New Zealand -- A Brief Sketch of Its Ethnic Composition

David Chung '94 (English 34, Spring '93)

New Zealand was first settled by Polynesians who possibly came from the region that is now French Polynesia. They maintained an isolated existence until the first Dutch explorers arrived in 1642. In order to distinguish themselves from the Europeans, whom they called Pakeha, they adopted the common name of Maori, which means normal.

As more Europeans settled in New Zealand following the voyages of Captain James Cook (1769-77), they brought with them alien diseases that raised the deathrate among the Maori. The Maori population also suffered a decline as a result of tribal warfare as well as that against the Europeans. However, by early twentieth-century, the Maori acquired resistance to some of these diseases, such as measles and influenza, and their birthrate began to recover.

The European settlement of New Zealand picked up pace in 1820 and accelerated when Great Britain annexed it in 1840. By 1850, settlers outnumbered the Maori. Although the majority of these settlers came from Great Britain, there were also Scandinavians, Germans, Greeks, Italians, and Yugoslavs. The period between World War I and World War II witnessed an influx of central Europeans, whereas the period after World War II brought a large number of the Dutch into New Zealand as well as Asian immigrants from China and India. More recently, there has been a growing community of Pacific Islanders from Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niuie, and Tokelau. Although this diverse society has some racial tensions, they seem relatively sedate compared to the experiences of other multi-cultural societies.

Today, the population of New Zealand is predominantly English-speaking. All Maori speak English, whereas only a small minority still speak Maori, which is taught at a number of schools. Samoan has also become a prominent language in New Zealand.

How does New Zealand's experiences of ethnicity compare with those of Rushdie's Pakistan, a nation where Europeans do not form a significant part of the population? Does the ethnic composition of the country, particularly the presence of settlers and their descendents, affect the kind of literature produced?

Postcolonial Overview New Zealand Australia

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002