The Last Place of Earth

5 September 1893 - Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand is truly unique. It’s nearest neighbor is Australia, and yet it’s far enough away to make it seem a world away. The country is only a little smaller than Britain so it’s hardly a small group of tiny islands like the rest of the South Pacific nations. In fact it’s so far south, it feels like it’s in the north. It seems more like Europe...only a weird alien sort of Europe.

New Zealand circa 1890
(click on to enlarge)
New Zealand is made of two major islands--called the North Island and South Island, to make it easy for everyone. The Islands have been isolated for 80 million years. Since that time New Zealand has spent 23 million years with only 18% of her present surface above water and has suffered numerous upheavals from earthquakes and volcanoes. Most of her flora and fauna arrived here by air or sea. Her only mammals are three species of bats, and sea mammals like seals and whales. This lack of mammals has allowed the bird population to dominate--more than one species losing need for flight. Many of the plants and animals in New Zealand cannot be found anywhere else.

Humans only arrived here 1250 A.D., making it the last place on Earth colonized by people (not counting tiny atolls and the Antarctic, of course.) Perhaps it’s not surprising that it was that most adventurous and sea-faring savvy of folks, the Polynesians. However they were expecting the usual tropical paradise they knew and instead found a temperate land. It was a bit like telling a bunch of Hawaiians to pack for Fiji and then dumping them in Switzerland. Their clothing was inadequate and most of their crops could not survive here. But the Polynesians are tough and adaptable. They not only survived but flourished, creating the unique Maori culture.

The first European to discover New Zealand was the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. He also discovered the fierce Maori and quickly left after losing four crewmen. The Dutch never returned, but named the place Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. It wasn’t until 1769, that the next European showed up--British explorer, James Cook. He couldn’t think of a better name, so anglicised the Latin name to New Zealand. For awhile only whalers and traders used the island as a convenient stopover. They traded with the Maori for provisions bringing muskets and potatoes. (Both were eagerly adopted.) The Europeans also brought foreign diseases, decreasing the native population to 40%.

Maori village
 As I mentioned before, the Maori are tough and adaptable. In 1835, when France announced they were going to colonize the islands, the Maori put down their muskets and quit warring with each other, to create the United Tribes of New Zealand. They sent the British king, William IV, a Declaration of Independence, asking for his protection. The British, not wanting the French to grab anything if they could help it, quickly signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in 1840.

The treaty may have given the British an excuse to takeover, but it also made the Maori full citizens of the British Empire with equal rights, giving them a foot up from most indigenous folks in the 1800s. Not that the Maori haven’t had land taken away or been treated shabbily. In a few years in 1896, the Maori will only number 42,000. However they will rebound and thrive over the next century.

After New Zealand became an official British colony, immigrants began pouring in from the British Isles, as well as other countries. Despite this it’s young age, the country is blossoming. In 1870 the population was about 250,00. Now it is probably around 700,000. And it will be nearly four million by the end of the twentieth century.

Wellington Panorama (1890) by E.A. Cockerell
  I’m currently in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand since 1865, when it was moved from Auckland. It was nothing personal, mind you. Wellington was just closer to the middle of the country and Auckland was way up north. The city is still a bit rough around the edges as the frontier town is quickly being replaced with a modern city. All part of its charm.

There is an excitement in the air one can feel. Most people here are immigrants, or at least the children of immigrants. It‘s a new land of new beginnings where anything is possible!

The Kiwi
The national bird of New Zealand
as well as proud nickname for New Zealanders

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