Maori Discovery & Settlement


According to Maori legend, the demigod Maui is said to have fished up the North Island of New Zealand, Te Ika o Maui, from his great canoe (the South Island). Maui and his brothers struggled with the large fish, beating and slashing it so that it writhed in agony creating the hills and the valleys. When the fish died it became a great land where previously there had been nothing but ocean. The southern part of the North Island is said to be the head of the fish, Te Upoko o te Ika, and Wellington Harbour the mouth of the fish, Te Waha o te Ika.

The explorer Kupe is credited with the discovery of the land and harbour on which Wellington is now situated. Kupe sailed his canoe to New Zealand around 950AD, stopping at various points around the new country including what is now Wellington Harbour.

Over the next 950 years a succession of Maori people from different tribes arrived and occupied the area including Tara and Tautoke, sons of Whatonga from the Mahia peninsula. Tara was sent by his father to inspect the lower North Island in the twelfth century. He returned after a year, declaring that the best place he had seen was ‘at the very nostrils of the island’. It was Tara whose name was given to the harbour, still in use today – Te Whanganui a Tara, meaning ‘the Great Harbour of Tara’.

Tara and his people moved south and were thus the first iwi (tribe) in Wellington, hence named Ngai Tara. Ngai Tara eventually amalgamated with another iwi, Ngati Ira. Other iwi associated with the area were Ngati Kahungunu, Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, iwi from Taranaki and Kawhia migrated from their homelands to settle in and around Te Whanganui a Tara. These included Ngati Toa, Ngati Ruanui, Taranaki, Ngati Tama and Te Atiawa. Their settlements and cultivations ringed the inner harbour, with many kainga (villages) located along the Great Harbour Way. There was frequent contact and trade between the various hapu (sub-tribes) of different kainga, and the harbour was well used as a highway for communication and to gather marine resources. The surrounding bush and streams were all rich sources of food and other supplies – whether it was tuna (eels) from the many streams that fed the harbour, harakeke (flax) from Motukairangi (Miramar Peninsula), or totara for waka (canoes) and whare (houses), from the dense bush further inland to the west, the iwi were in every sense kaitiaki (guardians) of their environment.

European Settlement

Neither Abel Tasman (in 1642) nor Captain Cook (in 1773) entered Wellington harbour, and it wasn’t until the New Zealand Company arrived that European settlement began in earnest. In 1839, led by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the Company bought from Te Atiawa chief Te Wharepouri, 90 percent of the land in Te Whanganui a Tara, around 160,000 acres, in a deal known as The Port Nicholson Purchase (Wellington being so-named at that time, after an Australian harbour master). The remaining 10 percent, to be known as the Wellington Tenths, was to be set aside for Maori. Fifteen Maori chiefs signed the agreement, and received payment of weapons, tools, clothing and the like, although as elsewhere in New Zealand, the legitimacy of this purchase has since been questioned. Today, the Wellington’s Tenths Trust looks after the interests of the more than 4500 descendents of the original ‘tenths’ owners.

European settlement was underway. The harbour was named ‘Lambton’ after the Earl of Durham, then Governor of the New Zealand Company (Lambton was his surname). Wakefield named the town at Te Aro after Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), the famous general and British prime minister from 1828 to 1830. The first anniversary of Wellington was celebrated in 1841, one year after the arrival of the settler ship Aurora, which arrived on 22 January 1840 with 150 settlers after a four-month voyage from England. Other early settler ships included the Tory, Cuba, Oriental, Roxburgh, Adelaide, Glenbervie, Bolton and Coromandel – all remembered in Wellington street names. Settlers were allocated two property lots: an acre in the township, and a back-country block worth £1 per acre. Some settlers were a little surprised when they discovered their estate, purchased sight-unseen, wasn’t exactly ‘flat section, all day sun’!

In fact Wellington began as a settlement with very little flat land, but the 1855 earthquake raised more flat land, stimulating more reclamations. By 1900 Lambton Quay, ‘the beach’ in 1840, was a long way back from the water’s edge of the bustling port town.

Wellington didn’t start out as New Zealand’s capital city. In 1863 the Parliament at Auckland decreed that ‘it has become necessary that the seat of government … should be transferred to some suitable locality in Cook Strait’. The reason? There was concern that the gold-rich southerners of New Zealand would form a separate colony, and a group of Australian commissioners gave the ‘objective’ opinion that Wellington, with its harbour and central location, would suit best. The Parliament at Wellington (population then 4900) sat for the first time on 26 July 1865.

A Modern Capital

Becoming the country’s capital was all very well, but it created few jobs in the days before big government. So Wellington trailed the other main centres until it received some help. The first came from the railways, which from the late 1870s provided better access to the productive farms and townships of the interior. Another leg-up came from the Liberals, who ruled for 21 years from 1890, led for much of that time by ‘King Dick’, creating many state jobs. Under them the ‘Empire City’ flourished, gaining many fine public buildings. From the early 1900s, the cable car and electric trams opened up southern and eastern suburbs to commuters.

Wellington’s port prospered. After the First World War the city’s economy expanded as producer boards, oil companies, and car manufacturers and distributors set up shop. Around the same time, the city became the financial heart of New Zealand, with many imposing bank and insurance buildings springing up in the south Lambton Quay precinct.

The Great Depression checked growth in the early 1930s, but Wellington benefited more than most centres from the election of the first Labour government in 1935: the civil service expanded and state housing took off in the suburbs. It also partnered the city council to put on the optimistic art deco Centennial Exhibition, which drew 2.6 million visitors to Rongotai over the war-clouded summer of 1939-40.

After the war, tariff barriers enabled industry to flourish, especially in the Hutt Valley. Porirua became a manufacturing and distribution centre, and from the late 1960s the Kapiti Coast mushroomed as a retirement and commuting area. ‘Ten Pound Poms’, European migrants, came out to staff factories, but most new workers were Maori (virtually squeezed out of the city since the 1860s), and Polynesians.

The increasing suburban sprawl brought problems. The city retired its trams in the early 1960s, but kept its cable car, suburban trains and buses. Even so, many people switched to private cars, leading to problems for such a compact city. There was an outcry in the 1960s when the motorway cut through the Bolton Street cemetery. The airport reopened after much work in 1959 and from 1962 rail ferries bridged Cook Strait. In 1968, however, a fearsome storm ripped roofs off houses and sank the ferry Wahine with the loss of 51 lives.

A shake-up of a different kind took place 20 years later when free-market policies trimmed the public sector. Tariff reductions and the 1987 share-market crash devastated major employers such as the railways and many of the regions factories. Unemployment soared.

So did building heights. In the early 1980s, earthquake code requirements led to the demolition of many of the city centre’s Victorian/Edwardian buildings. Not all their replacements were good and in the recession many tower blocks opened with ‘to let’ signs in the windows.

The consolidation of the working port around Aotea Quay freed up much of the old waterfront for redevelopment. Frank Kitts Park got a major makeover in the late 1980s, but reaction to some of the new buildings on Queen’s Wharf led to closer public scrutiny of waterfront development, which has since continued at a more restrained pace.

In the 1990s apartment living became popular with many, further fuelling the burgeoning culture. The government conserved some key icons such as Parliament Buildings, the wooden Government Buildings and the Old Bank Arcade, but sadly, unsightly additions and alterations to many more were permitted.

By then the city was rebranding itself as the country’s cultural capital. The New Zealand International Festival of the Arts and a host of other festivals reinvigorated the economy, as did the opening of Te Papa in 1998. Since then the city has developed many more museums, galleries and performance spaces. From his base in suburban Miramar, film producer Peter Jackson presides over ‘Wellywood’ with King Kong and other movies.

Sports fans got the ‘Cake Tin’, the shiny Westpac Stadium, the first major development around the reviving rail yards area. Matiu/Somes Island was opened to the public as a nature sanctuary and at Karori a trust opened a large wildlife reserve dedicated to bringing native birdsong back to the capital.

None of this closed the widening gap between the city and its arch rival, Auckland, whose greater urban area now has almost four times the population of the Wellington urban area. Even so, the residents of Wellington City are New Zealand’s wealthiest, best-educated and cyber-savvy citizens.

