Heritage New Zealand - back

100 Historic Places in New Zealand

100 Historic Places in New Zealand is by Gavin McLean

Extracts are included as Travel Guides on DayOut. They are reproduced with the permission of the author, Gavin McLean, and the publisher, Hodder Moa Beckett Publishers Limited, Auckland, 2002.

Long before the first people had set foot on New Zealand shores, civilisations elsewhere had risen and fallen, yet the country's heritage, despite its brevity, is rich and interesting

New Zealand has a very short human history. It was the last significant area of habitable land to be occupied by people. It was probably less than a thousand years ago that the first East Polynesian seafarers reached these shores.

In years past, many New Zealanders believed you needed to go to Europe, Asia or the Americas for "real" history. Now it is recognised that into a few hundred years New Zealanders have crammed many varied and important historical experiences.

Classical Maori Culture

The first East Polynesians to arrive in Aotearoa evolved into the Classical Maori with whom Europeans first made contact in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Classical Maori culture was one of great artistic sophistication; the material culture of the Maori, however, remained of the "stone age" so that although New Zealand has a very brief history it spans the full range of human experience from the stone to the modern ages.

New Zealand has many intriguing archaeological sites. The most dramatic of these are the great pa (fortified settlements) which are comparable to the iron-age hill forts of Britain. But even inconspicuous middens or low indentations that mark the sites of dwellings tell the story of the lives of these first New Zealanders.

British Settlement

In the second half of the eighteenth century (following Abel Tasman's brief visit in the previous century) New Zealand became caught up in the world-wide expansion of Europe. The sites associated with the greatest of the European explorers who visited New Zealand in the eighteenth century, Captain James Cook, are among the most cherished historic places in New Zealand. After Cook came sealers, whalers, flax-traders and missionaries, many coming on to New Zealand from Sydney.

Among New Zealand's oldest European historic places are sites associated with the early exploitation of New Zealand resources and the oldest surviving European buildings are ones erected by missionaries.

A turbulent, sometimes lawless, era came to an end in 1840, when Britain assumed sovereignty over the country by virtue of a treaty signed with Maori chiefs, the Treaty of Waitangi. The same year saw the start of organised British settlement of New Zealand and the founding, in a little more than the following decade, of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin and such other towns as New Plymouth and Nelson. The development of these centres of settlement in the later nineteenth century gave New Zealand a wealth of historic buildings of all sorts.

Maori ­European Interaction

By the 1860s, the European newcomers outnumbered the indigenous Maori and war broke out, primarily over the increasing reluctance of many Maori to sell any more of their land, ownership of which had been guaranteed them by the Treaty of Waitangi. The most significant battle sites in a country whose history has been otherwise remarkably peaceful date from this decade.

Thus one of the most important threads in New Zealand's history is the story of the interaction between the European newcomers and the indigenous Maori. That interaction followed a different course in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world and the story is told by some of the country's most important historic places, including Waitangi itself.

Gold & Agriculture

In the 1860s the discovery of gold gave the country an economic push, and linked New Zealand's history with that of Australia and the western United States. Gold-mining remains range from the tailings and humble huts of the early alluvial miners to the larger, indistrial, relics of quartz mining. Subsequently the country's economy was based primarily on its farms and the processing of farm products for export to, until well into the second half of the twentieth century, the United Kingdom. Old farm houses and farm buildings are now points of human historic interest in many New Zealand landscapes and the small rural service centres which have survived all have their own complement of historic buildings.

British Ties

Through the twentieth century, from being an enthusiastic junior member of the British Empire, New Zealand worked, gradually and irregularly, towards complete political, cultural and economic independence from what eventually ceased to be "the home country" to most New Zealanders. The most obvious reminders of New Zealand's loyalty to Britain and the Empire are the ubiquitous memorials to young New Zealanders who went overseas in the Boer and two world wars to fight. There are also several statues of Queen Victoria. Spotting these statues and memorials and observing their variety is an interesting pursuit for the cultural tourist.

Egalitarian Heritage

Socially, New Zealand has always been a more egalitarian country than many, although economic and social distinctions have sometimes been marked. In the 1930s and 1940s, New Zealand led the way in establishing a comprehensive welfare state. The state houses of the 1930s and 1940s, both individually and in precincts, are now recognised as having historical significance as a tangible reminder of this area. The country assumed a similar leadership role again in the 1980s and 1990s when it moved faster and further than many other countries towards the market economy favoured by the "new right".

What To Look For

New Zealand's history can be explored by visiting land-based, built-heritage places and sites throughout the country. Many archaeological sites may look initially uninteresting, but some engage the interest by obvious physical features, especially the pa and the other places where there are visible signs of cultivation and habitation.

Among the sites of significant events, you will probably want to look out for those associated with early European exploration and the land war sites. Buildings of historical significance, as distinct from those which are or of interest primarily for their architectural quality, are to be found in cities, in country towns and in the countryside.

As you explore the country's historic buildings and sites you will discover regional differences. Most of the land war sites, for example, are in the North Island, and most of the gold rush sites in the South. But this is not a hard-and-fast rule: there are interesting gold rush sites and structures on the Coromandel Peninsula, and battle sites on the South Island, from the site of the Wairau Incident, near Blenheim to the Musket War sites on Banks Peninsula.