New Zealand was one of the last large land masses to be colonised by humans. Radiocarbon dating, evidence of deforestation and mitochondrial DNA variability in Māori populations suggest that New Zealand was first settled by East Polynesians between 1250 and 1300, completing a long series of voyages across the South Pacific islands. Over the following centuries, these settlers developed their own culture, now known as Māori. The population was divided into iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes), which sometimes cooperated, sometimes competed and sometimes fought each other. At some point, a group of Māori migrated to the Chatham Islands (which they called Rēkohu), where they developed their own Moriori culture. The Moriori population virtually disappeared between 1835 and 1862, largely due to the invasion and enslavement of the Taranaki Māori in the 1830s, although European diseases also contributed. In 1862, only 101 people survived and the last known full-blooded Moriori died in 1933.
The first known Europeans to reach New Zealand were the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his crew in 1642. In a hostile encounter, four crew members were killed and at least one Māori was shot. Europeans did not visit New Zealand until 1769, when the British explorer James Cook mapped almost the entire coastline. After Cook, New Zealand was visited by many European and North American whaling, sealing and trading ships. They traded European food, metal tools, weapons and other goods for timber, Māori food, artefacts and water. The introduction of the potato and the musket changed Māori agriculture and warfare. The potato provided a reliable food surplus that allowed for longer and more sustained military campaigns. The resulting inter-tribal musket wars led to more than 600 battles between 1801 and 1840, in which 30,000 to 40,000 Māori were killed. Christian missionaries began settling in New Zealand as early as the early 19th century, eventually converting most of the Māori population. In the 19th century, the Māori population dropped to about 40 % of pre-contact levels; introduced diseases were the main factor.
In 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip took office as governor of the new British colony of New South Wales, which, according to his commission, included New Zealand. The British government appointed James Busby as British Resident in New Zealand in 1832, following a petition from the Māori of the North. After Charles de Thierry announced imminent French settlement, the United Tribes of New Zealand sent a declaration of independence to King William IV of the United Kingdom in 1835, asking for his protection. The ongoing unrest, the proposal to colonise New Zealand by the New Zealand Company (which had already sent its first survey ship to buy land from the Māori) and the questionable legal status of the Declaration of Independence prompted the Colonial Office to send Captain William Hobson to claim British sovereignty and negotiate a treaty with the Māori. The Treaty of Waitangi was first signed in the Bay of Islands on 6 February 1840. In response to the New Zealand Company’s attempts to establish an independent colony in Wellington and French settlers buying land in Akaroa, Hobson declared British sovereignty over all of New Zealand on 21 May 1840, although copies of the treaty were still circulating around the country for the Māori to sign. With the signing of the treaty and the declaration of sovereignty, the number of immigrants, especially from the United Kingdom, began to increase.
New Zealand, still part of the colony of New South Wales, became an independent colony of New Zealand on 1 July 1841. The colony was given a representative government in 1852 and the first parliament met in 1854. In 1856 the colony became effectively self-governing and assumed responsibility for all domestic affairs except native policy. (Control over native politics was granted in the mid-1860s). Due to concerns about the South Island forming its own colony, Prime Minister Alfred Domett proposed a resolution to move the capital, Auckland, to a parish near Cook Strait. Wellington was chosen for its harbour and central location after it was first officially considered by Parliament in 1865. As the number of immigrants increased, land disputes led to the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s and 1870s, which resulted in the loss and confiscation of much Māori land.
In 1891, the Liberal Party, led by John Ballance, came to power as the first organised political party. The Liberal government, later led by Richard Seddon, passed many important social and economic measures. In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation in the world to grant all women the right to vote, and in 1894 it was the first country to introduce compulsory arbitration between employers and trade unions. In 1898, the Seddon government passed the Old Age Pensions Act 1898, the first universal pension scheme in the British Empire.
In 1907, at the request of the New Zealand Parliament, King Edward VII proclaimed New Zealand a Dominion within the British Empire, reflecting its autonomous status. Accordingly, the title “Dominion of New Zealand” dates from 1907. In 1947, the country passed the Statute of Westminster, which confirmed that the British Parliament could no longer legislate for New Zealand without its consent.
At the beginning of the 20th century, New Zealand was involved in world affairs, fighting in the First and Second World Wars and suffering from the Great Depression. The Depression led to the election of the first Labour government and the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state and a protectionist economy. After World War II, New Zealand experienced increasing prosperity and Māori began to leave their traditional rural life and move to the cities in search of work. A Māori protest movement developed, criticising Eurocentrism and campaigning for greater recognition of Māori culture and the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1975, a Waitangi Tribunal was established to investigate alleged violations of the Treaty, and in 1985 it was empowered to investigate historical grievances. The government has negotiated settlements of these grievances with many iwi, although Māori claims to the foreshore and seabed proved contentious in the 2000s.