 Ecology of the Harbour

Although much of the Great Harbour Way is urbanised, a large part of it is in a relatively natural or regenerative state. Along the route you will see and experience a diversity of interesting natural features and eco-systems, from wild coastline, wetland and inland lakes, to farmland crossings and detours through regenerating native bush – all giving an insight into the life of the harbour before humans arrived …

Wellington’s indigenous vegetation evolved through climate changes spanning many millennia. The tough, small-leaved trees and shrubs and hardy tussocks of the ice ages alternated with warmer periods during which kauri grew here. Few of Wellington’s forest giants remain, and you won’t see the masses of luxuriant epiphytes that perched high and low on them. Tree trunks and any available niche on the ground were clothed in mosses and liverworts competing with ferns and delicate orchids to display their myriad hues and textures.

Early European settlers were astounded at the lush ‘tropical’ appearance of our bush, a contrast to the open, park-like forests they were expecting in these temperate latitudes. Here, tangles of looping lianes such as kiekie, climbing rata and supplejack twined and clung to the massive trunks of totara, pukatea, rimu, miro, matai and kahikatea. Tall tree fern species, ferns-that-are-trees, raised their elegant umbrellas to the canopy or arched their graceful fronds in the dimness of the understory.

Warmer sites were favoured by the candelabra-branched tawa, and by kohekohe, with its cauliflorous flowers sprouting profusely straight from the trunk, in mid-winter. Here too, spiky nikau, our only palm and the southernmost palm species in the world, with its unmistakable columnar trunk and sculptural, bulbous frond bases, flourished in the damp gullies among an extraordinary diversity of fern species.

On the higher slopes, thousands of northern rata reached to over 30 metres high, flowering at Christmas and turning the hills crimson for weeks on end, to the delight of nectar-seeking tui and korimako.

In the north and east, on well-drained spurs, beech forest spread its comparatively uniform canopy. On the swampy valley floors kahikatea towered above, and in the areas of open water were extensive groves of cabbage trees, swamp toetoe and flax.

On the shores of Cook Strait a remarkably rich seaweed flourished. Estuaries teemed with aquatic and salt-tolerant plants in broad, subtle colour bands, and dunes were clothed in a pelt of silver spinifex and golden pingao, with handsome plumes of coastal toetoe waving high overhead.

The best places to go to see native forest in Wellington are Otari-Wilton’s Bush and the native forest remnants in the Botanic Garden. To view birdlife in abundance, visit the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Geography and Geology

Wellington Harbour is more like a lake than a harbour, being up to 28 metres deep and occupying nearly 50 square kilometres. How was it formed?

New Zealand straddles a segment of the collision boundary between two of Earth’s 15 major crustal plates – the Australian Plate (which is moving northwards) and the Pacific Plate (going west). The entire North Island sits on the crust at the very eastern edge of the Australian Plate. The collision between the two plates is responsible for almost all topographic features of the New Zealand landscape.

In the Wellington region, the plate collision is compressing Earth’s crust in an east-west direction, almost like squeezing a corrugated sheet – the ridges go up and the valleys go down. But at the same time, the crust is being sheared sideways so that when the faults move they do so both vertically and sideways at the same time.

There are several major faults in the Wellington region, all of which are considered active – in other words they have all moved in the last 100,000 years. The habour is formed between a master fault, the Wellington Fault, and a set of smaller faults at an angle to it. These faults are all sideways faults with significant vertical movement and they all cut right through the crust, which is about 25 km thick beneath Wellington.

The Hutt motorway snakes along the eroded scarp of the Wellington Fault but the actual fault is tens of metres offshore. It last moved in about 1450AD. It moves, on average, every 400-700 years, and there are claims there is a 10 percent chance it will move within the next 50 years. It could move up to 1.5 m vertically and 3 m horizontally, the earthquake potentially exceeding 7.5 on the Richter Scale.

Some areas of Wellington City are built on reclaimed land or relatively unconsolidated sediment, but most dwellings are built on solid rock or very stiff sediment. Underneath the Wellington region, the hard ‘basement’ rocks of Earth’s crust are known as greywacke, essentially sandstone with a silt or mud content. They are believed to be 215-200 million years old and formed as sea-floor sediment accumulated in horizontal layers. In Wellington the greywacke is almost ‘naked’ – there is just a thin veneer of younger sediment covering it. Most of this sediment is loess, wind-blown sand and silt from the exposed sea floor during successive glacial periods of the Ice Ages. Loess forms the conspicuous yellow-brown clay around Wellington.

Wellington’s buildings are well constructed and designed, and some public buildings are supported by state of the art ‘base isolator’ foundation bearings. You can see one of these up close at Te Papa.

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