Māori tradition has it that the explorer Kupe was first to discover Wellington Harbour. Wellington’s original Māori name was Te Whanganui-a-Tara (great harbour of Tara), named after the son of a chief named Whatonga who had settled on the Hawke’s Bay coast. Whatonga sent Tara and his half-brother to explore the southern part of the North Island. When they returned more than a year later, their reports were so favourable that Whatonga’s followers moved there, founding the Ngāi Tara tribe (now known as Muaūpoko and based around the Kapiti Coast).
By the time that Colonel William Wakefield arrived in 1839 to purchase land on behalf of the New Zealand Company, the Wellington area was split between three iwi (tribes), Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa and Te Āti Awa. On 22 January 1840 the first European settlers arrived in the New Zealand Company’s ship Aurora, expecting to take possession of land that the local Māori denied selling. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed a few weeks later, and in the years that followed the Land Claims Commission was established to sort out the mess. Initially it attempted to act fairly to both sides but as the decades went on, the balance shifted in favour of the new arrivals.
By 1850 Wellington was a thriving settlement of around 5500 people, despite a shortage of flat land. Originally the waterfront was along Lambton Quay, but reclamation of parts of the harbour began in 1852. In 1855 a significant earthquake raised many parts of Wellington, including the lower Hutt Valley and the land on which the modern Hutt Rd now runs.
In 1865 the seat of government was moved from Auckland to Wellington, although it took until the turn of the century for the city to really flourish. In the early 1900s the port prospered, with export boards and banks springing up in its surrounds. Other industries developed, pushing urban sprawl further afield into the Hutt Valley, Porirua and the Kapiti Coast.
In modern times, the capital remains a stronghold of the public service, despite ongoing trims. It also boasts a good quotient of technological and creative industries.