Digging into placenames inescapably pushes us into our own colonial history. The colonists came seeking a new and better life, but Britain was still home. Old patrons and old heroes remained.
Britain hadn’t made life easy for the New Zealand Company, but on the muddy shores of Port Nicholson the company’s Principal Agent, Colonel William Wakefield, patriotically chose “Britannia” as the name for his fledgling settlement.
Governor Hobson approved. So did the New Zealand Gazette which promptly added “Britannia Spectator” to its name. On August 22, 1840, it commented: “It [Britannia] is a good name, because till now unappropriated by any town … and further, in being agreeably associated in the minds of all Britons with their fatherland …”
Colonel Wakefield’s superiors were unimpressed. Their displeasure surfaced in an “earnest wish” that the town be named after the Duke of Wellington “… to commemorate the important support His Grace had lent to the cause of colonisation.”
Head office’s “earnest wish” could not be ignored. On November 28, 1840, just four months after the New Zealand Gazette and Britannia Spectator had lauded the choice of name for the embryo town on Lambton Bay, the journal announced further change. “Wellington” had replaced “Britannia.”
The Gazette, now incorporating “Wellington” in its masthead, again approved: “The directors always contemplated calling the town of their principal settlement after the illustrious warrior of modern times … The directors of the New Zealand Company have made this settlement familiar to thousands throughout Great Britain by associating it with the name of the Great Captain of the Age…”
Meantime, life in the Bay of Islands wasn’t proving easy for Governor Hobson. He was unsure where the capital of the new colony should be. Eventually, he settled for a location a few miles along the beach from brash and booming Kororareka and named it “Russell”. He was honouring “the courage and the capacity” of Lord John Russell who, as Colonial Secretary a year earlier, had bluntly rejected New Zealand Company claims that Cook’s landing on New Zealand soil had vested sovereignty in Britain.
Kororareka settlers were not amused. Russell beame “Hobson’s Folly”, doomed from the start. Kororareka was the biggest and bawdiest town in the colony; the land speculators had been busy and everyone confidently expected it would be named the capital. The settlers who wouldn’t then accept “Russell” were not to know that a few years later the name would drift along the beach and be adopted almost without question by Kororareka.
With Russell unacceptable, Hobson sought an alternative. He crossed to the Hokianga, found a site suited to his purpose and named it “Churchill”. But like the original Russell, Churchill remained a mark on a map. Before the surveyors moved in Hobson discovered the Waitemata. His search was over.
There was no European settlement there — something Hobson’s detractors in newly-named Wellington were quick to point out — but the potential was great. He called the place Auckland and a debt was repaid. Three years earlier Lord Auckland, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had recalled him from obscurity as a retired naval officer on half-pay and won him command of the India Station ship Rattlesnake. His voyage to New Zealand in 1837 marked him for greater things.
To the chagrin of Wellington — which had petitioned the Governor “humbly expressing the hope of the [Wellington] settlers that His Excellency would decide upon fixing the seat of Government at a spot so admirably adapted for it as Port Nicholson…” Auckland mushroomed and grew rich.
The genesis of an ongoing rivalry between the two cities was established.
More importantly, a pattern had been set. The names of Britain’s great and famous proliferated as new settlements appeared. Palmerston in both the North and South Islands nodded deferentially towards the Foreign Secretary who had given Hobson his Governor’s brief. Nelson honoured the hero of Trafalgar; Napier remembered “one of the greatest and best Indian Captains”; Alexandra took the name of the Danish Princess who was to become consort of Edward VII; Gladstone in the Wairarapa and in Southland paid tribute to a British Prime Minister; Lawrence remembered the defender of Lucknow.
Auckland remained the capital for a quarter of a century but pressures of politics and growth, coupled with strident calls for South Island independence unless political and geographic imbalances were remedied, saw the seat of Government transferred to Wellington in 1865.
Even then, there was something to make Auckland smile wryly. It took an invited commission of Australians to direct the Government into change.