The first settlers of New Zealand
were Maori ancestors who are believed to have named
the islands “Aotearoa” which is Maori for the “Land
of the Long White Cloud”. The people of Maori were
part of the amazing spread of the Polynesians
between a thousand and three thousand years ago
across the Pacific Ocean’s remote islands.
Although the date of the Maori arrival in New
Zealand has long been a subject of debate among
scholars, the latest and strongest evidence shows
that the first important Maori settlement in the
country was established circa 1200 AD.
The culture of the Maori before contact with Europeans was
dynamic and rich. The Maori were great travelers and traded
goods through mutual gifting. Religion, mythology, and
rituals were well-developed, and a large collection of
tradition passed on identity, history, and practical
It is widely believed that as early as 1504,
Europeans may already have arrived in New Zealand.
The first recorded visit was by Abel Tasman, a Dutch
explorer, in 1642. Four of Tasman’s men were killed
by the Maori, discouraging more visits until 1769
with the arrival of Captain James Cook, British
He arrived in New Zealand during the 1st
of his three exploration voyages in the South
He came back to New Zealand at each and every one of
these voyages. Other early expeditions were also
conducted by the French to the islands such as those
Jean-Francois Marie de Surville, in 1769, shortly after the
arrival of Cook, and that of Marion Dufresne, who, in 1772,
was killed in the Bay of Islands by Maori.
The Maori interaction with Europeans from 1790 to
1840 changed its society in several ways. New plants
(such as potatoes) and animals (such as pigs) and
tools made of metal introduced an easier way of
life. Maori subscribed eagerly to Christianity from
approximately 1830, although they tailored the new
system of belief for their own means and used
conversion of religion as a way to gain literacy.
However, the introduction of guns by Europeans
started the Musket Wars from 1818 to 1835. These
were fierce inter-tribal battles that caused the
death of thousands. With the equal distribution of
muskets among the tribes, the wars ended.
Diseases brought by Europeans such as measles and influenza
also caused the death of many Maoris. There was a
significant loss of life. The population of the Maori
dropped from approximately eighty five thousand in 1769 to
approximately sixty thousand in the 1850s. Generally,
however, the society of the Maori bent but did not buckle
under the weight of contact with Europeans.