Gisborne is the principal city and port of the Poverty Bay and East Coast region, north of Hawke’s Bay, with a population of about 31,500 in the town and 44,000 within the boundaries of the Gisborne District Council, set up in 1989 to replace the city council and give the local authority an expanded area.
Surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides and served by a port that takes vessels of limited size, Gisborne is physically the most isolated city in the country. It is built on a rich alluvial delta and has a mild, sunny climate (2,215 hours of sunshine a year on average), temperatures ranging from -2oC in winter to more than 30oC in summer, and an annual average rainfall of 1,079 mm.
The city services an area in which hill country farming predominates, but there is dairying and cropping on the flats with vegetable and fruit-growing.
The region is rich in early history. Young Nick’s Head is named after Nicholas Young, surgeon’s boy on the Endeavour and the first member of the crew to sight the country on 7 October 1769. There is a memorial at the foot of Kaiti Hill, in Gisborne, to the arrival on land there of James Cook on 9 October 1769. On the top of the hill stands an astronomical observatory and statue of Cook, put there to mark the bicentenary of his rediscovery of NZ.
Because of the climate, the rich fertility of the river flats and the abundance of marine life along the shoreline of the region, it was well populated by Maori in pre-European times. It was known to the Maori as Turanga-a-kiwa, ‘the long resting of Kiwa’, who is said to have been a chief in the Takitimu canoe.
When Cook first set foot there on the occasion of his first landing in NZ, he was unable to trade with Maori or gain the food and water supplies he wanted so he christened the region Poverty Bay. (It was believed for many years that Cook landed on 8 October and this is the date on the Cook Memorial at the base of Kaiti Hill; but a careful calculation of the time the navigator would have been using has convinced most historians that the landing took place on Monday, 9 October.)
The first permanent settler was Captain J W Harris, who arrived in May 1831. The town site was bought in 1868, and the survey completed in 1870 when it was named Gisborne after Sir William Gisborne then Colonial Secretary in Sir William Fox’s Ministry. The settlement was constituted a borough in 1877 and a city in 1955.