Wellington, near the southern end of the North Island is the capital of NZ, and is the second largest urban area with a population of 326,000, including the Hutt Valley to the north, and the Porirua Basin also to the north but on the west coast.
The original site for Wellington city, chosen in 1839 by Colonel William Wakefield, the NZ Company agent, was at the southern end of the Hutt Valley where present-day Petone is located. It was moved after only a few days to its present site in the Lambton Harbour inlet, following flooding of the Hutt River. It was also thought that the present site was a better defensive position against hostile Maori.
Wellington Harbour in Port Nicholson which covers 18 km², is almost land-locked and, apart from some danger in extremely bad weather at the narrow entrance, is considered to be one of the finest deep-water harbours in the world. It was first explored in 1826 by Captain Herd, and it was the harbour that clinched the decision of Colonel Wakefield to site the first organised settlement of the NZ Company here.
Because of its central geographical location, Wellington is pivotal to domestic land, sea and air transport systems. It was this central position which caused the seat of government to be moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1865, and which has ensured that Wellington continues to be the country’s major administrative centre. The city has enjoyed great prosperity in recent years, with its downtown commercial and administrative area being virtually rebuilt. It now has the most modern skyline of any city in NZ. Reasons for this building programme have been the high earthquake risk of the area leading to the condemning of the older buildings, and the scarcity of land within the constricted amphitheatre of the city site. Industrial development has almost all been in the Hutt Valley and Porirua Basin, but the lack of rich accessible hinterland has limited the commercial expansion of Wellington and, had it not been for the status of national capital, development would have been restricted. The city is near the edge of Cook Strait, which acts as a wind funnel for the westerlies. This has earned it the reputation of one of the windiest cities anywhere in the world’s temperate zones.
The Maori inhabitants at the time of the earliest European settlement were the Ngai Tara and the Rangitane tribes, living in villages clustered around the edge of the harbour. When the first shipload of NZ Company settlers arrived aboard the Aurora in January 1840, however, Wellington and the Hutt had been recently settled by various tribal groups, mainly from the Taranaki district. Wellington was declared a borough in 1842 and a city in 1903. The name of the city and province honours the first Duke of Wellington, in recognition of his support for the NZ Company scheme and was decided upon by the directors of the company in May 1840.
The Province of Wellington, declared and defined in 1853, originally included all the land in the North Island south of the 39th parallel, east of a line from Patea to the Whanganui River and running along the river. This was reduced in 1858, when the newly-formed Hawke’s Bay Province took a large bite out of the north-eastern area of the province. Wellington had a difficult start, because of its location in an area which posed development problems — broken, heavily forested country — and the first farming on any scale came after 1844, when a group of settlers moved into the Wairarapa to graze sheep.
Wellington and the region surrounding Cook Strait have been rocked by earthquakes since the very first year of European settlement — 1840. In 1848 the settlement was half destroyed by heavy shocks and many people left the area, never to return. Probably the biggest recorded earthquake in NZ occurred in 1855, being felt on both sides of Cook Strait. It caused a major land upheaval along the fault line near Wellington, lifting land on which the Hutt Road was built, and killing 12 people. There were further shocks in 1868, 1890, 1897, 1904, 1913, 1914 and 1942.