New Zealand is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Maori, the first arrivals, called it Aotearoa, 'the land of the long white cloud', the first indication to these canoe voyagers of the presence of the island being the cloud lying above them. New Zealand’s island location affects its climate, its history and its contemporary character.
Spanning latitudes 34 degrees and 47 degrees south, the islands of New Zealand are in the path of 'the roaring forties', the winds that circle this lower part of the globe, and are separated from the nearest landmass, Australia, by 1,600km of the Tasman Sea.
On the International Date Line, opposite the Greenwich Meridian of zero degree, New Zealand claims to the first country to see the sun rise.
The climate ranges from sub-Antarctic to subtropical. The maritime setting creates regular rainfall and abundant vegetation. There is extensive bird and fish life but other than two bat species, the only land mammals are those introduced by early Maori and Europeans. Comparatively a recent settlement, with a population of 4.3 million, New Zealand retains in many areas a clean, natural and untouched environment.
The snow-covered Southern Alps and glacial-formed lakes and fiords provide spectacular scenery, and there is extensive volcanic and thermal activity on the North Island central plateau.
The country’s coastline provides both sheltered bays and harbours and superb beaches. New Zealand’s tourism industry focuses upon this natural environment, the urban aspect being less significant by comparison.
Captain James Cook’s circumnavigation and charting of the main islands in 1769-1770 paved the way for the sealing and whaling industries. The unruly conditions, the concerns of missionaries over friction with the Maori and pressure from Edward Gibbon’s colonizing Society prompted the British to pursue a treaty with the Maori establishing sovereignty. At Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, a treaty was signed between the British Crown, represented by Captain William Hobson, and a number of Maori chiefs. Although the Treaty of Waitangi provided for protection of Maori and their natural resources, alienation of Maori land occurs well into the 20th century. Maori leaders pressed for justice and organized land marches. In 1975, the treaty was reconsidered, the Treaty of Waitangi Act passed by the then parliament set up the Waitangi Tribunal to consider Maori land claims.
Planned settlement in the 1840’s was mainly by English and Scottish enterprises. Today the character of cities such as Christchurch and Dunedin still reflects those origins. Auckland, the country’s former capital and now its commercial centre, remains more cosmopolitan. Wellington’s early establishment as the capital contributes to its political character. Early settlers felled extensive areas of forest for the timber trade and for farmland. The independent spirit of New Zealanders can be said to derive from their determination to succeed in the new land. The people of New Zealand came from a cross section of English, Scottish and Irish society, and all were united in their desire to make their county prosper.
New Zealand is an independent state. New Zealand’s parliament, based on the Statute of Westminster, pays allegiance to the British sovereign through its governor-general. Proposals that New Zealand become a republic have some support in the country.
New Zealanders take pride in their history of social reform. The first in the world to give all women the vote and 1893, New Zealand has established compulsory, free primary schooling by 1877 and by 1938 a state-supported health system, universal superannuation and a liberal social welfare structure. The country declared its non-nuclear stance in 1986. This has resulted in non-alignment of its armed forces, though New Zealand troops are used in peace-keeping roles.
Although the Waitangi Tribunal has enabled substantial compensation for Maori whose land was confiscated, there are still some grievances to settle. Encouragement of the immigration of Pacific Islanders by the governments of the 1960s seeking to obtain a labour force has created ethnic diversity, as too has the influx of Asian immigrants.
Nevertheless, visitors comment on the friendliness and welcoming attitudes of New Zealanders, which may stem from a small population living, by world standard, in good quality housing, in small cities that do not suffer from congestion or widespread crime. All have easy access to a superb natural environment. There is also a curiosity about the world and New Zealanders travel abroad a great deal. The great 'OE' (overseas experience) is still popular with the young.
Although there is today evidence of a widening gap between rich and poor, New Zealand remains an egalitarian society. There are some social differences based upon wealth and occupation, but there is no class system in New Zealand based on birth and inheritance. Enterprise and energy can secure good employment and quality of life. Almost 85 per cent of the population is urban, with 75 per cent resident in the North Island.
In the last 100 years or so the Maori population has increased and now make up 16 per cent of the country’s total. However, the social and economic status of some Maori is still below average, a situation that will hopefully be corrected in time by affirmative government education and employment policies.
Although agriculture is the major industry, with meat, dairy, fish and timber products predominating, a need to compete in the world markets has required diversification. A pioneer in agricultural research, New Zealand is a leader in animal and crop technology. Its wines, particularly whites, are now internationally recognized and its quality foodstuffs are exported to many countries. Tourism is important. Facilities, accommodation, restaurants and café cater for all tastes. Being a small nation that has to transport its exports long distances to foreign markets, New Zealand is vulnerable to the international economy. It does not possess substantial mineral resources, although it has been able to utilize its own natural gas and oil. It also has no large manufacturing industry. However, signs of an export market in information technology; electronics and ship-building are encouraging. The recession in the 1980s prompted a move from welfare state to 'user pays' policies, with privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The major political parties are Labour (centre left) and national (centre right), with minor parties influencing the balance of power.
New Zealand is a sportsperson’s paradise. The successful defence of the America’s Cup in 2000 attracted one of the world’s largest gatherings of mega-yachts. Rugby is the most popular game, followed by netball and cricket. A wide range of international entertainers, musicians, artists and dance companies make frequent visits to the country. Festivals of Pacific Island and Maori culture coincide with a resurgence of Maori and Pacific Island art and artists. New Zealanders can claim some notable firsts. Lord Rutherford from Brightwater was the first to split the atom and Sir Edmund Hillary, with Sherpa Tenzing, was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Others of international reputation are author Katherine Mansfield, opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano Hayley Westenra, film director Peter Jackson and space scientist Sir William Pickering.
New Zealand is today a vibrant, hospitable, multicultural nation that has forged a unique identity derived from a combination of Maori heritage and colonial culture.