Nation consisting of two main island s and some smaller island s in the S Pacific Ocean, SSE of Australia. It is a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The two main island s are North Island , smaller but with the larger population, and South Island . New Zealand also includes Stewart Island , S of South Island , discovered by the British in 1808, and the Chatham Island s, E of New Zealand , discovered by the British in 1791. The earliest known inhabitants of the main island s were the Maoris, who probably arrived c. a.d. 800 or earlier and represented the southernmost point of Polynesian expansion. A second wave of these people came c. 1350.
The first European to see New Zealand was the Dutch navigator, Abel J. Tasman, in 1642; while Captain James Cook, a British navigator, circumnavigated the island s in 1769–70 and charted their coastlines. The first settlers were escaped convicts from Australia and runaway sailors. Organized settlement began in the 1840s, and Great Britain made New Zealand a colony in 1841. A treaty of 1840 with the Maoris opened large tracts of land to the settlers, and Wellington, the capital, was founded that year, as was Auckland , both on North Island . Christchurch, on South Island , was settled in 1850. The Maoris resented the continuing encroachment on their land s and fought bitterly off and on against the British until 1870. The colony was granted self-government in 1852, and in the course of the 19th century it became a large producer of dairy and meat products.
New Zealand also pioneered in social welfare legislation. New Zealand was the first country in 1893 to grant women the right to vote. In 1898, the country enacted an old age pension law. Its soldiers fought in the ANZAC corps for Great Britain in both world wars. The British Statute of Westminster in 1931 gave complete independence to the island s, but until 1947 New Zealand allowed Great Britain to conduct its foreign affairs. In 1951, New Zealand joined in the ANZUS mutual defense treaty with the United States and Australia. In 1986, the pact was suspended after New Zealand refused to let U.S. naval ships with nuclear arms enter its ports. In 1997 Jenny Shipley of the National Party became New Zealand ’s first female prime minister. In 1999 the National Party was replaced by a Labor coalition government led by Prime Minister Helen Clark. The wars with the settlers greatly reduced the Maori population, but it has since grown back to nearly 600,000. The government has concentrated in recent years in redressing past wrongs to the Maori people, but increasing activism has led to the creation of a Maori political party. The island s are noted for their scenery, the comfortable life style of the people, and a variety of unusual animals, including the kiwi, albatross, and tuatara.