The Greenwood Guide to New Zealand
New Zealand

To browse our Culture and History recommendations click on one of the following areas:

Auckland (Auckland & islands, West Auckland coast) :: Bay of Plenty (Rotorua, White Island) :: Canterbury (Christchurch, Kaikoura) :: Coromandel (Coromandel Town, Whitianga) :: Hawke's Bay (Napier, Hastings) :: Marlborough (Picton, Blenheim) :: Nelson (Nelson, Abel Tasman Nat Pk) :: Northland (Bay of Islands, Whangarei) :: Otago (Queenstown, Dunedin, Wanaka) :: Taranaki (New Plymouth, Mt Taranaki) :: Waikato and King Country (Waitomo, Raglan) :: Wanganui and Manawatu (Taihape, Palmerston North) :: Wellington (Wellington, Kapiti Coast) :: West Coast (Fox & Franz Josef glaciers, Greymouth)

Culture and History

Maori legend says that Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, was fished from the sea. History however, credits Polynesian navigator Kupe with the discovery of New Zealand around AD 800. This makes it the last landmass on earth to have been discovered and the youngest country on earth. Continuous settlement dates from about 1200, after which a fairly steady migration of people came from Kupe's homeland of Hawaiki (Ra'iatea, near Tahiti in modern-day French Polynesia) who, according to tradition, followed Kupe's own navigational instructions. Their culture, essentially Polynesian but developed over centuries of only limited contact with 'the home lands', was hierarchical and, over time and under increasing pressure for land, became more warlike and many tribes were wiped out by processes of conquest and enslavement. Cannibalism became prevalent at this time, as did the development of pa (forts) for protection against warring tribes. You can still see the remains of these forts in various parts of the country.

In 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to sight the islands as he sailed briefly along the west coast; any thoughts of a longer stay were thwarted when his attempt to land resulted in several of his crew being killed and eaten! In 1769, Captain James Cook circumnavigated the two main islands aboard his famous ship, the Endeavour. Botanists and other experts onboard his ship gained considerable information about the country's flora and fauna, and the native Maori inhabitants. Initial contact proved violent but Cook, impressed with the Maoris' bravery and spirit, and recognizing the potential of this newfound land, grabbed it for the British crown before setting sail for Australia.

Later on, when the British began their antipodean colonizing, New Zealand was originally only seen as an offshoot of Australian enterprises in whaling and sealing. In fact, from 1839 to 1841 the country was under the jurisdiction of New South Wales. However, increased European settlement soon proved problematic: a policy was urgently required regarding land deals between the settlers (pakeha) and the Maori.


New Zealand boasts more species of flightless birds than any other country.

In 1840, French navy captain Charles Lavaud's plans to claim the land for France, were hurriedly intercepted with the signing of the British-initiated Treaty of Waitangi. The Maori ceded governorship of their country to Britain in exchange for protection and guaranteed possession of their lands. But relations between the Maori and pakeha, although harmonious in some regions, soured in others. Causes were varied and complex, but the most common feature was disagreement over land. A total of five wars were sparked off between Maori and colonial forces in the Maori strongholds of Taranaki, Waikato and the East Coast. Fighting eventually died down and though there was no formal resolution to any of the skirmishes, the pakehas certainly claimed victory.

By the late 19th century the situation had calmed down and the discovery of gold started to bring much prosperity to the land. This and the introduction of wide-scale sheep farming meant that New Zealand became an efficient and mostly self-reliant country. Sweeping social changes such as women's suffrage, social security, the encouragement of trade unions and the introduction of childcare services, cemented New Zealand's reputation as a country committed to egalitarian reform.

New Zealand was given dominion status in the British Empire in 1907 and granted autonomy by Britain in 1931; independence, however, was not formally proclaimed until 1947. Internationally, New Zealand was hailed during the mid-1980s for its anti-nuclear stance. This included a ban on nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels from its waters, putting it at odds with the US, and its opposition to French nuclear testing in the Pacific. France controversially tried to counter this, to much outrage but little penalty, by blowing up the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior as it sat in Auckland Harbour.

Today agriculture and tourism are the economic mainstays and there is also a growing film industry. The Maori population is now increasing faster than the pakeha and resurgence in Maoritanga (Maori culture) has had a major and lasting impact on New Zealand society. In spite of concerted efforts towards cultural integration between the Maori and pakeha, the New Zealand government's clumsy attempt to offer financial reparations has resulted in an upsurge of militant Maori protests over land rights. The issue of reconciliation remains at the top of the political agenda.

