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Christchurch History, New Zealand

Aotearoa, the land of the long white clouds, more commonly known as New Zealand, has had a rich history from ancient times. Maori tribes populated the islands, and lived undisturbed for millennia, until European colonist arrived in New Zealand in the 19th century. The region of Canterbury was among the first areas to receive the new settlers, and by the middle of the century, Christchurch was already a flourishing city.

Christchurch History – Maori settlements and early colonists

What is known today as Christchurch was already a flourishing Maori settlement before the arrival of the Europeans in the 19th century. Many tribes had settled in the Canterbury area, and small villages were dispersed all over the area. Whaling ships sighted the mountains surrounding Christchurch at the end of 18th century, but only in the early 19th century did the first Europeans step foot on Aotearoa for the first time. Even after that, the various Maori tribes fought with each other until there were hardly any people left when the Europeans began the colonization process. The first Europeans who settled down in Canterbury were German whaler George Hempleman and his wife.

Christchurch History – Colonization process

Beginning with the 1840’s, there was a steady stream of settlers, European and American, who came to inhabit the Canterbury region. In 1850’s, there were about 1000 colonists in the area. However, Christchurch was no more than a few scattered farms. Captain Joseph Thomas, Canterbury Association's Chief Surveyor, was the man who chose the place where the city of Canterbury was going to be built. September 7, 1850 is the day that had changed Canterbury’s history forever. Three ships full of settlers, named after the Christchurch pilgrims, depart from Plymouth, England. The following spring, portions of land were being auctioned, and the colonists began to settle in earnest. Shops were being opened, roads were being built and in the meanwhile, more and more colonists arrived in Canterbury. By this time, Wellington and Nelson were already full-fledged colonies on the rise.

Christchurch was a late colony compared to some of the others, but it developed quickly. Only a year after its establishment, it already had a college, Christ’s College, modelled after Christ Church college in Oxford. In only two years, the city already had a Horticultural Society, and the college had a rugby team!

Christchurch was the first among the New Zealand colonies to become a city by Royal Charter in 1856. This practically makes Christchurch the oldest city in New Zealand, even if it wasn’t the first town founded on the island. This is the period when most of the city’s beautiful gothic buildings were being built by architect Benjamin Mountford. Christchurch City Library was established in 1859, and even nowadays it is based in the same historical building.

Christchurch continued to develop without any obstacles. However, in 1947 it became the scene of the worst fire in New Zealand. Many old buildings were destroyed, and 41 people died in the disaster. However, the city recovered quickly, and in 1974 it hosted the British Commonwealth Games.

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