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From prehistoric giant birds to seafaring Maori, writer Helen Cordery paints a picture of her homeland’s past and present.
Text : Helen Cordery
Country: New Zealand

he New Zealand of today is a paradox. On one hand, a bushwalk amongst the damp ferns and majestic Kauri trees can transport you back to another age. On the other, this virginal landscape has changed dramatically since humans arrived. To understand the New Zealand of today, we need to look to the past.

New Zealand is believed to have separated from Australia around 110 million to 120 million years ago, before being submerged completely by the sea. Some 15 million years later, further activity beneath the Earth pushed the land up and birthed New Zealand’s powerful volcanoes. Flora and fauna unique to New Zealand developed. Among them were the famous kiwi bird, the powerful moa bird, which could weigh up to 230 kilograms, and its nemesis, the Haast’s eagle, which would hunt the moa.

There is evidence that various people lived in New Zealand prior to the Maori colonization, but little is known about them. The Maori mention the Patupaiarehe, peaceful agriculturalists with little knowledge of seafaring, who were killed or enslaved by the Maori. Finding evidence of what came before is difficult because a monstrous earthquake and tsunami are believed to have washed it away, along with considerable fauna (like the moa), after an asteroid impacted the sea around Stewart Island in the 1400s. During this time, voyaging between New Zealand and the rest of Polynesia stopped.

The Maori creation myth tells of the demigod Maui who, after a miraculous conception, taught the Maori useful skills such as making fire. He is more commonly known for going fishing with his brothers and bringing up a huge fish, or the North Island of New Zealand. The myth continues that the brothers did not want to wait for Maui to smooth things over with the angry sea god Tangaroa, and instead they began carving up the giant fish, thus forming all the lakes, mountains, coastlines and valleys.

The exact logistics of the Maori arrival to New Zealand is unknown. Maori themselves refer to the legend of Kupe, a warrior who ventured out into the open sea some 1,000 years ago, guided by the stars and ocean currents. The story refers to Hawaiki, an island or group of islands which is believed to have been in the South Pacific due to the similarity between the languages of Hawaii, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand. Modern DNA mapping places their origin in Eastern Polynesia. After Kupe’s discovery, planned migration is believed to have occurred throughout the 13th century and many Maori tribes purport that they can trace their ancestry (known as whakapapa) back to one of the seven original waka (canoe) voyages.

Rediscovering New Zealand

The Dutch voyager Abel Tasman was the first officially recognised discoverer of New Zealand, who sighted it in 1642 and named it “Staten Landt”. He met the Maori at what is now Golden Bay (in the South Island), but the first meeting with the Maori resulted in four crew deaths.

The visit was not considered a success by Tasman’s employers, and no further exploration was undertaken until the British naval commander Captain James Cook “rediscovered” New Zealand in 1769, mapped it out and circumnavigated it.

The first contact between the British and Maori was fraught with tension, as the Maori recognized the potential threat and initiated their fierce tribal war dances, the haka. The British held their ground, and furtive communications began, made possible by the similarities between Maori and the language spoken by a Tahitian who was with the British. The relationship between the two peoples was icy, fraught with cultural misinterpretation, and trading was often interrupted by miscommunication.

The Musket Wars and the Treaty of Waitangi

As time wore on, tensions ebbed and flowed across New Zealand. Various battles raged —most notably the disaster of the Boyd in the Whangaroa Harbour. The Boyd was a European vessel picking up Kauri timber in New Zealand that was anchored in the Bay of Islands. It was attacked by local Maori, who killed and ate about 66 Europeans as revenge for the punishment inflicted upon their chief, Te Ara, when he had been a transit passenger on board.

Whalers, sealers, and missionaries made a home in this new land, and various Maori were taken outside New Zealand to learn about England and the English way of life. Trade and crops were introduced, but more than anything, it was Christianity that flourished.

Revered tribal chief Hongi Hika was one of those Maori who ventured overseas, and it is he who has greatly influenced the political story of today.

Hika sold some 40,000 acres of Ngapuhi land to a French baron for the princely sum of about NZ$300,000 in today’s money. In Australia, Hika then purchased 400 muskets before returning to New Zealand.

Starting in 1818, he headed across the North Island leading immense war parties with the intention of revenge against old tribal enemies in a period labelled the Musket Wars. Whole tribes were nearly decimated. This event is so important because the guns were bought with money given as full payment for tribal lands, which brings us sharply to the most pertinent issue in current New Zealand: the Treaty of Waitangi.

“The Treaty of Waitangi is the single most important document in New Zealand history” secondary school history teacher Delia Jenkins explains, “because it determines the relationship between the Maori tribes and the New Zealand people, along with their recognized status. It affects legislature, government and education, and therefore it is a core part of secondary and tertiary curriculums.”

Each year a national holiday named “Waitangi Day” is held to celebrate that fateful February day when the treaty was signed. This day is often marred by protests. Despite these divisions, the relationship between Maori and non-Maori today is strong and—like the history of this country has shown—always evolving.

Information Box

Open since 2009, the park has grown from housing a few farm animals to being home for more than 60 species.

- The Treaty of Waitangi is an agreement signed between Britain and the majority of Maori tribes in February 1840.

- It is important because it explains the position of the Maori and the colonizers.

- There are considerable differences between the English/Maori translations, which has led to controversy over Maori sovereignty.

- This has led to debate over access to, and ownership of, New Zealand’s waterways, foreshore and seabed, land and government.

- The Waitangi Tribunal was created to investigate and settle these disputes.

- Te Reo Maori is now an official language of New Zealand and taught in all schools.




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New Zealand history in about 1,000 words


New Zealand is a fascinating country. If you take a bushwalk amongst the damp ferns and majestic Kauri trees it feels like you are in a different era. But this virginal landscape changed dramatically with the arrival of the first humans.

There is some evidence that people inhabited New Zealand before the Maori arrived. They were peaceful agriculturists that were killed or enslaved by the Maori. We know very little about these people because a powerful earthquake and tsunami washed away all evidence of them.

The Maori creation myth says the demigod Maui fished up a giant fish, the North Island of New Zealand. While Maui fought with the angry sea god Tangaroa, his brothers carved up the giant fish, thus forming all the lakes, mountains, coastlines, and valleys. The Maori believe that Kupe, a great warrior, discovered and inhabited the island about 1000 years ago.

In 1642 the Dutch voyager Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand for the Europeans. In 1769 the British commander Captain James Cook rediscovered New Zealand, mapped it out and circumnavigated it. The first encounters with the Europeans were very tense, but eventually there was more communication and trade.

The most important document in New Zealand history is the Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty determines the relationship between the Maori tribes and the New Zeland people. Waitangi Day celebrates the day the treaty was signed and is often marred by protest. The relationship between the Maori and non-Maori is strong but is still evolving.

 

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New Zealand history in about 1,000 words

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