Over 1,000 years ago waves of Eastern Polynesians arrived in New Zealand and its outer islands. A unique culture developed, and descendents of the original Maori people survive to this day.
In 1642, Dutch East India Company explorer, Abel Tasman, sighted the coastline of South Island. There were brief encounters with the Maori as his crew tried to come ashore. A few of his sailors were killed, but the Captain himself never set foot on land.
In 1769, the legendary British explorer, James Cook, sailed into New Zealand waters and mapped most of the shoreline. After news of these unspoiled islands spread across the far-reaches of the globe, a hardy group of traders and whalers were quick to arrive.
Small settlements sprang up along the northern coastline, and a trading culture with the Maori flourished. For centuries - with just clubs and spears - the Maori fended off their enemies, but now with European metal and muskets in their hands, they imposed their will on their neighbors and tribal warfare surfaced for a time.
As interest in the New Zealand territory peaked across Europe, and in an effort to keep the French out, the British government made their move; they agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the Maori people and appointed William Hobson as the region's Lieutenant Governor. He worked under the authority of the British Governor of New South Wales, Australia.
In 1840, Hobson, in his new role, arrived on North Island. Subsequently, Maori chieftains entered into a compact with Britain called the "Treaty of Waitangi." They ceded sovereignty to Britain's Queen Victoria while retaining territorial rights - at least on paper.
With British sovereignty now firmly asserted, Queen Victoria signed a royal charter for New Zealand to become a Crown colony separate from New South Wales, and Hobson was sworn in as the colony's first Governor.
With the British in charge, scores of settlers from the British Isles arrived and organized colonial settlements were built. At first the Maori welcomed them, but the inevitable conflicts over land rights brought land wars to New Zealand in 1843 and 1872. As a result, the Maori people were pushed out of their ancestral lands.
After the New Zealand Parliament met for the first time in 1854, responsible local government was in place and eventual independence was a passionate dream. Among the first British colonies to be declared a dominion, the British colony of New Zealand became an independent (self-governing) dominion in 1907.
Throughout the 20th century New Zealand remained a supportive member of the British Empire, fighting side-by-side in major wars, including World Wars I and II. On April 25 (ANZAC Day), New Zealand commemorates the anniversary of the landing of troops of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War I at Gallipoli, Turkey.
The economics of this growing country suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s. That depression led to the election of New Zealand's first Labor government, a government that established a comprehensive welfare state and a protectionist economy.
As World War II came to an end, New Zealand was growing in prosperity, but internal problems persisted, especially as the indigenous Maori people moved into cities looking for work and their share of benefits. Social prejudices were now hot button issues.
In the late 20th century, the coming-of-age government transformed New Zealand from a highly protectionist economy into a free-trade industrialized economy. As a result, New Zealand is now a modern, prosperous country with a high standard of living and a growing economy.
In a recent move, seven Maori tribes signed a historic treaty with the New Zealand government, a treaty that compensates them financially for some of the lands taken during the 19th century.
Mountainous New Zealand is comprised of two large islands (separated by the Cook Strait), as well as Stewart Island, hundreds of coastal islands and many regional islands that hopscotch across the South Pacific Ocean. It also administers two overseas territories, Tokelau and Ross dependency (in Antarctica). In addition, it handles the defense and foreign affairs of the self-governing Cook Islands and Niue.
New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and is titled Queen of New Zealand. She is represented by the Governor-General, whom she appoints on the exclusive advice of the country's elected Prime Minister.
As the film location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the jaw-dropping landscapes of these stunning islands were seen by millions around the world. And in this land of fjords, over three-hundred-named glaciers, geysers, rain forests, toothy-edged mountains, volcanoes, endless miles of unspoiled beaches and welcoming cities and towns, it's so patently obvious why tourism is the country's largest growth industry.
This dazzling and dramatic country is also the birthplace of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest.