Timeline of environmental history of New Zealand


This timeline is a work in progress. Any suggestions, corrections or contributions are warmly welcomed. Please click on the envelope on the right-hand side to send an email to envirohistory NZ or post a comment.

Picture right: A watercolour sketch of coastal forest with Port Chalmers and Otago Heads in the background, 1880. By William Hodgkins. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. A-182-033

1400s - According to archaeological, carbon-dating and other scientific evidence, the first people are likely to have arrived in New Zealand from the islands of East Polynesia during this century. New Zealand becomes the last country in the world to be discovered and settled by people. It is calculated that there were likely to have been between 100 and 200 founding settlers, arriving in a number of canoes. Original sites of settlement were probably at river mouths and coastal dune areas. These original settlers brought with them the kiore (Polynesian rat, Rattus exulans) and a number of subtropical plants, such as the taro and the kumara. It is thought they also brought dogs. This original colonisation is likely to have been followed by numerous other waves of migrants from Eastern Polynesia.

1500It is thought that all five species of moa were extinct, as a result of hunting and habitat destruction, by this time. Between Polynesian settlement and European colonisation in the 1800s, about 40 species of birds, one bat, three to five species of frogs and an unknown number of lizards were also to become extinct. A substantial amount of forest (between one third and a half) was also destroyed (see entry for 1800).

1642 - Dutchman Abel Tasman “discovers” the West Coast of New Zealand – his expedition becoming the first Europeans to sight these islands, which is later named Zelandia Nova. However, no one from the expedition sets foot on New Zealand shores, and there is no lasting environmental implications from the visit.

1769 - New Zealand rediscovered, and circumnavigated and mapped by James Cook, who then returns to England with reports on the resources of the country, especially its timber and flax, and the plenitude of seals in the south west and whales in the surrounding seas. This sparked strong British interest in New Zealand and in the establishment of extractive industries, such as whaling and forestry.

1773 – 1777In the course of three more visits to New Zealand, Cook and his expeditions left goats, pigs and vegetable plants such as turnips and potatoes, particularly in Queen Charlotte Sound (Marlborough), Dusky Sound (Fiordland) and Cape Kidnappers (Hawkes’ Bay). Potatoes in particular would become important staples in Maori horticulture – 20 years later, English ship crews noted and abundance of potato cultivations in the north of North Island.

1790s- Sperm whaling from sea begins during this decade, first undertaken by British vessels, and later French and American vessels.

1792The first sealing party arrives in Dusky Sound on the ship Britannia. The other key extraction industries – whaling and timber – were fully established by the end of the decade.

1793Early attempts to establish a flax industry. Flax was in demand in the maritime industry for the manufacture of ropes, canvas sails, nets and sacks. These first attempts failed due to lack of the specialist skills required to process flax. There were sporadic shipments of flax in subsequent decades, but it was not until the 1820s, that the industry became fully established.

1800- By the time that Europeans began to arrive in New Zealand, about a third of the North Island’s forests and about half of the South Island’s forests (largely on the east coat) had been destroyed, largely by fire.

1810s - The sealing industry reaches its peak during this decade. For example, one vessel alone (Favourite) took over 80,000 skins from Foveaux Strait in 1805. However the rates of harvest were not sustainable, and within a few years sealing was no longer viable on the mainland of New Zealand. Sealers turned their attention instead to the Chatham Islands and the sub-Antarctic Islands.

1814- Samuel Marsden lands in the Bay of Islands with a party of missionaries. He brings with him the first horses and Durham cattle, releases poultry and plants peach trees. The first orange trees are planted at Kerikeri in 1818, followed by apples and pear trees, and grape vines at Kerikeri in 1819.

1820sThe shore-based whaling industry, mainly harvesting right whale, develops. The first shore stations are established in Tory Channel (Marlborough Sounds) by Jacky Guard and in Preservation Inlet (Fiordland) by Bunn and Co of Sydney. Many more stations are subsequently established on the east coast of both islands, generally close to existing Maori villages.

The timber industry is burgeoning by the 1820s, primarily harvesting kauri in the north of the North Island. Kauri was found to be ideally suited to making topmasts and spars for British naval ships. The kauri forests were systematically exploited from this time, continuing unfettered for another century until the forests were almost completely decimated.

The government of New South Wales makes concerted efforts to establish a flax trade in New Zealand. The industry booms between the mid 1820s and early 1830s, when flax exports reach a peak. Plants were harvested all around the coast but particularly successful stations were in Foveaux Strait, the Hokianga, the Bay of Islands, Kawhia and surrounds, Aotea and Whaingaroa, the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast of the North Island.

1830sShore whaling reaches its peak during this decade. By 1835 also a fledgling sheep farming industry has established itself and the first wool export shipment is made to Sydney.

Both possums and rabbits were introduced during the 1830s. The first possums introduced from Australia in 1837 (see “The ‘furry money-spinner’ – the history of the possum in New Zealand“). The common European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) was introduced in several places in New Zealand for both food and sport. Once rabbits became established, their population increased to plague proportions several times, first in the 1870s, then in the 1920s and 1840s, and most recently in the 1980s. Rabbits were to become a costly mistake for the agricultural sector -both in terms of the cost to control them and the loss of production. They have also been ecologically costly – their grazing of tussock and other vegetation in dryland areas of the South Island in particular has led to irretrievable loss of indigenous vegetation and severe erosion and topsoil loss in some cases.

1840The Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) was first signed on 6 February. The Treaty established a British governor in New Zealand and granted Māori the rights of British subjects. In theory, it also recognised Māori ownership of their lands and other natural resources.

1846 - New Zealand is divided into two administrative regions: New Munster, south from a line eastwards from the mouth of the Patea River, and New Ulster, north from that line.

1850The first deer are released at Nelson.

1853 A provincial system of government is established and the first provincial elections are held.

1861Gold is discovered in Central Otago, and the first major gold rush starts.

1866Oil is discovered at Moturoa, near New Plymouth.

1867Rabbit Nuisance Act passed. See also: The attack of the killer bunny.

1877 - The Land Act enacted under the Vogel government. This Act created 10 districts, each with a Land Board, which offered leases on blocks of land on condition that the land was cleared of forest and made productive. The conditions were quite strict, for example, requiring 5% of rural blocks to be cleared of forest in the first year, and 20% to be cultivated within 4 years. This legislation contributed to the deforestation of large areas of the lowland plains.

1887Tongariro National Park becomes the first national park in New Zealand, and the fourth in the world (after Yellowstone National Park in 1872, Royal National Park, Australia in 1879, and Banff National Park, Canada in 1885), after being gifted to the nation by the chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Horonuku. Ironically, the motivation for gifting this land was to prevent it being confiscated by, or sold to, the Crown. It was not until 1894 that the park was recognised in statute, under the Tongariro National Park Act.

1900Egmont National Park (Mount Taranaki) becomes second national Park in New Zealand.

1903The Scenery Preservation Act enacted. Its aim was to preserve areas for their scenic, historical and cultural value. A Scenery Preservation Commission was established to identify sites (including Maori land) worthy of compulsory purchasing under this Act. £100,000 was set aside by for compulsory purchases. By 1906, when the Commission was disbanded, 61 reserves had been gazetted (officially declared reserves under this Act). In 1953, the Act was repealed, and replaced by the Reserves and Domains Act 1953.

Watch this space – much more to come!

The Penguin History of New Zealand (2003), by Michael King.
Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2004), edited by Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking.
A Short Short History of New Zealand (2005), by Gordon McLauchlan.

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