Story: Capital city

Page 2. The first two capitals

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When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840 and New Zealand became part of the British Empire, a beginning was made towards establishing a nation, a capital and a government.

Russells old and new

The site of New Zealand’s first capital was bought in 1830 by a London merchant and ship owner, James Clendon, who had established a friendship with local Ngāpuhi chiefs. In 1839 Clendon was appointed the first US consul in New Zealand. Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson purchased Clendon’s property (about 150 hectares) as the site for the colony’s capital. After the capital moved to Auckland, the settlement burned to the ground in 1842. Its name, Russell, was transferred to Kororāreka – today’s Russell. The site of the first Government House, at Okiato, is sometimes referred to as Old Russell.

New Zealand’s first capital

After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840, New Zealand’s first resident governor, William Hobson, established his first official residence – the country’s first Government House. It was located at Okiato, in the Bay of Islands, 7 kilometres south of Kororāreka (the only sizeable European town, but inconveniently situated, insecure and with a reputation for lawlessness). Hobson named the new capital Russell, after Britain’s then secretary of state for the colonies (Lord John Russell).

A second capital

Hobson was subsequently offered land by several Māori chiefs for the purpose of establishing his capital in a more favourable position. The land, some 250 kilometres south of the Bay of Islands on the shores of the Waitematā Harbour, was known as Tāmaki-makau-rau (Tāmaki of a hundred lovers). Hobson accepted the offer, made his purchase and named the site Auckland, after his patron, Lord Auckland, governor-general of India and former first lord of the admiralty. The new town – the colony’s new capital – began to be built on 15 September 1840.

Tough trip

It was not easy for South Island members to travel to Auckland for the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1854. Otago members arrived at Lyttelton on 2 April, but they did not leave for Auckland until 11 May. The steamer took 12 days and they reached Auckland the day before Parliament opened. The ship anchored a mile offshore, and the men were forced to wade in their shoes and stockings through mud and stones. Once on dry land, they had to carry their bags along the shore for half a mile before meeting the carriages sent to pick them up.

Moving to Auckland

The governor’s establishment of his premises there in March 1841 made Auckland, by definition, the colonial capital and the hub of government, politics and official decision-making. The passage by the British Parliament of the New Zealand Constitution Act in June 1852 gave further impetus to what might today be described as a nation-building process. The act provided for the establishment of a colonial legislature, and elections in October 1853 led to the convening of the colony’s first General Assembly (as the legislature was called) in May 1854, in Parliament Buildings erected on a hill in Auckland.

Dissatisfaction with Auckland

There was dissatisfaction with Auckland as the site of a national capital virtually from the outset. In the mid-19th century, communication and transport links between the colony’s scattered European settlements were in early stages of development. There were also provincial rivalries, with those living in Wellington and the South Island resentful of Auckland and the governor’s residence there.

Auckland’s location, far from the centre of the colony, made it an especially unpopular choice for many of those elected to serve in the General Assembly. In addition to the length and discomfort of travel to Auckland, there was also displeasure over the long periods of separation from family, farms and businesses for those serving as representatives in the capital. By the 1860s, partly as a result of the discovery of gold, the South Island had a considerably larger population than the North Island. Moving the capital southwards was also contemplated in part to forestall South Island discontent and possible secessionist tendencies.

How to cite this page:

Stephen Levine, 'Capital city - The first two capitals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Stephen Levine, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Aug 2016