Wellington's early Māori heritage

Long before European settlers reached New Zealand’s shores, Wellington’s sheltered harbour had been the ancestral home to generations of Māori tribes.

Long before European settlers reached New Zealand’s shores, Wellington’s sheltered harbour had been the ancestral home to generations of Māori tribes.

Evidence of early Māori settlement and cultivation can be found on sites all around the Wellington peninsula.

In downtown Wellington, the Te Aro Pa visitor centre houses remnants of an ancient Māori pa / village dating back to the mid-1800s. It was unearthed in 2005 during the construction of a new central city apartment complex.

Maui’s fish
Wellington’s earliest name - Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui or ‘the head of Maui's fish’ - goes back to the Māori story of how Aotearoa New Zealand was created.

According to Māori the legendary navigator Maui hooked a giant fish that, when pulled to the surface, turned into the land form now known as the North Island or Te Ika Maui.

Various geographical features are said to represent the head of the fish / Te upoko a te Ika, the mouth of the fish / Te Waha o te Ika, and the eye of the fish / Te Whatu o te Ika.

Kupe discovers Wellington
Kupe - a Polynesian explorer credited with discovering Wellington harbour around the 10th century - named several places on the Wellington peninsula including Matiu / Somes Island and Makaro / Ward Island.

Kupe first landed in New Zealand at the tip of the North Island where he went ashore in the Hokianga Harbour. He went on to visit many other parts of the country, and eventually brought his own people to settle New Zealand.

During the next thousand years, several iwi / tribes settled the Wellington area.

Tara’s great harbour
Te Whanganui-a-Tara or ‘the great harbour of Tara’ is another Māori name for Wellington.

When Tara - the son of Polynesian migrant Whatonga who had settled in the Hawke’s Bay region - discovered Wellington in the 12th century, he inspired his father’s people to move south to ‘the nostrils of the island’.

The Ngai Tara, who were the first iwi / tribe to settle in Wellington, eventually merged with other iwi, and since the early 19th century other tribal groups have migrated to the Wellington region.

European settlers
European settlers arrived in Wellington in the early 1840s.

Petone, on the northern end of the harbour, was originally chosen as the site for the new town but the swampy land was unsuitable for development so the settlement was relocated across the harbour.

In 1865 Wellington became the capital of New Zealand, and has been the centre of New Zealand government since then.

Wellington Tenths Trust
Today the manawhenua / local guardianship interests in Wellington city are administered by the Wellington Tenths Trust / Nga Tekau o Poneke, which represents descendants from local Māori tribes.

In addition, Māori with tribal affiliations stretching from the far north to the deep south live and work in Wellington and contribute to the cultural diversity of the city.

Visitors to Wellington can get a rare glimpse into the city's past at the Te Aro Pa visitors' centre in lower Taranaki Street.

The centre contains the preserved foundations of two buildings made of ponga / tree fern logs or whare ponga dating from the 1840s from the Māori settlement of Te Aro Pa.

Remains of the pa - which was occupied between the 1820s and 1880s - were uncovered during construction of a new apartment building. The centre - on the ground floor of the apartment building - is open seven days a week from 9.00am - 5.00pm (no charge for entry), and interpretive signage explains the history of the site and how it has been preserved.

Background: Legend of Maui

According to Māori legend, New Zealand’s North Island was formed during a fishing expedition

The Polynesian navigator Maui is said to have fished up the North Island / Te Ika Maui from his great canoe which became the South Island.

Maui and his brothers struggled with the large fish, beating and slashing so that it writhed in agony creating the hills and valleys. When the fish died, it became a great land where previously there had been nothing but ocean.

The southern part of the North Island is said to be the head of the fish / Te upoko a te Ika; Wellington harbour is the mouth of the fish / Te Waha o te Ika; and Lake Wairarapa - north of Wellington - is the eye of the fish / Te Whatu o te Ika.

Wellington’s harbour developed in the mouth of the fish which formed a lake separated from the sea by a barrier of land.

This lake trapped two taniwha / sea monsters named Ngake and Whaitaitai. Ngake didn’t like being trapped so smashed his way through to the open sea, creating the entrance to the harbour from Cook Strait.

On his way out to sea Whaitaitai got stuck in shallow water as the tide went out. He remained there for centuries, only being revived by the tide washing in and out which prevented him from drying out.

However, in 1460 there was a great earthquake and Whaitaitai was uplifted, and subsequently died, becoming the present day Miramar Peninsula.

His spirit / wairua left him in the form of a bird called Te Keo and flew to a nearby hill and wept. The hill was thus called ‘Tangi te keo’, also known as Mount Victoria. Mount Victoria is now a famous Wellington land mark and a great viewing point over the harbour, city and surrounding area.

More information

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