How on earth did we get here?

European New Zealanders! How on earth did we get here? And why? This South Pacific region is the southern part of the Asian world.  The Aborigines arrived in Australia from South East Asia an impressive 40 – 50,000 years ago when the ice age climate meant seas were about 100-150 metres shallower than now and New Guinea and Tasmania were joined to the continent. The Aborigines were therefore able to island-hop from South East Asia to Australia.

New Zealand was, even then, very distant from Australia and so did not receive Homo sapiens occupation from this ancient southern migration. The original Maori immigrants actually arrived here comparatively recently, probably around 12-1300 AD, having travelled for an unknown period of centuries or millennia by an open sea route from China via Taiwan and Hawaii.

And here the Maori lived in a secluded, primitive, tribal existence for hundreds of years. It was not as if the Chinese lacked for the technology to follow this route en masse and totally dominate the South Pacific. In the very early 1400’s AD, 200 years before Abel Tasman sailed by and 300 years before Cook, a Chinese Admiral, Zheng He, was a far greater explorer than Magellan, Columbus, Tasman or Cook. Under the direction of the Yongle Emperor, Zheng He led seven armada from China throughout the Indian ocean. The biggest of his voyages included 300 ships with 30,000 sailors on board. That absolutely dwarfs Columbus’ Tasman’s or Cook’s efforts. But a change in the balance of political power in China resulted in the massive maritime exploration policy being stopped in 1433. The new rulers believed that the only important land was their own “Middle Kingdom” so why spend so much money sailing to the lands of filthy barbarians? And so the Maori lived quietly in Aotearoa, oblivious to these goings on in their Asian homeland.

But then, in the mid 18th century, scientists in Britain decided they desperately wanted to know the distance of earth from the sun. They worked out by some calculation that this measurement could be achieved by taking astronomical observations of the transition of Venus across the sun from different points around the globe; one of those points being the South Pacific. And so the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge had a chat to the Navy and asked them if they wouldn’t mind taking eminent astronomer Charles Green down to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. “No trouble at all, old boy,” said some crusty old admiral over a brandy in The Club. So Captain James Cook was given the job. But since going all that way, the navy thought they may as well have a bit of a nosey around while they are there. A few more passengers were added to paint what they found, collect fauna and draw maps and off they set. And so Cook visited Australia and New Zealand that Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, had discovered 120 years earlier in 1642 and had called Staten Landt, believing that it was connected to a landmass of the same name at the southern tip of South America. In 1645 Dutch cartographers renamed the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. This was the period in history when the Dutch had taken the alpha-pirate mantle from the Spaniards & Portuguese. But the Dutch were capitalists and this visit was funded by the Dutch East India Company; they only invested in the expensive business of slaughtering natives when they saw an economic return. The Dutch East India Company, with its mercenaries, had already colonised Indonesia and were active in New Amsterdam (renamed New York by the British) but apparently neither New Zealand nor Australia cut it as prudent investments.

The 18th century saw Britain emerge as the global economic and imperial force, but Britain was also going through major social trauma. Industrialisation saw the large volumes of urban drift from the increasingly impoverished countryside. Overpopulation in the cities created major unemployment resulting in an increasing crime rate which threatened the governing upper and middle class citizens. Public hangings did little to deter crime since the criminals had no choice but to take the risk or starve. The Government saw another solution and that was to export its excess population from the lower classes on any minor criminal charge. On Cook’s return to old Blighty, Joseph Banks, who had been the botanist on the voyage, brought the good news that a perfect penal colony in Australia had been identified. While it seemed a good idea, it was an expensive option and so they pursued hanging for a few years later until the situation got so desperate that they bit the bullet and colonised Australia as a prison. In 1788 the first shipment of prisoners arrived at the newest declared British colony in Botany Bay. It may not have appealed to the merchants as an investment like India or America, but it looked like a jolly good place to put your unwanteds.

Following the colonisation of Australia, this South Pacific region started to attract whalers from around the world, America, France and Britain. Whalers raided the New Zealand coastline throughout the last quarter of the 18th century and well into the 19th century. After trading settlements began to establish here, the missionaries were not far behind. There is nothing quite like teaching a bunch of savages the missionary position to stir a missionary’s religious passions. The French established their own settlement on the Akaroa harbour and Bishop Pompelier arrived to save a few heathen souls.