Of New Zealand's population around 4 million, 76% are NZ European (pakeha) mainly of British descent, 14% are NZ indigenous Maori, 5.5% are Pacific Island Polynesians and about 4.5% are Asian.

Many Pacific islands are experiencing a rapid population shift from remote and undeveloped islands to the 'big city'. Auckland is very much the big city of the South Pacific, with the greatest concentration of Polynesians on earth. Asian migration is also increasing due to recent immigration incentives and there are also sizeable Indian and East Asian communities in Auckland.

With only about 14 people per sq km, NZ is lightly populated by most countries' standards, except perhaps its bigger, emptier neighbour Australia with just 2.3 people per sq km. Although it once had a greater population than the North Island, the South Island is now the place to go for elbow-room - its has barely more inhabitants than Auckland. In fact, despite its rural base, 70% of New Zealanders live in urban areas - Auckland alone has 29% of the entire population.

The Treaty and grounds of Waitangi

New Zealand's founding document, an agreement between the British government and 50 Maori chiefs, was signed on the grounds of Waitangi in 1840. In return for giving Queen Victoria rights to buy their land, Maoris were granted all the rights and privileges of British subjects, quite extraordinary considering the times and the very different form of race relations just over the pond between the British and the Aborigines.

However a few differing meanings, lost in translation between the two versions of the treaty (English and Maori), have caused considerable controversy over the text that continues to this day.

Differences aside, each year on 'Waitangi Day' on 6th February, New Zealanders of all origins come here to commemorate the founding of their nation. Ceremonial celebrations including flag-raising, canon-firing and fireworks mark the event. The highlight of the day is the launch of the 120-warrior long-canoe Ngatokimatawhaorua. This impressive 35-metre Maori war canoe is made from the trunks of three kauri trees and is named after the vessel in which Kupe discovered these shores.

French Frolics in the 'long harbour' of Akaroa

It started with a dream conceiving the idea of a French colony in a pocket of the South Island. In 1838, French whaler Jean Fran├žois Langlois negotiated the sale of the Banks Peninsula from the local Maori tribe, and later returned to France to gain support for his colonising plan and to form a trading company that was to become the vehicle for his ambitions.

With the backing of the French government, around 60 settlers emigrated in 1840, escorted by navy captain Charles Lavaud and the warship L'Aube. However, upon hearing of their plans just days before their arrival, the British thwarted the French by rushing to Akaroa in their own warship to quickly raise the British flag and claim their sovereignty of the area under the (recently signed) Treaty of Waitangi.

Pipped to the post, if only the French had arrived a couple of years earlier, this may well have become a French-speaking colony after all. Nonetheless, despite the assertion of British sovereignty, the settlers remained and have clearly stamped their mark. Streets and houses have French names and many of their descendents still live in town. Akaroa is very proud of its French history and heritage, and each year the famous Akaroa French Festival is held in April celebrating all things French and francophile through films, music, family entertainment and, of course, delicious local food and wine.

The Rush for Gold

The Otago Gold Rush began in 1861 with the discovery of the precious metal by the banks of the Tuapeka River near present-day Lawrence. Though gold had been found previously on the Coromandel Peninsula and in Nelson, and later on the West Coast, Otago was the site of New Zealand's biggest strike. A trickle of prospectors from Europe, Australia and China and beyond fast became a flood, and soon thousands were braving hot, dry summers, cold, harsh winters and starvation in search of a quick fortune. This led to the rapid expansion and commercialisation of the new settlement of Dunedin, which for a time became the country's largest and most prosperous city.

Captain James Cook and the Endeavor

Captain Cook took his first steps onto New Zealand soil in Gisborne on the 9th October 1769. Both a monument to Cook and a statue of 'Young Nick' (Cook's cabin boy, Nicholas Young, who spotted New Zealand first on the horizon) are found in Gisborne.

Rainbow Warrior

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, codenamed 'Operation Satanic', was a special operation by the 'action' branch of the French foreign intelligence services (DGSE), carried out on the 10th July 1985. It aimed to sink the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, while she was docked in Auckland's port, to prevent her from interfering in a nuclear test in Muroroa.

