The penal colony at New South Wales was aware of the existence of New Zealand primarily thanks to the work of Captain Cook. They did actually establish contact with the islands but were undoubtedly intimidated by the hostility of the Maoris on the island - and their high population density. At first they made no attempt to settle the islands despite their seemingly favourable climate and soil.
The first settlers were whalers. These posed little threat to the indigenous population as they stuck to the coastline and were itinerant. Indeed, some of the Maoris would actually become seamen with these deep water fleets.
The crop that would attract more permanent settlers to the islands was flax. Maori women used the fibres of this plant to create cloth. However attempts to mechanise the process did not succeed and the trade diminished in importance in the 1830s.
The New South Wales colony was interested in importing timber from New Zealand. The temperate wood was more familiar and easy to work with for the European carpenters. Well organised Maori tribes could also develop and adapt their own crops for export to New South Wales. This agricultural potential would gradually attract more and more settlers to the islands. However, it was the scandal over trade in dried Maori heads that caused the Governor of New South Wales to appoint a resident on the island in 1833.
In 1834, the resident convened the United Tribes of New Zealand to select a flag and declare New Zealand independence. However, this declaration did not allay the fears of the Church Missionary Society, who continued lobbying for British annexation. Increasing French interest in the region led the British to annex New Zealand by Royal Proclamation in January 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi. This document actually gave considerable rights to the existing Maori population despite problems with the translation of the document between the English and Maori versions of the document.
By the 1840s there were some 2,000 white settlers on the islands. These settlers often adapted the lifestyle and practices of the Maori islanders. In 1835 a Maori attack on a British family led to retaliation in the 'Battle of the Pork' by a British 'tribe' of fifty men led by Reverend White and Mr Russell. Rather than shoot the Maoris, they slaughtered their livestock and destroyed their houses.
Edward Wakefield would be a prime mover in attempting to speed up colonisation of the islands with the creation of the New Zealand Company. It used a lottery held in London to sell unsurveyed land in the islands. This led to some speculators doing well, but others being severely disappointed with the land they had invested in. It was not surprising that New Zealand agriculture would remain in a poor condition throughout the 1840s.
As early as 1842 settlers in Wellington held elections for a municipal council. These were over-ruled by the Colonial Office. In 1846 a New Zealand Constitution Act was passed in London. However the governor would have to suspend it within a year. The reason for this distrust of early forms of democracy was actually because the government was serious about their protection of the Maori culture and peoples. It was felt that the settlers were being deliberately provocative to the Maoris and were seeking ways to deprive the Maoris of their land and rights.
Democracy was attempted again in 1853 with the Constitution Act. This actually gave far more rights to British settlers in New Zealand than they had back home in Britain. Most males over 21 had the right to vote.
The 1850s and 1860s would see an expansion in the settler population from 26,000 to a quarters of a million in just two decades. This kind of population growth undoubtedly strained relations with the Maoris. The politically sophisticated Maoris realised that a united front against the white settlers might help stem the tide. A trivial mistake over the sale of some property would provide the excuse for a major conflict in 1859. The resulting war spluttered on for five years on and off until the British could assemble a force of some five thousand regular soldiers and artillery to finally reassert control. However, even that did not end the matter. Some Maoris continued fighting a guerilla campaign until 1872.
By 1870 the economy was still flagging. The only bright spot was wool exports but even these had to compete with Australian wool and Australia had a far more developed infrastructure than New Zealand by this time. Julius Vogel, a British settler but one who was familiar with Victoria colony, became the island's treasurer. On his initiative, the government borrowed heavily from London in order to develop the islands' infrastructure.
The scale of the investment in relation to the size of the colony's economy meant that most people were affected by the consequent prosperity. This deficit funding was not in keeping with economic orthodoxy of the day and so when Vogel was replaced by H Atkinson, the latter found it difficult to sustain the bold investments and so cut back on spending. This was popular with the conservatives on the islands' at the time, but it also presaged hard economic times in the 1880s.
By the 1880s even wool was feeling the effects of a world wide glut. The American and Canadian prairies were being opened up by the railroads and huge quantities of food began hitting the world markets. Many New Zealand settlers would suffer in the 1880s and 1890s.
Technological advances would come to the aid of the colony. In the 1890s refrigerated ships started taking New Zealand mutton and dairy products to Britain and the Empire and beyond. The wool industry would be complemented very nicely by these developments in the lamb and mutton markets. Consequently, New Zealand agriculture would largely shift to the sheep and dairy industries.
In 1893 New Zealand became the first nation to grant women the right to vote on the same basis as men. However, women were not eligible to stand for parliament until 1919.
New Zealand became an independent dominion on 26 September 1907, by Royal Proclamation. Full independence was granted by the United Kingdom Parliament with the Statute of Westminster in 1931; it was taken up upon the Statute's adoption by the New Zealand Parliament in 1947. Since then New Zealand has been a sovereign constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth of Nations.