But it was the British who made the call to colonise Aotearoa/ New Zealand, probably not wanting France to establish their own colony so close to Australia; never can trust the froggies, what? And also several Governors of New South Wales had taken political interest in New Zealand in support of the Australian traders dealing with Maoris. So finally a treaty was established with the Maori in 1840 and Aotearoa officially became a British colony under the Anglicised Dutch name, New Zealand. The rest is history. Circumstances in Britain such as the Irish potato famine, Scottish religious disharmony, high unemployment and the stratified class system brought, over the next century, 3 million  immigrants to establish New Zealand as a dominant British society as the Maori native population fell dramatically. The New zealand climate and geography was significantly more British that in Australia.

NZ EthnicityBut a hundred and fifty years later, give or take, we are starting to see both a resurgence of the Maori population, or in those declaring Maori ancestry, as well as a renewed interest from Asia. In the 2013 census, 12% of New Zealanders identified as Asian, an increase of 33% since 2006 and now surpassing the Pacific Islanders at 7% and only slightly behind Maori at 15%. Europeans still dominate at 74%, but look at the trends.

Equally interesting to the population trend is the median age of each group. Europeans median age is 41; Asians is 30; Maori 24 and Pacific Islanders 22.

Population dominance trend

Population dominance trend

Prior to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840, Australians and British citizens negotiated directly with Maori over land rights. When the Crown showed intent to annex New Zealand, an association of British investors tried in 1838 to get legislative backing from the British government to colonise New Zealand; their attempt failed. The Association was then dissolved and some of its members formed the New Zealand Company. This Company also failed to get Government backing  but decided anyway to proceed with its investment plans and sent an expedition led by Colonel William Wakefield to purchase land as the site for the first settlement.

Colonel Wakefield’s party reached Wellington Harbour in September 1839 and initiated negotiations with a number of Maori chiefs for land on both sides of Cook Strait. The Company claimed to have purchased 20 million acres of land and parcels of this land were being sold in London by this property speculation company before these negotiations were concluded.

So when the settlers arrived at Wellington Harbour on 22 January 1840, just four months after Wakefield, they found that the land  had not even been surveyed and the Maoris were disputing ownership of much of it. The property speculators of the New Zealand Company had been in a race against time to get in before the Crown formally took control over New Zealand which was done only two weeks later on February 6 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Initially New Zealand was seen only an extension of Australia to the British Crown. The commercial dealings with New Zealand were primarily between Australia and New Zealand. The British Crown only initially took an interest in annexing New Zealand because such product imported into either Australia or Britain was ‘foreign’ and therefore subject to duties which did not suit the merchants.

Investigations into the New Zealand Company’s claim to have purchased 20 million acres continued for several years, and only a small area was finally agreed as purchased; meanwhile, the disputed land purchases led to fighting and threats of fighting at each of the company’s settlements, Wellington, Wanganui, New Plymouth, and Nelson. But the New Zealand Company was given its charter from the Crown in 1841 to buy and sell land and subsequently Church associations were assisted to establish settlements in Dunedin and Christchurch.

But the initial colonisation of Aotearoa was founded on the very dodgy dealings of British property speculators which the British Crown has tried to sort out over the subsequent 175 years. Once the New Zealand Company had created such a political mess with the Maori, the Crown had to take the role of militarily protecting its British citizens and sorting the mess out. The mess is still not totally sorted out but the interbreeding has been to such an extent that Maori are battling in Court on behalf of one set of their families against the other set of their families.

Notably New Zealand was given its independence of government only thirteen years after the signing of the Treaty. In fact Britain took very little interest in New Zealand until the frozen meat technology in the 1880’s made it a good source of lamb and butter for its increasingly urbanised population. It really was only the shipping of frozen meat and butter that lifted New Zealand from a third world backwater to, eventually, a first world nation. But in 1973 Britain decided it no longer needed New Zealand as a farm any more as it had done  a deal within the European Community. So we had to source other buyers for our farm produce from Asian and Mid Eastern nations. China became a major customer and is now investing in the infrastructure to secure its source of food supply.

It is ironical that so many descendant beneficiaries of the British and Sydney-based land speculation of the 19th century are now so morally outraged about the actions of the Chinese coming in 175 years later, an historical blink of an eye, and actually legitimately buying our ‘birthright’ from willing sellers in order to establish some control over a farm to feed its very urbanised population in China, a nation that has a genetic kinship with our Maori population just as Europe has with our Pakeha population.

It’s a funny old world.




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