships with nuclear arms enter its ports; although defense cooperation has resumed since then, the ban remains in effect. In the 1970s the government and the Maori tribes (iwi) began negotiations that subsequently led to the settling of many Maori claims and improved financial status for most tribes. In 1997, Jenny Shipley of the National party, which had been in power since 1990, became New Zealand's first woman prime minister.

The Labor party, led by Helen Clark, and its center-left coalition defeated the National party in the 1999 elections and formed a minority government. Clark's coalition retained power, again as a minority government, after the 2002 elections. After the court of appeals ruled in 2004 that Maoris could pursue land claims to New Zealand's beaches and seabed, the government passed legislation that nationalized the contested areas in an effort to prevent Maoris from gaining an exclusive legal title to them. The law alienated the government's Maori supporters and prompted the establishment of a Maori political party.

Parliamentary elections in Sept., 2005, resulted in a narrow victory for Labor, which secured a plurality of the seats. Clark formed a government with the support of three smaller parties, including the anti-immigration New Zealand First party. Clark and Labor lost the Nov., 2008, parliamentary elections to John Key, a wealthy former currency trader, and the National party, and Key became prime minister of a center-right coalition government. A strong earthquake in Sept., 2010, and a second one in Feb., 2011, caused widespread damage in Christchurch. Key and the National-led coalition remained in power after the Nov., 2011, elections. In the Sept., 2014, parliamentary elections, the National party won an outright majority. Earthquakes in Nov., 2016, again caused significant damage in central New Zealand (on both islands), but the earthquake was strongest mainly in rural areas, where there was catastrophic transportation infrastructure damage. Key stepped down as National party leader and prime minister in December; Deputy Prime Minister Bill English succeeded him. In the Sept., 2017, elections, the National party won a plurality, but Labor, led by Jacinda Ardern, was able to form (October) a coalition with the New Zealand First party and secured the support of the Green party.


See K. B. Cumberland and J. W. Fox, New Zealand: A Regional View (1964); A. H. McLintock, ed., An Encyclopedia of New Zealand (3 vol., 1966); G. R. Hawke, The Making of New Zealand (1985); G. McLauchlan, ed., Encyclopedia of New Zealand (52 vol., 1986–87); K. Sinclair, A History of New Zealand (4th rev. ed. 1991); G. W. Rice, ed., Oxford History of New Zealand (2d ed. 1992).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

New Zealand History: Selected full-text books and articles

Aotearoa & New Zealand: A Historical Geography By Alan H. Grey Canterbury University Press, 1994
New Zealand at the Polls: The General Election of 1978 By Howard R. Penniman American Enterprise Institute, 1980
A History of New Zealand By Keith Sinclair Penguin Books, 1959
New Zealand in the Making: A Study of Economic and Social Development By J. B. Condliffe George Allen & Unwin, 1959 (2nd Rev. edition)
The Origins of the First New Zealanders By Douglas G. Sutton Auckland University Press, 1994
Treaties and Indigenous Peoples By Ian Brownlie; F. M. Brookfield Clarendon Press, 1992
The Origins of the Maori Wars By Keith Sinclair New Zealand University Press, 1957 (2nd edition)
Race, Colour, and Identity in Australia and New Zealand By Gerhard Fischer; John Docker University of New South Wales Press, 2000
Women's Suffrage in New Zealand By Patricia Grimshaw Auckland University Press, 1987
A History of the Pacific Islands By I. C. Campbell University of Canterbury Press, 1989
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