The history of New Zealand dates back at least 700 years to when it was discovered and settled by Polynesians, who developed a distinct Mori culture centred on kinship links and land. The first European explorer to sight New Zealand was Abel Janszoon Tasman on 13 December 1642. Captain James Cook, who reached New Zealand in October 1769 on the first of his three voyages, was the first European explorer to circumnavigate and map New Zealand. From the late 18th century, the country was regularly visited by explorers and other sailors, missionaries, traders and adventurers. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and various Mori chiefs, bringing New Zealand into the British Empire and giving Mori "equal rights" with British citizens. There was extensive British settlement throughout the rest of the century. War and the imposition of a European economic and legal system led to most of New Zealand's land passing from Mori to Pkeh (European) ownership, and most Mori subsequently became impoverished.
From the 1890s the New Zealand parliament enacted a number of progressive initiatives, including women's suffrage and old age pensions. The country remained an enthusiastic member of the British Empire, and 110,000 men fought in World War I (see New Zealand Expeditionary Force). After the war New Zealand signed the Treaty of Versailles (1919), joined the League of Nations, and pursued an independent foreign policy, while its defence was still controlled by Britain.