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Gap Year New Zealand :: essentials :: history and culture

The History and Culture of New Zealand


Europeans first reached New Zealand in the eighteenth century when Captain Cook’s voyage landed there briefly in 1773. Modern New Zealand owes many of its place names to the explorer, but the indigenous Maori people have populated the islands for far longer. Unfortunately, the first period which saw both European emigrants and Maori natives share the island was rife with war. Around 25% of the Maori population was killed by the new diseases brought to the islands from Europe. Under the influence of Christianity and disease, the Maori tribal way of life began to decline.

Maori-European relations

The town now known as Russell in the Bay of Islands was the largest European settlement in the 1830s, famous for the chaotic way of life and high level of crime found there! In 1842 British settlers requested their King’s protection. Fearful of losing control of the island to the French, the British King appointed Captain William Hobson to create the Treaty of Waitangi which would transfer sovereignty from the Maori chiefs to the Britain. This document offered Maori people full protection as British citizens and encouraged by the chaotic environment of the island, 40 Maori Chiefs, of mainly Northland tribes, signed the document in 1840. By the end of that year, Hobson had gained 500 signatures from the tribes of the North Land and proclaimed New Zealand a crown colony.

However, this was nowhere near the end of conflict; the country saw centuries of unrest and war between the cultures. Due to the military superiority of the British, they eventually managed to subdue the natives and by 1900 over 90% of the land was outside of Maori ownership.

Society and Economy

New Zealand built its economy on its natural resources including gold (discovered in Coromandel in 1852), timber and agriculture. Much of the economic focus was on the South Island and Wellington was declared the capital city in 1879. With the economy and population booming, New Zealand experienced several social reforms in the late nineteenth century including women securing the vote way ahead of Britain and the USA. Maori were also given the vote in 1867 but only held 4 of the 95 seats in the House of Representatives. The arrival of the Europeans had taken its toll and by 1900 the Maori population was less than 50,000.

New Zealand took part in both the First and Second World Wars and suffered the loss of a great number of soldiers. In 1935 the country became the first to establish a social welfare system and became known for the high quality of life found there.

A Bicultural Society

In 1947 New Zealand was given independence from Britain. In the 1960s social problems were still rife for the Maori people and in an attempt to heal relations, Waitangi Day, February 6th was declared a public holiday in 1973 in order to celebrate the bicultural society of the country. However, while the situation has improved, the relations between the various cultures of the country continue to be one of its main social problems.

Today, New Zealand is known for its anti-nuclear policies as well as its firm stand against the “War on Terrorism”, having refused to align itself with the US in their actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The country is sometimes overlooked but continues to be a favorite destination for young travellers and fans of extreme sports. The Lord of the Rings films have brought the world’s attention to the country’s stunning landscape and tourism is fast becoming its biggest industry.

Basic facts

The dominant religion of New Zealand is Christianity. Also represented by a minority are Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and two Maori religions Ratana and Ringatu. The population currently stands at around 3.8 million, with the North Island being home to 2.8 million of these people. Maoris makeup around 15% of the population and live predominately on the North Island. The fastest growing minority is the Asian population. New Zealanders are a nation of travellers, many working abroad and 400,000 living in Australia alone.

If you fancy seeing some more Kiwi scenery on the big screen, try films like The Last Samurai, Heavenly Creatures, The Piano as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.





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