Southland, the southernmost region of NZ, covers about 32,000 km² and has a population of a shade over 100,000, down from about 108,000 in 1980. Its boundary with Otago extends south-east from the vicinity of Milford Sound and skirts the southern edge of Lake Wakatipu before following a southerly course to the coast just south of Balclutha.
Southland is a region of definitive contrasts. Its south-west coast, Fiordland, is a rugged remote region of fiords and forested wilderness area covering 1,209,485 ha and is the largest national park in NZ. It is also the most isolated, least tamed and wettest region with Milford South recording an average of 7,274 mm of rain a year.
By contrast, Fiordland adjoins a pastoral district where intensive sheep farming on fertile alluvial plains has shaped Southland into a highly productive agricultural region.
Southland became a province in 1861 by achieving its independence from Otago province (established 1853). Nine years of heavy spending and migration losses to northern goldfields resulted in Southland’s bankruptcy, forcing it to rejoin its more prosperous northern neighbour in 1870. Southland, now a local government region, has continued to be termed, popularly if not properly, a province.
Invercargill (population 52,000) is the principal city. Gore, 65 km to the north-east, is the second centre, a thriving market town, with a population approaching 13,000. Invercargill was for many years the fifth biggest city in NZ but since World War Two has fallen behind such provincial centres as Hamilton, Palmerston North and Napier.
Pre-European settlement of Southland by moa-hunters was intensive, with the giant bird hunted to extinction by the Waitaha, Ngati-Maoe and possibly Ngai-Tahu tribes. James Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to set foot in Fiordland when, in 1772, during his second voyage, he repaired his ship at Dusky Sound. Cook had previously viewed Fiordland during his first voyage in 1770. From 1792, sealers from New South Wales frequented the coast, almost exterminating Fiordland’s fur seals by the 1820s. They were followed by whalers who, as their prey similarly declined, pioneered European settlement of Southland. The first settlement, Jacob’s River (now Riverton) was established in 1834 by Captain John Howell, a whaler who received 20,000 ha from a Maori chief as a marriage dowry. Other communities were set up at Preservation Inlet and Bluff. Most of Southland became available for settlement in 1853 with the Government’s purchase of the Murihiku block (‘end of the tail’).
The arrival of Scottish settlers from Dunedin in the new territory was followed in 1856 by the proposal to found the town of Invercargill (named after Cargill, Dunedin’s co-founder). Within three years Invercargill’s population numbered nearly 1,000. In 1871, with nearly 2,000 people, it became a municipality.
Southland is served by the Port of Bluff, 27 km south of Invercargill, an all-weather mechanised port with a prosperous fishing fleet to harvest Bluff oysters from Foveaux Strait. NZ’s only aluminium smelter — owned by Comalco of Australia (80 per cent) and Sumitomo of Japan (20 per cent) — is at Tiwai Point, near Bluff, powered by electricity from the vast underground power station at Lake Manapouri.
The region’s Scottish heritage has produced one of the few regional indicators in New Zealand speech, the burred ‘r’.