Port Nicholson & the
settlement of Wellington
Events surrounding the establishment of New Zealands first formal colony.
In searching for this site, Herd visited Stewart Island, Queen Charlotte Sound, Port Nicholson and, having sailed around North Cape, proposed to leave his settlers at Hokianga. So alarmed, however, were the settlers by the apparent ferocity of local Maori (it is believed they witnessed a Haka) that they persuaded Captain Herd to take them across the Tasman to Sydney. So it was that New Zealands first potential settlers became Australians. More visitors were known to have sailed into the harbour between 1826 and 1839. Captain Kent, John Guard, Dicky Barrett and James Heberley were all familiar with the topography and navigation of this natural harbour on Cook's Strait.
In September 1839 three emigrant ships, the Oriental, Aurora and Adelaide, of the New Zealand Company lay at Gravesend ready to sail with nearly 500 passengers to establish the first colony of the Company in New Zealand. A further ship, the Duke of Roxburgh, sailed early in October from Plymouth, and on October 31 the Bengal Merchant sailed from Glasgow with 161 emigrants.
Over 800 people were on these five ships which left England before it was known where the actual settlement was to be, and indeed before it was known if a site had been purchased. A mere five months before their departure, Colonel William Wakefield, in the Tory, had sailed for New Zealand to select a site for the intended settlement, to purchase land from the Maoris and to make arrangements for the reception of a large body of settlers. The Tory was followed in August 1839 by the Cuba which contained the surveying staff of the Company together with a number of labourers. As H W Petre observed in his 1841 publication An Account of the Settlements of the New Zealand Company from personal observations during a residence there, "Before any intelligence was received from Colonel Wakefield, nine emigrant ships sailed from England with orders to touch Port Hardy, in D'Urville's Island for directions, which it was expected that Colonel Wakefield would convey thither, for proceeding to their ultimate destination. This was a bold proceeding on the part of the Company, and still more so on that of the emigrants."
The motives for this act of faith by the emigrants were varied: for some adventure; for others the desire to improve their economic circumstances; others again saw the opportunity to gain independence they could not easily achieve in the Old Country. One thing is certain, the very characteristics that enabled those first emigrants to set out boldly on such a course were also the qualities needed in the new land. Everything had to start from scratch - houses had to be built, bush felled, food grown and strange conditions overcome. And there was also the native people, who must have presented a somewhat fearsome appearance, to whom they had to become accustomed. Remember, by there very appearance the Maori had driven away the first potential settlers in 1826.
But many among the first emigrants who arrived aboard the Aurora must have been disappointed and dis-heartened. The surveyors had only arrived a few weeks before and none of the foreshore at Petone was prepared. The men, therefore, went ashore to work for the Company (the only employer at that stage) and also to make some arrangements for their families, who lived on board until some sort of shelter was prepared. A rough jetty was constructed off the Petone Beach, and the settlers were housed in tents or huts erected by the Maori close to the shore. Within three months the Oriental, Duke of Roxburgh, Bengal Merchant, Adelaide and Bolton, all ships of 400 to 600 tons, arrived after journeys lasting from 124 to 172 days, and the settlement then contained over 1,000 people. According to Petre, their numbers "astonished [the Maoris] and they asked if the whole tribe had come to Port Nicholson!" The Maoris' reaction would have been even greater if they had known that a further eight emigrant ships would bring 1,500 settlers in 1841, and a further 1,000 would arrive on board five ships in 1842.
There were to be found, some compensations for the disorganisation with which they were greeted. Food was abundant and very cheap and the settlers were not dependent on the fruits of their labour or on the Maori for their supplies. The Company saw to it that the supply of provisions was ample and frequent. Flour, cattle and sheep were brought over from New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land ensuring that fresh meat was constantly on sale. Also local foods such as native pigeons, pork, local fish, potatoes, Indian corn and native greens were obtained by trade.
The site of Wellington as we presently know it was "Plan B" for the New Zealand Company. Charts for the new and ambitious city of Britannia had been drawn up in England under erroneous assumptions made about the Hutt River. In the mind of those planning Britannia, the river was likened to a broad, navigable waterway; a Thames, perhaps, of the South Seas. Having arrived on board the Cuba at Petone Beach (Pito-one "End of the Sand" in Maori) Captain Smith and his party of surveyors began laying off the township. Soon, however, dissatisfaction with its location began to arise.
The site for the township was considered to be flood-prone and too open to the elements. Indeed, as these events were unfolding, a heavy flood in the Hutt River occurred to add voice to those seeking a change of location. On April 7th 1840, surveying of the new site at Thorndon on Port Nicholson's southern shores began. The location met with approval (grudgingly from Colonel William Wakefield) from most. A letter written by Samuel Revans (the founder of Wellington's first newspaper) dated April 6th 1840 states "The surveyors go to survey the Lambton site to-morrow, and hope will be enabled to give out the town acres in about three months. I am so enthusiastic about the place that I am almost afraid of being guilty of apparent absurdity in my statements".
The efforts of the New Zealand Company had succeeded in forcing the hand of the British Government. Two months after the departure of the Tory Captain William Hobson R N was sent to New Zealand from Australia with instructions to "treat for British sovereignty". The Tory would therefore arrive in a country already under the protection of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. A flag was erected at the new settlement causing the officials of the New Zealand Company to come into conflict with British Government officials. Hobson sent his officious Deputy, Lieutenant Willoughby Shortland, southward with the Union Jack to set matters straight. Indeed the flag raised by the New Zealand Company was not intended to be their banner of sovereignty. It was, in fact, the flag selected by local Maori Chiefs back in 1834 (an adaptation of the British Naval Ensign and later adopted by Shaw Savill) and accordingly the more correct one to fly over the new settlement.
Thus established, Wellington City began to grow in population, land area and in prominence as an enchanting city on a harbour of stunning beauty. In 1864 it became the seat of New Zealands Central Government occupying a logical position in the centre of the country and the centre of the country's political life. With pride Wellington took on the meaning of its Latin motto "Suprema a Situ" and remains to this day one of the most beautiful harbour capitals in the world.
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