New Zealand has been inhabited since at least A.D. 1000 by Polynesian Maoris. The first European to visit was the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, who stopped there during his voyage of 1642–43. New Zealand was charted by Capt. James Cook on his three voyages (1769–78). Between 1792 and 1840, sealing, whaling, and trading led to European settlement. In a series of intertribal wars between 1815 and 1840, tens of thousands of Maoris died.
In 1840 the first settlement was made at Wellington by a group sent by the New Zealand Company, founded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. In that year the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed to the Maoris the full possession of their land in exchange for their recognition of British rule. But as European settlement increased, Maori opposition to land settlement resulted in continuing conflict from 1860 to 1872.
Originally part of New South Wales (Australia), New Zealand became a separate colony in 1840 and received a large measure of self-government after 1852. In 1907 it assumed complete self-government as the Dominion of New Zealand, but, preferring that Great Britain handle most of its foreign affairs, did not confirm the Statute of Westminster (1931) until 1947.
New Zealand has been a leader in progressive social legislation. It was the first country to grant (1893) women the right to vote. A comprehensive social security system was begun in 1898 with the enactment of an old age pension law.
During World War I and World War II, New Zealand fought on the side of the Allies, and it joined the UN forces in the Korean War. New Zealand also sent troops to aid U.S. forces in South Vietnam in the 1960s. In 1951, New Zealand joined in a mutual defense treaty with the United States and Australia. This pact was suspended in 1986 after David Lange's Labor government refused to let U.S. ships with nuclear arms enter its ports; although defense cooperation has resumed since then, the ban remains in effect. In 1997, Jenny Shipley of the National party, which had been in power since 1990, became New Zealand's first woman prime minister.
The Labor party, led by Helen Clark, and its center-left coalition defeated the National party in the 1999 elections and formed a minority government. Clark's coalition retained power, again as a minority government, after the 2002 elections. After the court of appeals ruled in 2004 that Maoris could pursue land claims to New Zealand's beaches and seabed, the government passed legislation that nationalized the contested areas in an effort to prevent Maoris from gaining an exclusive legal title to them. The law alienated the government's Maori supporters and prompted the establishment of a Maori political party.
Parliamentary elections in Sept., 2005, resulted in a narrow victory for Labor, which secured a plurality of the seats. Clark formed a government with the support of three smaller parties, including the anti-immigration New Zealand First party. Clark and Labor lost the Nov., 2008, parliamentary elections to John Key, a wealthy former currency trader, and the National party, and Key became prime minister of a center-right coalition government. A strong earthquake in Sept., 2010, and a second one in Feb., 2011, caused widespread damage in Christchurch. Key and the National-led coalition remained in power after the Nov., 2011, elections.