Book summary: The Penguin History of New Zealand



I am traveling to Australia and New Zealand soon, so I decided to pick up The Penguin History of New Zealand to learn some relevant history.

Overall, it was a good read, and gave me a high-level understanding of New Zealand's history.

I found myself constantly comparing New Zealand's history with that of the US. In particular, New Zealand had natives before the European colonists arrived, same as the US. Europeans in both places pushed natives violently out of their rightful tribal lands to various extents. Other than that, the role of the natives in the history of the two nations is surprisingly pretty different. The natives were a critical part of New Zealand's history, and are a critical part of the national identity to this day. However, the same cannot be said for the US.

Before we begin: basic New Zealand geography.

New Zealand, located to the east of Australia, is composed of many islands. The two largest islands are North Island--comprising of Auckland and Wellington, among others notable places--and South Island--comprising of Dunedin, Christchurch, and the pretty Fiordland.

The small cluster of islands to the east of North Island and South Island visible on the map above is called Chatham Islands.

First settlers: 1300s -> 1400s

Polynesians, equipped with outrigger canoes, were the first settlers of New Zealand. They traveled far and wide, everywhere within the triangle formed by New Zealand, Eastern Island and Hawaii.

They were spiritual folks, with some amount of social mobility. They formed into tribes, even in New Zealand, where their communal identity was defined by their ancestors and which canoes they used to get there.

Collectively, all the Polynesians in New Zealand across their various tribes are termed Māori. Māori tribes had some war between them, same as elsewhere.

New Zealand didn't really have any predators before the Māori got there. Thus, plenty of animals not used to predators could be used as source of energy. Moa, large chicken-dragon combos, were hunted to extinction. Almost likewise with seals. Māori also brought sweet potato, taro, and other plants with them. This opulence of food led to explosive population growth, but we're a bit light on numbers from this era.

European interaction: 1600s -> 1700s

There were lots of expeditions from Europe to New Zealand area, mostly as an aftermath of the search for Terra Australis, a mythical continent hypothesized to exist to keep the Earth balanced. Some meetings between the Europeans and the Māori ended with violence due to misunderstanding, some just left plaques on shore, and some led to peaceful interaction with the Māori.

One guy was noteworthy: James Cook. He respected the Māori and they respected him. Strait between North Island and South Island is named after him.

Through expeditions, Britain learned that flax, timber, seal, and whales are available in or around New Zealand. However, Britain did not invest in any colonization effort here. New Zealand mostly only had convicts or jump-ships who escaped Australia on their previous ships at this time, and they lived along with the Māori, who had a population of around 70-80K at this point.

The Europeans, termed Pākehā in New Zealand, did not have a noticeable population.

The British ramp-up: late 1700s -> early 1800s

The British loved tea and traded for it with China. When China revealed that they were willing to accept seal skin as payment, the value of seals went up, and folks in Australia started venturing around New Zealand to hunt them. Colonists from Australia traded with the Māori in New Zealand for supplies, and a lucrative trade both ways was established.

A port or two was established to supply the ships out on the hunt. Whale hunting was also prevalent, as material from whales could be used for industrial usage such as lubrication.

Wars in Europe also realized a need for solid timber and flax, and interest in New Zealand went up because of this as well.

Slowly, some Christian missionaries started trickling into New Zealand to convert the Māori. However, the Māori were interested not in wholesale accepting Christianity, but rather adapting it for their needs in a manner compatible with their existing spiritual beliefs.

By this era, the Pākehā population was around a couple thousand and comprised of different denominations (Catholics, Protestants, etc) co-existing in New Zealand, despite their failure to co-exist peacefully in other parts of the world at the same time period.

The Māori population was still over 50K at the end of this era. Their population decrease is primarily attributed to the introduction of muskets, which they proceeded to use bloodily to kill off one another until they the realized terror that can be wrought from such weapons, and achieved achieved an equilibrium of muskets across various surviving tribes.

British colonization: 1840s -> 1900

Due to the increasing appeal of New Zealand, Britain established a formal presence, appointing a governor to New Zealand.

The initial formal British settlement was succeeded by the Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty essentially established that New Zealand as the British Crown's.

Note that the British were in a rush to get this treaty signed to make it clear to the world that New Zealand was theirs so this rushed 4-day treaty had a lot of issues. It was not created by lawyers, just a couple folks ill-equipped to the task. The Māori translation of the treaty was very inaccurate, and basically misled the Māori into thinking that the British Crown is only trying to help the Māori, and there was a lot lost in translation from English to Māori. The translation did not represent the English original accurately. Finally, due to prodding from missionaries, religious freedom was put in the treaty as well.

New Zealand at this time was big on sheep and exported a lot of wool to Britain.

There was increased social mobility in New Zealand compared to back home so people moved to New Zealand. By 1861, there were around 98K Pākehā, and by 1874, there were 255K Pākehā. Population boom was aided by the discovery of minerals in New Zealand: especially gold (esp. around Otago) and coal (esp. around West Coast). Under Premier Julius Vogel, the British government created a campaign to get people in New Zealand, and population increased by 400K immigrants and 250K births between 1831 and 1881.

The large Pākehā immigration also imported measles, influenza, and other European diseases that the Māori had not developed immunity to, and the Māori population decreased further from 56K to 42K from 1857 to 1896. The Pākehā also brought in plants and animals from homeland and that had terrible ecological impact.

Politically, around 1852, constitution and parliament were established in New Zealand, with mostly Pākehā men allowed to vote as well as some Māori. By 1867, all Māori men could vote, and by 1893, all women could vote, making New Zealand arguably the most democratic country in the world at this point.

