As a newcomer to New Zealand, it can be incredibly helpful to have a background understanding of the country’s history. New Zealand is an incredibly young country, with immigration only starting around 180 years ago, and that not-so-distant history impacts life today as we know it.
Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the nation’s founding document, underpins much of this history, but it’s also rather controversial. In this article, I’ll do my best to give you the history on the back of a postage stamp, but I highly recommend that you do further reading if you plan on making New Zealand home. Here are a few great options:
Becoming Part Of The Commonwealth
Aotearoa, as New Zealand is known in te reo Māori, has a history that stretches back centuries, long before European settlers arrived on its shores. The indigenous Māori people are recorded as warmly welcoming visiting traders as far back as 1642. However, the arrival of British colonisers in the 19th century marked a turning point that would shape the course of history and set the stage for cultural tensions that persist to this day.
Te Tiriti o Waitangi, or the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840 between Māori chiefs and representatives of the Crown. The treaty was said to set out a partnership, recognising Māori sovereignty over their lands and giving the Crown the right to govern. However, the interpretations of the treaty’s principles remain a subject of ongoing debate and contention.
The “Land Wars” Legislation
As European settlements expanded, conflicts over land ownership and cultural differences began. In 1860, twenty years after the treaty was signed, Māori still owned an estimated 66 million acres, encompassing about 80% of the country’s land area. However, during the late 19th century, the Crown brought in the Native Land Court and the Public Works Act, giving the government the right to “confiscate” large parcels of Māori land with minimal grounds and limited compensation.
By 1910, Māori land ownership was just 27% of the total land area, and by 1939, that figure had dropped to 9%. The widespread confiscations lead to the displacement of Māori communities and the loss of their ancestral lands. The consequences have lasted generations, causing socioeconomic disparities and impacting the wellbeing of Māori communities.
The Decimation Of Language And Culture
While New Zealand’s colonisation wasn’t marked by the same level of atrocity faced by Australia’s Aboriginals, the effects were still felt keenly. Attempting to “assimilate” Māori children into European society, the government created policies to suppress the Māori language. This ban was reinforced in schools, with physical punishment used as reinforcement
The removal of language from multiple generations of Māori caused significant trauma, leaving a sense of loss and disconnection in its wake. The impact of this is still felt today.
Māori In Modern Society
Today, the government is addressing many of the historical grievances surrounding Te Tiriti O Waitangi, including the restoration of Māori land rights. The settlement process has resulted in the return of some confiscated lands to Māori ownership.
Recent years have also seen a resurgence in efforts to revitalise and celebrate te reo Māori. It is widely taught in New Zealand schools and is increasingly seen as a desirable asset in many organisations.
However, despite these positive steps forward, disparities remain, with Māori overrepresented in unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and incarceration statistics.
Our Country’s Shared History
As a newcomer to New Zealand, it’s important to understand and empathise with the challenges faced by the Māori people, but it’s equally important to recognise their resilience, strength, and cultural pride.
The Māori culture is vibrant, diverse, and woven into the fabric of New Zealand’s identity. Māori language, customs, and artistry enrich our nation and contribute to its unique character.
By acknowledging the injustices of the past while celebrating the Māori culture’s vitality, we all do our part to create an environment of understanding and unity.
Sarah Todhunter is a writer, mother-of-two and a dual citizen of New Zealand and the UK. As the sole proprietor of Fyxen Copywriters, she has navigated the ups and downs of moving a business and family across hemispheres, sharing the lessons she’s learned along the way. Find her on LinkedIn or anywhere good coffee is served.