Wellington in 1866, the year after it became the capital (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library, Alexander Fisher Album)
This weekend Wellington celebrates a birthday – 150 years as the capital city of New Zealand. To mark this event, a host of national and local institutions are participating in The Treasures of Wellington, a series of free tours and events. On Saturday Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir will perform on the grounds of Parliament, accompanied by a sound-and-light show about the city’s history. Wellington will be in celebration mode.
Roll back 150-odd years and the mood in Wellington was not only celebratory, but triumphant. In January 1865 the New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian reported that the city was ‘preparing herself to take that station among the New Zealand provinces which her central position and natural advantages have so well fitted her for, and which have marked her as the Capital of the Colony’.
Wellington’s gain was Auckland’s loss. Auckland had been the capital city since 1841, when Governor William Hobson moved his premises from Okiato near present-day Russell in the Bay of Islands, after being offered land in Tāmaki-makau-rau by Ngāti Whātua chiefs. In an era of scattered settlements, basic transport links and painfully slow postal services, Auckland was very far removed from the rest of the population. In 1854 New Zealand’s first head of government, James FitzGerald, proposed moving the capital to a more central location. This first bid was unsuccessful but the issue remained a live one. In 1864, after Parliament passed a resolution to move the capital, three Australian commissioners chose Wellington over Whanganui, Picton, Port Underwood, Havelock and Nelson. The legislators set up shop in Wellington the following year.
The 19th century was a time of fierce provincial and town rivalries as different centres struggled to establish themselves as going concerns. The capital city question provoked disdainful, and at times lurid, commentary in newspapers. The New Zealand Herald, then as now an Auckland paper, heaped scorn upon Wellington, a ‘wretched collection of dirty wooden structures, built partly upon a mud beach, and partly in the space formed by the scarping of the hill which hems the “city” into landward’ (31 March 1865, p. 4). Well-informed people knew that Wellington ‘would not make up a third rate street in Auckland’. The paper described Wellington’s impending new seat of government as:
… a very creature of Frankenstein…. The monster, however disgusted with its existence in such a spot has, like its prototype, destroyed one after another of the dearest objects of its creator’s affections. It clings to him with pertinacity, returns gibbering and grinning to him from time to time with the evidence in its hands of some new disaster which it has worked for him. (New Zealand Herald, 24 March 1865, p. 4)
Papers in rival centres like Christchurch, not facing a great loss as Auckland was, could indulge in a little pompous, self-satisfied commentary:
The great difference between the South and the North is that here the question of self-interest is really never thought of. It is no exaggeration to say so. We talk of all parts of the colony as parts of a common country having common interests. In Auckland they talk of nothing but Auckland. (Press, 14 January 1864, p. 2)
It’s fun to browse through the newspapers of the time and have a good laugh at the duelling colonials, but things are not so different now. In 2013 Prime Minister John Key told a meeting of Auckland businesspeople that Wellington was dying, much to the chagrin of many Wellingtonians, who vociferously defended the health of their city. Then-Labour Party leader David Shearer retorted, ‘This is absolutely negatively John Key talking about Wellington, it’s a vibrant city, anybody that drives down to Courtenay Place on a Thursday or Friday night knows that’. Perhaps in another 150 years readers will chuckle over statements like this.