Fernando Pereira, a photographer, drowned in the sinking ship. New Zealand police subsequently arrested two French agents on passport fraud and immigration charges. After being questioned they were later charged with arson, conspiracy to commit arson, willful damage, and murder. As part of a pea bargain, they eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to ten years, just over two of which they served.

In the wake of the bombing, a flotilla of privately-owned New Zealand yachts sailed to Muroroa to protest against the French test. Their nuclear tests in the Pacific were halted, although a further series of testing was conducted in 1995.

The ensuing scandal resulted in the resignation of French Defence Minister Charles Hernu, and the subject became so touchy that it was not until twenty years afterward that the personal responsibility of French President Fran├žois Mitterand was officially admitted.

Although the Rainbow Warrior was refloated later in the year, damage was too extensive for repair. The ship was scuttled in Matauri Bay in the Cavalli Islands to serve as a dive wreck and fish sanctuary. The move was seen as a fitting end for the vessel. Indeed, the hull is now covered with a large colony of variously coloured sea anemones.

Maori Culture

Any visitor to New Zealand will be aware of Maori culture in many aspects of New Zealand life. Traditional arts such as carving, weaving, kappa haka (group performance) and moko (tattoo) are practised throughout the country. The best place to observe traditional Maori customs is at a marae (Maori meeting ground).

Maori is an oral culture rich in stories and legends, many of which are depicted in crafts that replicate techniques used hundreds of years ago. Today's Maori culture has been depicted in the acclaimed films Whale Rider (2002) and Once We Were Warriors (1994) and in The Bone People, a novel by New Zealand writer Keri Hulme that won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1985.

In many areas of New Zealand, the Maori language lost its role in the community in the post-war years. Efforts have been made to remedy the situation. Many schools now teach Maori culture and language and in 2004, a government-funded Maori TV station committed to broadcasting primarily in te reo, went on air. As of 2006, Maori politicians have seven designated Maori seats in New Zealand's parliament and consultation with Maori has become a routine requirement for many councils and government organisations.

In the 2006 census 4% of New Zealanders were able to speak Maori to at least a conversational level. To the visitor, the vast majority of Maori place names they see are seemingly impossible to pronounce. It does however have a logical structure and, unlike English, has very consistent rules of pronunciation!

Here's a quick guide to get you through reading your map:

  • Maori has five vowels sounds - a (as in car), e (as in egg), i (.tee), o (.four), u (like an 'o' in to).
  • There are eight consonants similar to those in English - h, k, m, n, p, r, t and w.
  • There are two different consonants, which seem to crop up everywhere - 'wh' (pronounced as an 'f') and 'ng' (similar to the 'ng' in sing).

Now have a practice. Say Onehunga, Whangamomona, Kahikatea and Nguru. See it's not that hard now is it...?

Got it? Ok, now try pronouncing this: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahurunokopokaiwhenuakitanatahu. The longest place-name in the world, a town near Mangaorapa on the East Coast (at a guess, this is probably shown abbreviated on your map.)

Maori Myths

One of the most popular legends is that describing the creation of New Zealand or Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. The God Maui managed, amongst other things, to harness the sun in order to make the days longer. His biggest claim to fame however was fishing up the North Island from the ocean, described as Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui). Maori believe the far north of the North Island to be the tail of the fish and Wellington Harbour the mouth. The South Island is represented in the picture as Maui's waka (canoe) and Stewart Island as his punga (anchor).

Many Maori myths are held close to the heart of the Maori today. Right up at the top of the North Island is Cape Reinga, the strip of land that separates the Tasman Sea from the Pacific Ocean and a site of great significance for the Maori. According to their mythology, the spirits of the dead travel here on their journey to the afterlife in the spiritual homeland of Hawaiki.

At Cape Reinga or Te Rerenga Wairua (literally 'the leaping off place for the spirits'), spirits depart from the mainland by leaping off the ancient pohutukawa tree that stands nearby. They then turn briefly at the Three Kings Islands offshore to look back towards the land one final time before continuing on their journey.

Many Maori will make the journey here when a loved one dies, to see off their spirit at the spectacularly situated lighthouse that presides over the two massive bodies of water as they clash and create the wild waters below.

Things To Do
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Travel Information

Here's some more specific information about travelling in New Zealand: when to go, getting around (car hire, inter-island ferries, train journeys) and distances.

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