New Zealand Settlers
People often think of the settlement of New Zealand in terms of the European colonisation. However, the inhabitants of New Zealand at the time that European explorers reached the land—the Maori—also migrated to the island country at one point in recorded history. It is widely believed that the Maori were indigenous Polynesians that made their way to New Zealand by canoes sometime between 800 and 1350 AD. Thus, a history of the settlement of New Zealand must include an overview of both Polynesian and European exploration, and must take into account the varying and often contesting interpretations of that history.
The first Polynesian contact with New Zealand is thought to have been in 750, according to ethnologist Percy Smith, who based this estimate on ethnographic studies of Maori oral tradition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the date of actual settlement is much more widely debated. Mainstream accounts up to about 1970 pointed to the arrival of a wave of seven canoes in 1350, coined the ‘great fleet,’ as the date of initial settlement. However, new scientific methods such as radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis, as well as canoe reconstructions, have corroborated recent ethnological research that suggests the Maori inhabited New Zealand as early as 800. Furthermore, the new studies show that the majority of Maori came at several points in the late 13th century, and arrived specifically from the Southern Cook and Society islands region.
These Polynesian migrants were master navigators and mariners. Their earliest known sailing vessels were rafts and dugout canoes that could only withstand short trips due to their tendency to capsize and become swamped. They eventually developed double- and twin-hulled canoes that could handle longer trips, and that ranged in length from 20 to 36 meters. The Polynesian mariners used these vessels to make the journey to New Zealand, using song to help memorise and record the routes, and depended on the stars, sun, migrating birds, and clouds to direct them towards land. The voyages were wrought with danger, and oral stories passed down through Maori culture tell of starvation and drowning along the way.
But the Polynesian settlers who managed to reach New Zealand safely established a unique culture with its own language, mythology, arts, and traditions, although based on Polynesian cultural customs and beliefs. The traditional Polynesian concepts of tapu (sacred), noa (non-sacred), mana (authority/prestige) and wairua (spirit) shaped Maori mythology and governance. However, there was no single Maori identity prior to European settlement as the settlers divided into tribal social groups with their own dialects and social systems. Nevertheless, there are commonalities found throughout Maori societies that later became common points upon which they could band together to protect themselves from Western colonisers.
From around the early 16th century European explorers from Spain and Portugal had a presence in the Pacific, but the first evidence of anyone reaching New Zealand was in 1642 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. Dutch exploration of the Pacific was motivated by the Dutch East India company’s search for a sea route to Chile. Thus, motivated by business interests, Tasman landed in what is now called Golden Bay in December 1642. He left in January 1643, never to return. Nevertheless, New Zealand was now on the map, and British explorer James Cook followed up on Tasman’s discovery in 1769. While there, Cook mapped the entire coastline and, under commands by the Admiralty to annex any lands he discovered, he made proclamations at Mercury Bay in 1769 and at Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770 that ensured Britain’s hold on New Zealand. That didn’t, however, stop other Western explorers from using New Zealand as a base off of which to search for larger, more resource-laden landmasses.
European colonisation had massive impacts on Maori culture, with the Maori slowly adopting aspects of Western culture. One such aspect was religion. Maori turned away from their Polynesian-based beliefs towards Christianity, often out of pressure by the European missionaries to conform to the followings of Christ. Another aspect was literacy. The Maori language was quickly transformed from a completely oral language into a written one, and by 1843 the New Zealand government was distributing Maori language pamphlets and books about European customs. Ironically, what would seem like a progressive step in the linguistic development of the culture was actually a mechanism by which European colonisers could shape the ideology of the Maori people, thereby making it easier to force the Maori into conforming to the British agenda. While some Maori resisted, there was little they could do to stop their traditional culture’s gradual marginalisation. Only recently in the 20th and 21st centuries are we seeing a resurgence and reclamation of the Maori’s cultural heritage.