New Zealand's first people were the Maoris. Owing to the absence of written records, it is impossible to give any accurate date for their arrival, but according to Maori oral traditions, they migrated from other Pacific islands to New Zealand several centuries before any Europeans came, with the chief Maori migration taking place about 1350. It seems likely, however, that the Maoris arrived from Southeast Asia as early as the end of the 10th century. The first European to discover New Zealand was Abel Tasman, a navigator of the Dutch East India Company, who sighted the west coast of the South Island in 1642. He did not land, because of the hostility of the Maori inhabitants. No other Europeans are known to have visited New Zealand after Tasman until Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy made his four voyages in 1769, 1773, 1774, and 1777. In this period, he circumnavigated both islands and mapped the coastline.
In the 1790s, small European whaling settlements sprang up around the coast. The first mission station was set up in the Bay of Islands in 1814 by Samuel Marsden, chaplain to the governor of New South Wales. In 1840, the Maori chieftains entered into a compact, the Treaty of Waitangi, whereby they ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria while retaining territorial rights. In the same year, the New Zealand Company made the first organized British attempt at colonization. The first group of British migrants arrived at Port Nicholson and founded the city of Wellington. The New Zealand Company made further settlements in the South Island: in Nelson in 1842, in Dunedin in 1848 (with the cooperation of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland), and in Canterbury in 1850 (with the cooperation of the Church of England). After the Maori Wars (1860-70), which resulted largely from discontent with the official land policy, the colony of New Zealand rapidly increased in wealth and population. Discovery of gold in 1861 resulted in a large influx of settlers. The introduction of refrigerated shipping in 1882 enabled New Zealand to become one of the world's greatest exporters of dairy produce and meat. The depression of the early 1930s revealed to New Zealand the extent of its dependence on this export trade and led to the establishment of more local light industry.
The British Parliament granted representative institutions to the colony in 1852. In 1907, New Zealand was made a dominion, and in 1947 the New Zealand government formally claimed the complete autonomy that was available to self-governing members of the British Commonwealth under the Statute of Westminster, enacted by the British Parliament in 1931.
New Zealand entered World Wars I and II on the side of the United Kingdom; New Zealand troops served in Europe in both wars and in the Pacific in World War II. After World War II, New Zealand and US foreign policies were increasingly intertwined. New Zealand signed the ANZUS Pact in 1951 and was a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954. New Zealand troops fought with UN forces in the Korean conflict and with US forces in South Vietnam. The involvement in Vietnam touched off a national debate on foreign policy, however, and all New Zealand troops were withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1971. New Zealand's military participation in SEATO was later terminated.
In 1984, a Labour government led by Prime Minister David Lange took office under a pledge to ban nuclear-armed vessels from New Zealand harbors; a US request for a port visit by one of its warships was denied because of uncertainty as to whether the ship carried nuclear weapons. The continuing ban put a strain on New Zealand's relations within ANZUS, and in 1986 the United States suspended its military obligations to New Zealand under that defense agreement, also banning high-level contacts with the New Zealand government. The United States ended its ban on high-level contacts in March 1990; however, New Zealand's official stance against nuclear presence in its territory remained strong.
In the late 1990s, New Zealand's environmental concerns extended beyond nuclear issues. In 1999, when pirates decimated the population of Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica, threatening not only fish, but also the sea birds that fed upon them, New Zealand responded to the threat to the fragile ecosystem by sending a patrol frigate to the area.
Extensive Maori land claims (to all the country's coastline, 70% of the land, and half of the fishing rights) led, in December 1989, to the formation of a new Cabinet committee designed to develop a government policy towards these claims. The committee, including former Prime Minister Lange, aimed to work with the 17-member Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975 to consider complaints from Maoris.
The 1993 general election resulted in the governing National Party (NP) winning a bare majority of 50 seats to the Labour Party's 45. In 1996 the NP formed a coalition government with the New Zealand First Party. The coalition was led by James Bolger, who in 1994 lobbied to convert New Zealand into a republic—a move that was met by NP resistance and public apathy. This was the first election under New Zealand's 1993 referendum on proportional representation. It issued in Bolger's third term as prime minister. Winston Peters, a fierce critic of Bolger, became the country's deputy prime minister and treasurer—a new post responsible for New Zealand's budget. Peters brought the First Party into the coalition over the Labour Party, which won 37 of the 120 seats in the 1996 election. In 1996 the government settled a NZ $170 million agreement with the Waikato Tainui tribe in the North Island for its wrongful confiscation of lands during the 1860s. The Queen signed the legislation, which also contained an apology.
The National Party-First Party coalition government remained in power until 1999, when the Labour Party won 49 seats and again became the majority government. The Labour Party formed a government in coalition with the progressive Alliance Party, with Helen Clark as prime minister. In 1999 tension arose between the Maori and white New Zealanders, centering on the growing Maori claims to the natural resources of the country. The Clark administration expressed its commitment to goals aimed at benefiting all New Zealanders, and closing the economic gap between the Maori and the rest of the population. The Labour-Alliance coalition also built alliances with other non-nuclear states and worked to strengthen the Nuclear Free Zone in the South Pacific.
General elections were held 27 July 2002, which resulted in a Labour Party victory, returning Helen Clark as prime minister. The Labour Party entered into coalition with Jim Anderton's Progressive Coalition Party, and received support from the United Future Party. The National Party recorded its worst showing in 70 years.