The first settlers of New Zealand were Maori people, thought to have originally migrated here from Eastern Polynesia. When Maori first arrived is uncertain. Archaeologist Janet Davidson suggests around 800AD. This is now the generally accepted date of first arrival, though debate continues. For many Maori, the date of first arrival is a lot earlier, according to whakapapa (genealogy).
For about 1000 years, Maori lived here in complete isolation from outside contact. Various theories have emerged from time to time suggesting brief external contacts, during that 1000-year isolation, especially by the Spanish and Portugese. But these theories are not generally accepted, by the academic community at least, because they are still unproven.
New Settlers from Britain
As Keith Sinclair has argued, the New Zealand Wars came about because new settlers from Britain had arrived in New Zealand.
New Zealand was first settled by Europeans from Australia and Britain in the 1790s.New Zealand’s first 'English community' was in fact a sealing camp set up in Doubtful Sound. The first wave of European settlers were most interested in exploiting the coastline, for whales and seals mainly. Later the hinterland itself was targeted, for timber, flax and food. However, inland access was always difficult.
These first settlers normally established peaceful relations with Maori communities – they had to, if they wanted to maintain lucrative trading relations. Many men married into Maori tribes and became ‘Pakeha Maori’, living amongst Maori and accepting Maori lore and conventions.
However, some earlier violence was recorded, especially in the far south between sealing gangs and Maori.
Increasingly, settlers moved here from Australia. By 1840, the European population of New Zealand was about 2000. The Maori population, by one projection, was about 90,000.
The Wakefield Settlers
European migration to New Zealand really got underway after 1840. After 1839, increased waves of settlers arrived at the instigation of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, and his New Zealand Company. Wakefield planned to send hundreds of English migrants to new settlements in New Zealand, settlements modeled upon a vision of pre-industrial England that probably had never existed.
Wakefield settlements were established at Wellington, Nelson, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Canterbury (Christchurch) and Otago (Dunedin). It is important to rememberthat Auckland was not a Wakefield settlement.
These new settlements were ambitious in their planning, but the entire Wakefield scheme proved itself to be quite impractical. Little or no provision was made for Maori, or for conflict. Increasingly, land disputes began to dominate relations between Wakefield and Maori. This was fuelled in part by a deep-seated antagonism between the New Zealand Company and the newly-established Crown. Both were effectively struggling for control of New Zealand. Maori people were largely incidental to this, a point that was not lost on them.
Conflict over Land
Increasingly, land disputes became flashpoints for conflict and war, especially at Wairau in 1843 and Waitara in 1860.
Some historians like Keith Sorrenson and Keith Sinclair have argued that land was the critical factor contributing to the outbreak of war. This is certainly the view of most Maori.
Others like James Belich have argued that issues of contest of sovereignty were more significant. Such a contest began with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.