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New Zealand is in the Southwest Pacific Ocean. It consists of two large islands, the North Island and the South Island, and about six hundred smaller islands. Its nearest neighbors are New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga, about six hundred miles to the north, and Australia, about nine hundred miles to the west. Due perhaps to its remoteness, New Zealand was one of the last areas in the Pacific to be settled by humans.

When Polynesian explorers reached New Zealand around 1300 AD, they found islands that were rich in fish and game, including sea mammals along the coast. Unused to human predators, birds of New Zealand were easy targets for hunting. Consequently, by the time European explorers arrived, many bird species were extinct, and others have disappeared since.

The first people to reach the islands of New Zealand were Polynesians who traveled in outrigger canoes built to carry themselves, their livestock, and belongings. They were excellent navigators. They adapted to the different environment in New Zealand and evolved into a distinctive people with their own language and way of life.

By the time the first European explorers arrived, the native people on the islands of New Zealand were known as the Maori, although they remained distinctively Polynesian as a race. Living on a large island with plenty of game, they were no longer so dependent on the sea for a living. The new arrivals quickly became hunters and gatherers rather than gardeners and fishermen. They became such prodigal hunters that it wasn't long before several species of game animals were extinct, and four or five hundred years ago the Maori had to make the transition back to gardening and fishing.

The first known European to arrive was Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer who came in 1642. His visit didn't go well. In a hostile encounter, one Maori was hit by cannon fire, similar to grapeshot, and four crew members were killed by the Maoris. There were no more visits from the Europeans until Captain James Cook came through, mapping the coastline of New Zealand in 1769. In the years that followed, the islands of New Zealand were visited by several whaling vessels and trading ships from Europe and the United States. They traded European food, tools and weapons for lumber, fresh food, and water.

The introduction of firearms encouraged inter-tribe warfare, and potatoes allowed the Maoris to carry on sustained military campaigns. In the resulting Musket Wars, between 1801 and 1840, as many as forty thousand Maoris lost their lives.

Beginning in the early 1800s, Christian missionaries began to settle the islands, eventually converting most of the Maori to Christianity. Beginning at the same time, about forty percent of the Maori population died from introduced European diseases for which they had no immunity.

In 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip was appointed the governor of the British colony of New South Wale, which included New Zealand. Not much was done with New Zealand until 1832 when the governor appointed James Busby as resident minister of New Zealand. Born in Scotland, Busby drafted the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand on behalf of a number of Maori chiefs in 1835 after learning that France was going to declare French sovereignty over New Zealand. This prompted Britain to claim sovereignty for the United Kingdom and to negotiate a treaty with the Maori.

New Zealand was separated from New South Wales in 1841, becoming the Colony of New Zealand. A representative government was established in 1852, and the colony became self-governing in 1856, granted control over all domestic matters with the exception of matters regarding the native Maori.

Beginning at this time, the number of immigrants from the United Kingdom increased. As the number of Europeans on the islands increased, land conflicts led to the New Zealand Wars, which began in 1845, escalated in the 1860s, and went on until 1872, pitting the Maori against the New Zealand government. Europeans referred to them as the Maori Wars. The combined forces of the British and New Zealand government was victorious, resulting in the confiscation of a great deal of Maori land.

In 1907, New Zealand became a Dominion within the British Empire, solidifying its self-governing status. In 1947, New Zealand adopted legislation that specified that the British Parliament could no longer legislate for New Zealand. The country is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. The British Queen is recognized as Queen of New Zealand and is represented by a Governor-General, but the powers of the Queen and Governor-General are limited by the New Zealand constitution.

Christianity is the main religion in New Zealand, although New Zealand society has become increasingly secular, with almost as many New Zealanders claiming no religion.


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