Kōrero: Otago region

Whārangi 5. The Otago settlement

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From New Edinburgh to Otago

The planned settlement on the shores of Otago Harbour was to be called New Edinburgh, reflecting its Scottish origins. But instead the name Otago was adopted, a version of Ōtākou, the name of the Māori near the entrance to the harbour.

K or G?

‘Otago’ is a version of Ōtākou, the name of a village on Otago Harbour. There is no ‘g’ in written Māori, so people have often assumed that ‘Otago’ is a corruption. However, the Ngāi Tahu dialect uses a hard ‘g’ sound in Ōtākou, while ‘ou’ becomes a long ‘o’ – so the variation in spelling is actually an accurate representation of local pronunciation.

Two Scots, George Rennie and William Cargill, were early promoters of settlement. They allied themselves with members of the Free Church of Scotland, a movement of ministers and their congregations who had left the established church in 1843 in a move towards lay control.

The plan eventually took off in 1847 when the New Zealand Company gained legal title to the Otago block, which it had bought in 1844 for £2,400. Though the name New Edinburgh was foregone in favour of Otago, the new town was called Dunedin – a Gaelic version of Edinburgh.


After a voyage of 100 days, the first emigrant ship, the John Wickliffe, arrived off Otago Peninsula on 21 March 1848, under a ‘sultry ethereal sky, quite of the Italian character’. 1 It entered Otago Harbour in calm, sunny autumn weather two days later.

While only about half of households were Free Church adherents, and there was a significant number of English, the 12,000 immigrants who arrived in the 1850s strengthened the Scots–Presbyterian character of Otago. In 1856 the Reverend Thomas Burns counted 1,000 Presbyterians, 250 Anglicans, 61 independents and 11 Catholics in Dunedin.

Burns, Cargill and the Sabbath

Burns and the layman William Cargill were the leaders of the settlement. Burns was the principal minister. Cargill was the agent for the New Zealand Company, and the first superintendent when the settlement elected a provincial council in 1853, an office he held until his death in 1860. But a number of those in positions of authority – such as justices of the peace – were of English origin. Surveyor John Turnbull Thomson was among them. Through the 1850s he ranged over much of the province, exploring, surveying and naming.

The settlement had a distinctive social and cultural composition. A Sabbath ordinance outlawed games, manual labour, shooting and shop sales on Sunday. Free public primary education, as in Scotland, was also introduced. Prohibitionists wanted to stop the trading and consumption of liquor but they were not successful; hotels did vigorous business, as in other early settlements.

A frontier town

Although socially and culturally distinctive, Otago resembled the settlements established in central New Zealand earlier in the 1840s. Crops were sold to Victoria and Sydney during the Australian gold rushes, and some half a million sheep were profitably pastured by 1861. Successful pastoralists preferred to lease land, and invested in stock, not land or labour. Rural districts closer to Dunedin were more intensively farmed. The town’s residents pursued occupations familiar from Scotland such as shopkeeping, skilled trades and labouring – but on higher wages.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Thomas Ferens, quoted in A. H. McLintock, The history of Otago: the origins and growth of a Wakefield class settlement. Dunedin: Otago Centennial Historical Publications, 1949, p. 244.› Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Otago region - The Otago settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/otago-region/page-5 (accessed 23 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 8 May 2009, updated 1 May 2015