Maori legend has it that the explorer Kupe was the first person to discover Wellington harbour. Wellington’s original Maori name was Te Whanga Nui a Tara, Tara being the son of a Maori chief named Whatonga who had settled on the Hawkes Bay coast. Whatonga sent Tara and his half-brother to explore the southern part of the North Island. When they returned over a year later, their reports were so favourable that Whatonga’s followers moved there, founding the Ngati Tara tribe.
The first European settlers arrived in the New Zealand Company’s ship Aurora on 22 January 1840, not long after Colonel William Wakefield arrived to buy land from the Maori. The idea was to build two cities: one would be a commercial centre by the harbour (Port Nicholson) and the other, further north, would be the agricultural hub.
However, the Maori denied they had sold the land at Port Nicholson, or Poneke, as they called it, as it was founded on hasty and illegal buying by the New Zealand Company. Land rights struggles ensued – they were to plague the country for years, and still affect it today.
The city began as a settlement with very little flat land. Originally the waterfront was along Lambton Quay, but reclamation of parts of the harbour began in 1852, and has continued ever since. In the 1850s Wellington was a thriving settlement of around 5000 people. In 1855 an earthquake razed part of Hutt Rd and the area from Te Aro flat to the Basin Reserve, which initiated the first major land reclamation.
In 1865 the seat of government was moved from Auckland to Wellington, due to its central location in the country.
One blustery day back in 1968 the wind blew so hard it pushed the almost-new Wellington–Christchurch ferry Wahine onto Barrett’s Reef just outside the harbour entrance. The disabled ship later broke loose from the reef, drifted into the harbour and slowly sank – 51 people drowned. The Museum of Wellington City & Sea has detailed information on this tragedy.