Country of the Week: New Zealand

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve made the long trip to New Zealand. Gorgeous scenery and an intriguing mix of British and Māori culture make it one of the most fascinating and accessible countries on earth.

  • Capital: Wellington
  • Largest City: Auckland
  • Population (2015): 4,580,470 (124th)
  • Total Area: 268,021 km² (75th)
  • Official Languages: English, Māori, NZ Sign Language
  • Currency: New Zealand dollar ($) (NZD)

The Wellington Cable Car – One of the main attractions in the capital


Prior to the European discovery of New Zealand, the preeminent society was that of the Māori. These people were likely originally from nearby Pacific islands, but over time they came together to form a cohesive culture. Māori society was made up of iwi (tribes) and hapū (subtribes). These groups would have regular contact, periodically fighting or cooperating as the times dictated.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to set foot in New Zealand in 1642. Explorer Abel Tasman and his crew soon came into conflict with the Māori and would later leave without a foothold. The Dutch were however responsible for the name of the country, with cartographers calling the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. This would later be Anglicized by the British to the name we know today.

Europeans returned over 100 years later in 1769 when British explorer James Cook mapped out most of the coast. This led to many more European traders coming to the shores of New Zealand in search of trade and wealth. This would indirectly result in the deaths of many Māori as the introduction of the musket caused intense inter-tribal warfare. Throughout the 19th century, missionaries succeeded in converting most of the Māori population to Christianity. This period of intermingling again proved devastating for the Māori, mostly due to European diseases.

While this was going on, the actual administration of the country proved to be a tricky endeavour. The British governor of New South Wales (in Australia) claimed the land as a part of his colony. In addition, the French began to show increased interest in the region. This eventually led to Captain William Hobson declaring British sovereignty over New Zealand on May 21, 1840 though the treaty had not been signed by the entirety of the Māori population. One year later, New Zealand would become its own colony and was no longer grouped together with nearby Australia.

After gaining dominion status in 1907, the Statute of Westminster in 1947 guaranteed self-rule for New Zealand. While the country has enjoyed increased prosperity since the end of WWII, there have been persistent concerns about the relationship between the Māori and descendants of European settlers. Some agreements have been negotiated but claims to land and sea rights have resulted in ongoing disputes. Still, the two distinct groups have undeniably come together to form a cohesive whole.


The Auckland skyline – New Zealand’s largest city


As has become abundantly clear by now, New Zealand’s culture is a mix of European customs and Māori and Pacific islander traditions. While the Māori were the dominant society for hundreds of years, once the British began to settle, they moved quickly. European New Zealanders (Pākehā in Māori) retain very close ties and similar customs to that of the United Kingdom (specifically England). These two dominant ethnic groups are clearly visible, with the two anthems often sung in both languages and two national days of remembrance. Despite this, there are often many expression of national unity, with most referring to themselves simply as New Zealanders.

This largely bi-cultural society manifests itself again in food, art, music and more. One of the most famous expressions of Māori culture is the haka. This is a war dance or challenge meant to demonstrate the performers strength and frighten the opposition. The haka has become famous the world over thanks to the All Blacks – the national rugby union team of New Zealand – performing the dance at the start of matches. The team is usually found near the top of the world rankings in the sport – plus they recently won the World Cup at home. Other popular sports in New Zealand include cricket in the summer, horse racing, women’s netball, and soccer – where the national team is known the All Whites.


New Zealand is divided into two large main islands, the North Island (or Te Ika-a-Māui) and the South Island (or Te Waipounamu) as well as numerous small islands. The Southern Alps divide the South Island, with Mount Cook (Aoraki) the largest at 3754m. Fiordland is, unsurprisingly, home to many impressive fiords (known as fjords in Scandinavian countries). In contrast to the South Island’s mountains, the North Island is characterized by a much more volcanic landscape. Between the two islands, New Zealand is home to a surprising amount of diversity for such a small country both in landscape and fauna.

With all this talk of natural beauty, it’s easy to forget that New Zealand is also a highly developed country. The largest city, Auckland, is a true metropolis with a diverse population and very high quality of life. The second largest city, and capital, of Wellington is quite a bit smaller but is a very popular place to visit, particularly amongst New Zealanders.


Peter’s Pool and the Franz Josef Glacier

Did you know?

  • Director Peter Jackson is from New Zealand and filmed his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies in the country. LotR especially contributed to huge international interest in New Zealand
  • Actors hailing from New Zealand include Russell Crowe (yes, we featured him in the Australia profile but he was born in Wellington), Karl Urban, and Anna Paquin
  • Bungee jumping was invented in New Zealand
  • The Badminton national team was once known as the ‘Black Cocks’ but this was later changed
  • Baldwin Street in Dunedin is the world’s steepest street with a 38% grade
  • Blue Lake has the clearest water in the world
  • Ninety Mile Beach is actually only 90km long

The signpost at Lands End on New Zealand’s southern tip – the end of the earth

Last Word

New Zealand is a truly fascinating country with an interesting dual heritage. With some of the most striking natural environments in a landmass that’s relatively small, there’s a lot to love here.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.

Stay informed. Stay Current.