New Zealand Colonial Days

This section discusses the early days of New Zealand as migrants began their new lives down under.

Pacific Migrations
Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand (Extracts)

The Pacific was a major ocean to be explored and settled, and its history is one of voyages. New Zealand, isolated far to the south, was the last substantial land mass to be reached.

Around 1300 CE Polynesian settlers ... navigated their way to New Zealand. These migrants were the ancestors of New Zealand’s Māori people. At about the same time, they reached the northern satellite islands of Norfolk and the Kermadecs. Later still, early Māori exploring eastward from New Zealand discovered the Chatham Islands, just a few centuries before the first European expeditions reached the Pacific.

A temperate land

Polynesian ancestors of the Māori arrived to a vast, cool archipelago covered in forest, with abundant wildlife. There were moa species (weighing from 20 to 250 kg) and other now extinct native birds including a swan, a goose, and Haast’s eagle (the world’s largest), probably a predator of the moa. Sea mammals, particularly seals, were plentiful on the coast, as were fish and shellfish.

Polynesians introduced the dog and the rat; if pigs and fowl had been on the canoes, they did not survive. The settlers also brought with them taro, yam, paper mulberry and the Pacific cabbage tree (Cordyline fruticosa). The kūmara (sweet potato) and gourd came from South America via East Polynesia. It was too cold for plants such as coconut, breadfruit and banana.

Tasman's Discovery

The first formal European record of New Zealand's discovery was by Abel Janszoon Tasman, born in the Netherlands. By 1642 he had years of experience sailing in north-west Pacific and Asian waters in the service of the Dutch East India Company.

Tasman sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642 with 110 men on two ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen. He first sailed ... south to below 49˚ (about the latitude of the Auckland Islands), before running east along about the 45th parallel (the latitude of Ōamaru). He discovered Tasmania (as it would later be called) on 24 November. From there he sailed further east, becoming the first to cross the Tasman sea. On 13 December 1642 he sighted ‘a large land, uplifted high’ – probably the Southern Alps. After sighting land, Tasman’s ships veered south, then turned north to pass Cape Foulwind and Cape Farewell. He sailed around Farewell Spit into what is now called Golden Bay, where he anchored on 18 and 19 December. 1642. Tasman explored parts of the country and ultimately sailed north back to Batavia by way of Tonga, the northern Fiji Islands and New Guinea. His map showed 'a long wiggly line' of the coastlines he had observed.

Tasman had named his discovery 'Staten Landt', but a Dutch East India Company mapmaker changed that title. Zeeland was one of two maritime provinces in the Netherlands; Australia was already known to the Dutch as New Holland, and the name of '‘Nieuw Zeeland’ was what was eventually given to Abel Tasman's discovery.

 James Cook's Voyages

Captain James Cook made three voyages involving New Zealand, though the first voyage was the most relevant as it verified what the 'wiggly line on a map' was that Abel Tasman had discovered. James Cook’s ship Endeavour was a relatively small vessel of 368 tons, just 32 metres long and 7.6 metres broad. It departed from Plymouth on 26 August 1768 with 94 men, entering the Pacific around Cape Horn ... until on 6 October 1769 a cabin boy sighted land and two days later Cook landed at Poverty Bay. He circumnavigated the North and South Islands, then on 1 April 1770 he sailed west to discover and chart the eastern coast of Australia. He reached Batavia (Jakarta) on 11 October and returned to England, having circumnavigated the globe, on 13 July 1771.

Cook’s discoveries forged New Zealand’s later links with Britain as at Mercury Bay on 15 November 1769, and at Queen Charlotte Sound on 30 January 1770, he had made proclamations which helped ensure that Britain, and not another European power such as France, later colonised New Zealand.

 Further Explorations

Other explorers located New Zealand's sub-Antarctic islands (about 1788 - 1810), corrections were made to Cook's maps by an American sealer, Owen F. Smith, who became the first westerner to discover Foveaux Strait in 1804, and in the same year he discovered that Cook's 'Banks Island' was in fact a peninsula. Early missionaries also contributed to growing knowledge about the New Zealand coast. On visits to New Zealand in 1814–15 and 1820, Samuel Marsden helped chart the Hokianga, Kaipara, Manukau and Waitematā harbours, and the Firth of Thames. 

Treaty Signing

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Maori elders and the British Crown, leading to New Zealand becoming a British Colony. Settlement schemes followed, such as the New Zealand Company settlements in Wellington, Nelson, New Plymouth and Whanganui (an initiative of Edward Gibbon Wakefield), the Otago settlement of 1848 set out to attract Scots, and the Canterbury Association was very much an English scheme. Auckland drew many settlers from Australia. The availability of large areas of land spurred the growth of 'land companies' and the establishment of large 'runs', particularly in the open valleys of the South Island. Commerce in wool sales surged, helping coastal towns to grow and develop.

Immigration Factors

New Zealand had two main factors influencing the desire for further immigration to New Zealand; these were the discovery of gold and an ambitious public works development program.

The Gold Boom - History of Gold in New Zealand    The Central Otago Gold Story

In New Zealand, although gold was sought after in the North Island, it was the wild and rugged South Island that claimed the bulk of the great gold rush years. The main New Zealand goldfields were located in the Coromandel, Nelson/Marlborough, Central Otago and the West Coast. Beginning with the Gabriel’s Gully discovery in 1861, the Otago Gold Rush was New Zealand’s largest gold strike and with it came an influx of miners from around the world. This led to the discovery of further goldfields spread throughout much of the Central Otago region.

Assisted Migration - The Vogel Era

In 1870 New Zealand had a central government based in Wellington, but also a parallel system of provincial governments. The provinces borrowed money to build their own infrastructure, with mixed results. New Zealand’s first railways were built in Canterbury in 1863 and Southland in 1864. Both were small-scale ventures but while Canterbury’s was successful, the effort bankrupted Southland province.

In 1870, Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel launched the most ambitious development programme in New Zealand’s history. He proposed to borrow huge sums from Britain to revitalise and accelerate European colonisation. The money would be used to assist British migrants to settle here, to speed up the purchase of Māori land, and to build the ‘public works’ or infrastructure essential for economic development: railways, roads, bridges, port facilities and telegraph lines.

Rail construction forged ahead, despite occasional delays, labour shortages and industrial disputes over wages and conditions (not least the local custom of an eight-hour working day). By the mid-1870s the government was offering assisted passages from Britain without any work obligations. Many disgruntled navvies (who had signed two-year work contracts for free immigration travel) broke their contracts and drifted into farming, urban jobs or gold-prospecting.

Politicians increasingly realised that only central government could pay for and carry out the ambitious nation-building programme. The abolition of the provinces was carried in Parliament in October 1875 and came into effect a year later, end the Provincial Government system.


The influence of land availability, shorter working hours and 'no more tugging the forelock' to lords and masters was significant. People in the UK found it easy to choose to travel to the other side of the world aboard a sailing ship and to start a new life in the New Zealand colony.