Auckland. Christchurch. Wellington. New Zealand has several influential cities that are well-known around the world and are the cultural hubs of the island country. This leaves many people uncertain about which has the distinction of being the capital or if New Zealand, like South Africa, has more than one.
At present, New Zealand has one national capital. Additionally, there is one important city in each of its constituent regions that hosts the seat of the regional council, serving as the de facto regional capital.
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The capital of New Zealand is the North Island city of Wellington. However, this has not always been the case.
From its beginnings as a land inhabited by Māori tribes to its days as a British colony to its present status as an independent nation, New Zealand has seen the seat of government change several times.
Let’s take a look at the cities that have had the honor of being named the capital of New Zealand.
New Zealand’s First Capital: Okiato (Old Russell)
The first capital of New Zealand was a small, relatively obscure town in the north of the country. Now mainly known by its Māori name Okiato, it was renamed “Russell” by the British Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson.
To understand why it was the capital, we have to take a look at the history of New Zealand.
Something that many people do not realize is that the North and South Islands of New Zealand were the last large habitable landmasses to be discovered and occupied by human beings. They were first occupied by Polynesian settlers between about 1280 and 1350.
European contact began in 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed by and left after a brief and violent encounter with a local tribe. Over a century later, in 1769, James Cook mapped out the coastline of the islands. After this, European visits became more frequent. However, the local Māori tribes maintained independence until 1840.
Fearing an invasion from France, the United Tribes of New Zealand declared themselves an independent nation and asked the United Kingdom for protection, appealing to King William IV. This backfired, as the UK’s Colonial Office sent William Hobson to claim New Zealand for the British Empire and sign a treaty with the Māori.
After signing the Treaty of Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, Hobson bought out the nearby land of Okiato, then a trading station, and established New Zealand’s first capital there.
However, Russell did not remain capital for long. Only a year later, New Zealand was declared a separate colony from New South Wales (Australia) and the capital was moved, along with most of the residents to a less remote location.
After this, Old Russell had so few inhabitants that the name “Russell” started to apply to the nearby settlement of Kororāreka, which is now known as Russell, while Old Russell reverted to its original Māori name. Today, both towns have small populations of just a few hundred people each and are great destinations for fishing and sailing on the Bay of Islands.
New Zealand’s Second Capital: Auckland
Auckland is widely recognized as New Zealand’s second city and is frequently confused for the capital. To this day, it is the largest city in the country.
Auckland was, in fact, the capital of New Zealand from 1841 to 1865. The British Governor William Hobson relocated the center of administration here from Russell after the land was offered by Apihai Te Kawau, the chief of the Ngāti Whātua Māori, in exchange for protection and a closer relationship with the British and the Church.
New Zealand became self-governing in 1854. The first General Assembly met in Auckland in May of that year. However, it quickly became clear that the location was not ideal for everyone. Many MPs from the South Island complained of the difficulty of traveling so far north and it was decided to move the capital once again.
Auckland remains an important and impressive city despite having lost the status of capital. It is a cultural hub and a center of arts and sports. It plays host to the Auckland Festival, the Auckland Triennial, the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, and the New Zealand International Film Festival, among others.
With impressive buildings, parks, museums, and natural landmarks, Auckland is a key destination for many international travelers visiting New Zealand—and with good reason.
New Zealand’s Third Capital: Wellington
Since 1865, Wellington has served as the capital of New Zealand. Prior to this, it had been a seasonal Māori settlement and then a British town after the land was bought by the New Zealand Company.
In Māori, Wellington is known as Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Pōneke, and Te Upoko-o-te-Ika-a-Māui. Its English name was given in honor of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington and victor of the Battle of Waterloo.
After over a decade of debate about moving the seat of Parliament from Auckland, it was decided that a more central location would be chosen. Wellington was selected for its position at the southern tip of the North Island, making it relatively easy to reach for representatives from all parts of the country.
Wellington is the world’s southernmost national capital city. It is New Zealand’s third-largest settlement and has been described as one of the world’s most livable cities.
One of New Zealand’s most visited locations, Wellington has some truly impressive sights. The Old Government Buildings are some of the largest wooden buildings on Earth, surviving from 1876, while various examples of 19th-century Gothic Revival architecture and Edwardian architecture can be found throughout the city.
Popular attractions include the Wellington Cable Car, Wellington Museum, Wellington Zoo, and the Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary.
Wellington also has a filmmaking hub in the suburb of Miramar, where several of Sir Peter Jackson’s companies, such as Weta Workshop, are based. Various films have been wholly or partly produced here, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King King, and Avatar.
Regional “Capitals” of New Zealand
Each of New Zealand’s 16 regions is administered by an authority or council based in an important city within the region, making these cities de facto regional capitals.
Regional capitals of the North Island include:
- Whangarei (Northland)
- Auckland (Auckland)
- Hamilton (Waikato)
- Whakatane (Bay of Plenty)
- Gisborne (Gisborne)
- Napier (Hawke's Bay)
- Stratford (Taranaki)
- Palmerston North (Manawatu-Wanganui)
- Wellington (Wellington)
In the case of the Taranaki region, it could be argued that New Plymouth is the de facto regional capital as it is the largest city and is home to 65% of the population.
The South Island regional capitals are as follows:
- Richmond (Tasman)
- Nelson (Nelson)
- Blenheim (Marlborough)
- Greymouth (Westcoast)
- Christchurch (Canterbury)
- Dunedin (Otago)
- Invercargill (Southland)
As the largest and most influential city on the South Island and the second-most populous in the whole of New Zealand, Christchurch deserves a special mention. It is often regarded as the de facto capital of the South Island.