Initially, the Māori were not well represented in the government so the Pākehā started taking away Māori land using ploys. For example, Māori tribal land was communally owned--but the Pākehā would only get agreement to buy land from a small subset of the tribe that agreed with them instead of the key leaders of the tribe.

Around 1850s, the Māori wanted to preserve their land from the Pākehā so they created a Māori monarch. This seemed to not respect loyalty to the British crown, and Pākehā used that and some other excuses to utilize 20K soldiers against some Māori around 1864. 1000 Māori and 700 Pākehā died, and Māori combat prowess was also established. Regardless, New Zealand government emerged "victorious" and took land from the Māori as a result. They did not take land from only the Māori tribes that "rebelled", but rather from tribes with most fertile lands--so in some cases, tribes that rebelled lost no land, whereas those that were neutral or even allies lost some land because their land was fertile and more desirable.

Around 1859 to 1898, there were also major technological improvements: telephone networks, rail links, steam ships--lots of infrastructure was laid out in New Zealand, connecting Pākehā all over New Zealand with one another. Travel time from Dunedin to Auckland dropped from 15 days to 3 days in this time period. Also, refrigeration meant New Zealand could export not just wool, grain and gold, but also meat! This became a major export of New Zealand for a time.

Around 1877, the Education Act was passed, providing "free, secular, compulsory" primary education to all children. Māori parents requested that their children be taught in English. The impact of this was that over a couple generations, the Māori mostly spoke English. Further, by this point, the Māori did not even wear traditional clothes except when performing ceremonies, and they also borrowed heavily from European architecture. The Māori culture was eroding.

It's important to note that toilets and such were still not very popular in Māori tribes and such unsanitary conditions still lead to many deaths and a high mortality rate fueled by typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, etc.

Focusing on the Pākehā through second half of 19th century, laws favoring employees and good working conditions were established. Unions, in particular, were all the rage. Nation-wide old age pension was also introduced, and large private estates were broken up (by being bought) and then given away on favorable terms to small scale farmers--some 7000 farming families. Universal healthcare was also soon introduced.

New Zealand Stabilization: 1900s -> 2000

New Zealand was pretty affluent going into the 1900s. They were craving some action so they volunteered their troops to Britain for some South African conflicts--about 6500 men. Australians and New Zealanders fought side by side for the first time during this conflict.

This was followed by WW1 in 1914, where New Zealand contributed troops too, again despite the conflict being far from home. About 100K troops were contributed and they suffered around a 60% casualty rate, which took the morale down at home. The Māori also volunteered in WW1 and had parliamentary representation by 1930s, taking even some non-Māori seats. Māori health improvements such as setting up water tanks, privies in tribes, as well as more funding for schools were provided.

New Zealand was loyal to Britain and never really wanted independence. However, Britain kept giving New Zealand and other colonies more independence during this time period. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster proposed by Britain gave colonies independence in trade treaties and such. Canada, Ireland, and South Africa ratified it, but New Zealand refused to ratify it until 1947.

During WW2 too, New Zealand participated, and suffered casualties. After the war, the birth rate was higher than normal and led to a baby boom and population increase, same as the US. 1950s and 1960s also saw a large amount of Māori move to cities. Introduced of TV and jets also meant increased influence of other countries in New Zealand. By 1951, the ANZUS pact was in effect, offering US protection to Australia and New Zealand. This shows a marked switch in New Zealand's attitude towards Britain--now choosing to rely on a closer neighbor with a shore in the pacific.

Latter half of the 20th century was also when the New Zealanders realized how much they've ruined their environment, and started passing laws to preserve the environment. By 1970s, there was also a stronger commitment to Māori Pākehā biculturalism. Demographically, New Zealand was 73% Pākehā, 18.4% Māori descent, 6% Asians, and 4.6% other Pacific Islanders. The Waitangi Tribunal was set up to remedy infringements of the Treaty of Waitangi by Pākehā.

The key exports of New Zealand by the end of the century were dairy, seafood, meat, wool, forestry, wine, pastoral products, etc.


Besides some economic downturns, New Zealand has been a fairly affluent country after the British colonization started ramping up. The economy diversified over time. There was some amount of social welfare programs since the very beginning guaranteeing healthcare, a pension, and some governmental financial support to the needy.

I find the Pākehā Māori interaction to be the most interesting part of New Zealand's history, especially when comparing it to colonists interaction with Native Americans in the US. The Pākehā from the very beginning acknowledged that most of the land was the Māori's, as seen via the Treaty of Waitangi. Although the treaty was willfully misinterpreted and even ignored for over a century, the Māori were still acknowledged by the government! The Māori had representation in the parliament since the very beginning, and even took up positions as ministers quite early. They had the right to vote since early on. Sure, they didn't get most of the benefits as the Pākehā and were treated unjustly early on--having their land stolen, faced prejudice from Pākehā which prevented them from developing vocational and technical skills, worse funding for schools, no real focus on Māori health and sanitation, etc. However, their historical treatment is markedly better than the way colonists in the US treated Native Americans. Native Americans in the US were largely ignored, killed or migrated out of their land in the US. Today, when people think of the US, they do not think of the Native Americans. The Māori, on the other hand, are a central part of New Zealand's culture and identity to this day.

We can try to postulate what caused the difference. One significant reason is the population. The Māori have always been a significant portion of the population of New Zealand, about an order of magnitude more as a proportion of the country's population than the Native Americans in the US. Another reason is probably how the interaction started out. Since the very beginning, Pākehā signed a treaty with the Māori and started trading with the Māori. Colonists in the US, on the other hand, saw the America as theirs and didn't respect the natives at all.