According to Maori tradition, the Polynesian explorer Kupe is credited with first discovering Wellington Harbour around 900 AD. The area was slowly populated through a series of migrations from South Pacific islands and hilltop fortresses were established around the harbour. Although European explorers were active in the Pacific from the end of the 17th century, the first significant voyage of discovery was undertaken by Captain Cook and the crew of the Endeavour in 1769. The arrival in Wellington harbour of the Tory, the New Zealand Company ship, in September 1839, heralded the beginning of European settlement: Colonel William Wakefield, Company representatives and Maori chiefs signed the Port Nicholson Purchase Deed and the first settlers arrived on the Aurora in 1840. Wakefield settlements were established in Wanganui, Nelson, New Plymouth and Wellington, thus renamed in 1840 in honour of the Duke of Wellington, one of the patrons of the New Zealand Company.
British sovereignty was officially established through the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and Anglo-Saxon culture started to take a hold. Relations with the Maori soon deteriorated, leading to the New Zealand Wars in the North Island, a series of conflicts that were to last 30 years and large areas of Maori land were confiscated by the government.
Faced with growing levels of unemployment, Wellington City Council undertook a number of projects in the 1920s: planting trees, levelling sand dunes and building roads; Nairnville and Western parks date from that period.
The shipping industry continued to play a key role in Wellington’s economy, though the city’s maritime history also sadly includes a number of tragedies, the most recent of which was the passenger ferry Wahine that ran aground and sank at the entrance of Wellington Harbour on 10 April 1968 with the loss of 51 lives.
The 1970s saw the construction of the new motorway; the City Council also introduced new stringent earthquake resistance standards and dozens of elegant Victorian buildings in central Wellington were torn down and replaced with high-rise buildings. The 1970s also marked the resurgence of Maori culture thanks to the Waitangi Tribunal: initially set up to investigate unlawful land acquisitions, it also made the Maori language New Zealand’s second official language, giving it equal status in schools and government departments.
New Zealand has met the new millennium head-on, secure in its dual Maori and European heritage and thanks to high levels of investments in recent years, Wellington has become a vibrant centre, worthy of its capital status, a city which attracts visitors from around the world and was ranked fourth in a survey of the Top ten cities to visit in 2011.
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