Story: Canterbury region

Page 6. Discovery and settlement

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The Māori past

Canterbury was first settled by Māori 600–700 years ago. They lived mainly beside the productive wetlands near the coast, and around Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) and Wairewa (Lake Forsyth) – renowned eel and flounder fisheries.

Horomaka (Banks Peninsula) was important because it combined the resources of forest and sea. Artefacts have also been found inland, at summer camps for expeditions to gather moa and weka, eels and rats.

Ngāi Tahu

Canterbury lies within the traditional boundaries of the main South Island iwi (tribe), Ngāi Tahu. Originally from the North Island’s east coast, the Ngāi Tahu people migrated south to Wellington, and then to the South Island. As they moved south they fought several battles with two tribes already living there, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha, and today’s tribe members are linked to these earlier peoples. By the end of the 18th century Ngāi Tahu had reached Foveaux Strait, at the foot of the South Island, and occupied the West Coast.

The most important was at Kaiapoi, a centre of trade in pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast. In the early 1830s it was sacked by the Ngāti Toa chief, Te Rauparaha, but his raids from the North Island did not succeed. Ngāi Tahu kept their ownership of Canterbury.

Rivers revert

Since European settlement, relatively few local Māori place names have remained, but three rivers keep their original names. The English names of Courtenay for the Waimakariri, Cholmondeley for the Rakaia and Alford for the Rangitātā did not catch on.

European discovery

Lieutenant James Cook sighted the Canterbury coast in 1770, but did not land. From well offshore he mapped Banks Peninsula as an island. The first recorded European landing came in 1815 or 1816, when a sealing ship put into Akaroa to trade for potatoes and flax.

In the 1830s, whaling ships began anchoring in Port Cooper (Lyttelton Harbour) and Akaroa Harbour. Shore whaling stations were established in the southern bays of Banks Peninsula.

Organised settlement

Signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi were gathered at Akaroa in 1840, opening the way for British settlement. But organised settlement began when a French captain founded the Nanto-Bordelaise Company, which sent out French (and German) settlers who arrived in August 1840. Though British sovereignty had been proclaimed by this time, the French settlers stayed to found Akaroa.

From a Banks Peninsula whaling station, a small party of Englishmen set out in 1840 to establish a farm on the plains. After 18 months at Putaringamotu (Riccarton), they abandoned the venture. But in 1843 brothers John and William Deans returned to the same site to found the first permanent European settlement on the plains.

Land purchase

Most of the region was purchased from Ngāi Tahu by the government in 1848. In an atmosphere fraught with misunderstanding, 16 Ngāi Tahu chiefs signed a deed prepared by Commissioner Henry Tacy Kemp at Akaroa on 12 June. This allowed them to keep their settlements and food-gathering sites as well as other reserves. But when the land was surveyed later that year, many of the reserves agreed in the Kemp Purchase were reduced or ignored. The people of Ngāi Tahu never gave up their claim for compensation.

The Canterbury Association settlement

In 1848 the Canterbury Association was founded in England, inspired by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and John Robert Godley, to start a settlement in New Zealand. They sent out Captain Joseph Thomas, who was not deterred by the swamps lack of timber, and tricky access between port and plains. He had laid out the port town of Lyttelton and the plains town of Christchurch, and begun a road over the Port Hills, by the time the first settlers arrived.

The first four Canterbury Association ships (the Randolph, Cressy, Sir George Seymour and Charlotte Jane) arrived in December 1850. By 1853, 3,549 settlers had arrived. Of these, 400 were land purchasers and the rest mostly labourers and servants. The association’s goal was to replicate England’s stable, class-based society in Canterbury.

Exploring the interior

The northern mountains were explored by men trying to find ways to bring sheep from Nelson and Marlborough into Canterbury. Routes were discovered from the upper Clarence River onto the Hanmer Plain in 1850–51.

Another aim was to find routes over the Southern Alps. Leonard Harper had a Māori guide when he crossed Harper Pass in 1857. The main routes to the West Coast goldfields – Arthur’s Pass and Browning Pass – were crossed in 1864 and 1865 respectively. In the 1860s, Julius Haast, as Canterbury provincial geologist, penetrated most of the mountain valleys. But remote areas of the alps were not explored until the 1930s.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury region - Discovery and settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015