New Zealand History


New Zealand is quite a young country. The island was discovered approximately eight centuries ago by people from Polynesia. According to Māori mythology, they were led by Kupe [shown in the middle of the picture on the left], and his wife [seen in the same picture on the right]. Kupe was the first to suspect the existence of an island after noticing a long white cloud just above it. One or two centuries later, Abel Tasman [shown in the picture below, left], a Dutch explorer, was the first European to reach New Zealand in 1642. And if the term “New Zealand” sounds like a dutch name, it’s because a Dutch mapmaker called it “Nieuw Zeeland”. More than a hundred years later, in 1769, it was the famous British explorer Captain James Cook [next picture below, right] who went to New Zealand.

This exploration led to the British Empire getting control of New Zealand. In a village called Waitangi on the 6th February 1840 New Zealand’s first Governor signed a treaty between the British Empire and more than five hundred Māori leaders, who all agreed and signed it [depicted in the picture below]. However despite the deal, tensions had come to a head during this time in the mid nineteenth century and war broke out in the Northern regions after Europeans expressed desire to settle down in New Zealand by trying to buy Māori land. And 20 years later, a great majority of the land had been seized by Europeans, often having robbed the Māoris of their land.

During the second part of the 19th century, while the North of New Zealand was torn, the South was peaceful and prosperous, thanks to sheep farming (in the Canterbury district) and gold mining (in the West Coast). Governments helped create new cities by building railways in the 1870s. From 1882 New Zealand began exporting meat, butter and cheese to the United Kingdom which is 11 426 miles (about 18 389 kms) away. Due to economic growth and the development of agriculture (the main activity in the country) the majority of New Zealand’s forests were felled.

The end of the 19th century in New Zealand was also a period of radical change in terms of another key issue: equality between men and women. Indeed the country was the first in the world to allow the right to vote for women in 1893 (Australian women had to wait until 1901), and from 1919 New Zealander women were also eligible.

New Zealand’s history also includes severals wars. First in 1899, for the British Crown, the country fought in South Africa, then, after it became an independent country in 1907 (at the same time, Australia offered to New Zealand to join the Australian Federation), again to help the United Kingdom, New Zealand participated in the First World War from 1915, when New Zealander soldiers arrived in Gallipoli, a Turkish city in the Dardanelles region. Together with the Australian army, they formed the ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). the ANZAC fought in the Gallipoli battle. To commemorate the sacrifice of many New Zealander soldiers, the 25th April (the day of the battle) has become a public holiday in the country, during which lots of commemorations usually take place [shown in the picture above]. Katherine Mansfield, a famous woman writer from New Zealand, wrote about her grief in her notebooks after her brother died on the battlefield during the First World War. Two decades later the country helped the British Crown once more during the Second World War. And while New Zealander troops fought far away from home the British army protected the country from the Japanese.

During the second part of the 20th century, New Zealand fought twice siding with the US; first in Korea, in the 50s, but also in Vietnam in the 60s. However, as in the States, lots of people protested against the war in Vietnam.

The end of the 20th century was also scarred by expanding trade especially in 1973 when the United Kingdom joined the EEC (European Economic Community the European Union’s forebear). Thus, New Zealand had to find new countries to export to instead of just relying on one.

A flag usually reveals a lot about its country’s history. Currently New Zealand’s flag is composed of the Union Jack (St George’s cross for England, St Andrew’s cross for Scotland and St Patrick’s cross for Ireland) and the Southern Cross (a constellation that can only be seen in the Southern hemisphere, it’s present on lots of flags like the Australian flag or Mercosur’s flag). It’s been used since 1869, and it’s been the official country’s flag since 24th March 1902 (because of that it’s also called the “1902 flag”). It’s often been a cause for controversy, particularly since the end of the 20th century. Thus a referendum was organised in 2015 and 2016 to let people choose whether they should have a new flag. In the end, despite five proposals, [see below in order of popularity, from the right to left, the “1902 flag” was kept.

Finally we may end with the fact that new ethnic groups who settled in New Zealand from the 80s onwards have made it a multicultural country that is proud of its diversity. Thus, in 2013, 25% of New Zealanders weren’t indigenous (meaning they were born in another country): 15% were Maori, 12% had Asian origin and 7% were from other Pacific islands.

This complex history and cultural diversity is symbolised by several public holidays. In New Zealand there are two days to celebrate New Year (the 1st and the 2nd of January) but only in the region called Auckland (where a quarter of the population lives) and the 29th January is a non-working day called “Anniversary Day”. What’s more the 6th of February, for historical reasons, is a public holiday because it’s Waitangi Day. During the century of British colonisation, between the 19th and the 20th centuries, settlers brought Christian traditions along with them like Good Friday and Easter Monday which in 2020 fall on the 10th of April and the 13th of April. In the same month, on the 25th of April, comes ANZAC Day which is the anniversary of the Gallipoli battle during the First World War. Again, because New Zealand is a part of the Commonwealth, the country celebrates Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday with a public holiday which is going to be on the 1st of June in 2020. For the same reason Kiwi people won’t work on the 26th of June in 2020 for Labour Day. And the last two public holidays, for the third time deriving from Christianity, are for celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December and Boxing Day on the 26th of December.


Thank you for reading this article based on a very interesting country whose history isn’t well-known, at least not over here in France. I hope you found it interesting. This article was written for a school project on indigenous people, as part of IYIL2019 (the International Year of Indigenous Languages) which was established by the United Nations. Languages are very important in our societies, they are “tool[s] for communication, education, social integration, development” and safeguard “each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory” (according to With globalisation and especially climate disruption indigenous culture and indigenous languages in particular are in danger. It’s our role to protect indigenous peoples. This is why we should be curious and raise awareness to the threats they are facing, but we should also make an effort to celebrate their unique heritage and diversity. So do some research on this topic, go on the IYIL website, speak about it with the people around you. If you want to see more of our work on IYIL and indigenous culture, visit our exhibition in our high school (G.Leygues, Agora hall) or visit the website we created for this awareness campaign.

(Lea Cestac Zirnheld TEuro)

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