An Overview of the History and Geography of New Zealand

The History, Government, Industry, Geography, and Biodiversity of New Zealand

New Zealand Flag in the wind with the sea in the background

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New Zealand is an island country located 1,000 miles (1,600 km) southeast of Australia in Oceania. It consists of several islands, the largest of which are the North, the South, Stewart, and Chatham Islands. The country has a liberal political history, gained early prominence in women's rights, and has a good record in ethnic relations, especially with its native Maori. In addition, New Zealand is sometimes called the "Green Island" because its population has high environmental awareness and its low population density gives the country a large amount of pristine wilderness and a high level of biodiversity.

Fast Facts: New Zealand

  • Capital: Wellington
  • Population: 4,545,627 (2018)
  • Official Languages: Maori, English 
  • Currency: New Zealand dollar (NZD)
  • Form of Government: Parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy; a commonwealth realm
  • Climate: Temperate with sharp regional contrasts
  • Total Area: 103,798 square miles (268,838 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Aoraki/Mount Cook at 12,218 feet (3,724 meters) 
  • Lowest Point: Pacific Ocean at 0 feet (0 meters)

History of New Zealand

In 1642, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to discover New Zealand. He was also the first person to attempt mapping the islands with his sketches of the North and South islands. In 1769, Captain James Cook reached the islands and became the first European to land on them. He also began a series of three South Pacific voyages, during which he extensively studied the area's coastline.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Europeans began to officially settle on New Zealand. These settlements consisted of several lumbering, seal hunting, and whaling outposts. The first independent European colony was not established until 1840 when the United Kingdom took over the islands. This led to several wars between the British and the native Maori. On February 6, 1840, both parties signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which promised to protect Maori lands if the tribes recognized British control.

Shortly after signing this treaty, though, British encroachment on Maori lands continued and wars between the Maori and British grew stronger during the 1860s with the Maori land wars. Prior to these wars, a constitutional government began to develop during the 1850s. In 1867, the Maori were allowed to reserve seats in the developing parliament.

During the late 19th century, the parliamentary government became well-established and women were given the right to vote in 1893.

The Government of New Zealand

Today, New Zealand has a parliamentary governmental structure and is considered an independent part of the Commonwealth of Nations. It has no formal written constitution and was formally declared a dominion in 1907.

Branches of Government in New Zealand

New Zealand has three branches of government, the first of which is the executive. This branch is headed by Queen Elizabeth II who serves as the chief of state but is represented by a governor general. The prime minister, who serves as the head of government, and the cabinet are also a part of the executive branch. The second branch of government is the legislative branch. It is composed of the parliament. The third is the four-level branch comprised of District Courts, High Courts, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. In addition, New Zealand has specialized courts, one of which is the Maori Land Court.

New Zealand is divided into 12 regions and 74 districts, both of which have elected councils, as well as several community boards and special-purpose bodies.

New Zealand's Industry and Land Use

One of the largest industries in New Zealand is that of grazing and agriculture. From 1850 to 1950, much of the North Island was cleared for these purposes and since then, the rich pastures present in the area have allowed for successful sheep grazing. Today, New Zealand is one of the world's main exporters of wool, cheese, butter, and meat. Additionally, New Zealand is a large producer of several types of fruit, including kiwi, apples, and grapes.

In addition, the industry has also grown in New Zealand and the top industries are food processing, wood and paper products, textiles, transportation equipment, banking and insurance, mining, and tourism.

Geography and Climate of New Zealand

New Zealand consists of a number of different islands with varying climates. Most of the country has mild temperatures with high rainfall. The mountains, however, can be extremely cold.

The main portions of the country are the North and South islands that are separated by the Cook Strait. The North Island is 44,281 square miles (115,777 square kilometers) and consists of low, volcanic mountains. Because of its volcanic past, the North Island features hot springs and geysers.

The South Island is 58,093 sq mi (151,215 sq km) and contains the Southern Alps—a northeast-to-southwest oriented mountain range covered in glaciers. Its highest peak is Mount Cook, also known as Aoraki in the Maori language, at 12,349 feet (3,764 meters) above sea level. To the east of these mountains, the island is dry and made up of the treeless Canterbury Plains. On the southwest, the island's coast is heavily forested and jagged with fjords. This area also features New Zealand's largest national park, Fiordland.


One of the most important features to note about New Zealand is its high level of biodiversity. Because most of its species are endemic (i.e. native only on the islands) the country is considered a biodiversity hotspot. This has led to the development of environmental consciousness in the country as well as ecotourism.

Interesting Facts About New Zealand

  • There are no native snakes in New Zealand.
  • 76% of New Zealanders live on the North Island.
  • 15% of New Zealand's energy comes from renewable sources.
  • 32% of New Zealand's population lives in Auckland.


  • “The World Factbook: New Zealand.” Central Intelligence Agency.
  • New Zealand.” Infoplease.
  • “New Zealand.” U.S. Department of State.
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Briney, Amanda. "An Overview of the History and Geography of New Zealand." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, February 16). An Overview of the History and Geography of New Zealand. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "An Overview of the History and Geography of New Zealand." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).