Auckland’s official day of origin less historically relevant than other options but change would be unthinkable.

This year Auckland very successfully celebrated its 175th birthday. But did we celebrate on the right day?

I ask not because Anniversary Day was held on January 27 and not January 29. That change is easily explained. Each year, like most New Zealand cities and towns, Auckland shifts its commemorative day to the nearest Monday so that by combining our Anniversary Day with a Saturday and Sunday, we can enjoy a whole holiday weekend.

But Auckland's birthday is quite unlike that of other New Zealand towns. Take Wellington. Its anniversary date, January 22, is beyond question. It recalls the day in 1840 when an organised group of New Zealand Company immigrants came ashore at Port Nicholson from the Aurora to found the Wellington settlement.

The founding of Auckland by William Hobson could be argued to date from September 1840 or March 1841.
The founding of Auckland by William Hobson could be argued to date from September 1840 or March 1841.

Or Dunedin, whose anniversary recalls Otago's beginnings with the arrival on March 24, 1848, of a group of Scottish settlers led by Captain Cargill and the Reverend Thomas Burns.

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But what does January 29 call to mind in Auckland? Very little. It simply looks back to the day in 1840 when the warship HMS Herald first dropped anchor in the Bay of Islands, carrying Captain William Hobson, the governor-to-be, charged with persuading Maori chiefs to place their lands under British jurisdiction. True, that date signifies much in the story of New Zealand. But has it really much to do with the story of Auckland?

Before thinking about a more fitting birth date for Auckland, something should be said about Hobson, who might fairly be called Auckland's maker. Long before he had collected all the signatures needed for the Treaty of Waitangi, he had decided his first government settlement at Russell was not suitable as a permanent capital. Its site was too cramped and it wasn't central to either Maori or Pakeha settlement. He launched a series of voyages south in search of alternatives.

By the beginning of August 1840 he had made up his mind. He chose Tamaki. He had been influenced by the isthmus' superb marine location. Even more influential was a practical consideration. Because of the musket wars, Tamaki-makau-rau was sparsely settled, and local chiefs led by Te Kawau of Ngati Whatua had already invited the governor to settle in their midst. How convenient for Hobson that there would be no large group of resentful Maori to dispossess!

With this background let's consider the two possible dates that could be said to qualify as marking the founding of Auckland. The first is in September 1840, the second in March of the following year.

On September 16, 1840, the barque Anna Watson arrived in the Waitemata Harbour bearing an advance party which Hobson had sent under a deputy-governor, a retired army officer, Captain William Cornwallis Symonds. This party was made up of officials and mechanics, the term then used to describe tradesmen such as carpenters, pit-sawyers, stonemasons and the like. Two officials, the surveyor-general and the harbourmaster, quickly selected as the heart of the new settlement a small bay at what is now the foot of modern Queen St. This they named Commercial Bay.

That done, an official founding ceremony took place at 1pm on September 18, 1840 on the promontory (later named Pt Britomart) on the eastern side of Commercial Bay, a point demolished long ago for reclaiming land in the vicinity of today's Marsden Wharf. An official party, accompanied by 100 local Maori, gathered on the point to see the Union Jack hoisted on a flagstaff at the base of which a sailor had, that morning, carved with his jack-knife the word "Auckland". This was the name that Hobson had personally chosen for his new crown settlement.

Once the flag fluttered aloft, the Anna Watson and the barque Platina, which had brought a prefabricated bungalow for the governor from England, both stationed in the harbour, combined in firing a 35 gun-salute. The official party on shore responded with "Three cheers and one cheer more". A pioneer account tells us that the health of the young Queen Victoria was then "rapturously drunk" by the party gathered around the flagpole.

After an official luncheon for the officials on the Anna Watson, the first regatta (a prophetic Auckland touch, this) was held on the Waitemata. The two main events were a row-boat race between two Pakeha teams and a fiercely contested Maori canoe race. There were prizes for both groups of winners.

Though this official occasion may seem to qualify as the day that Auckland was founded, a case can equally be made for moving the day forward to March 9, 1841, when Hobson came to live in Auckland, thus converting it into the colony's capital.

The governor, his wife and family arrived at Commercial Bay on the barque Chelydra whose guns honoured the occasion by firing a salute. Accompanied by his officials, Hobson thereupon marched up Shortland St, then the main thoroughfare of Auckland, to the recently assembled Government House. He was escorted, as Dr John Logan Campbell, a bystander, ironically pointed out, by two soldiers playing a single fife and a drum.

Auckland's humble beginning is further underlined by the fact that Shortland St in 1841 was no more than a narrow muddy track walled on either side by manuka scrub more than 2 metres high.

If what I have said rings true, should we change the date of our Anniversary Day? Emphatically no. January 29 has served us well ever since 1876. It falls conveniently in midsummer, provides an ideal holiday break and has built up a wonderful tradition. One need think only of the Anniversary Regatta.

In its early days Auckland was renowned for its large "mosquito fleet", its unique collection of small boats plying its waters for pleasure and profit. Our world-famous anniversary regatta keeps that tradition alive.

The anniversary weekend is a cherished part of the city's heritage. Let's keep it that way.

Russell Stone is emeritus professor of history at the University of Auckland.