Canterbury Province Whitehall Plaque

The Canterbury Province Whitehall Plaque, is especially of interest if you or your family come from the South Island or if you are interested in the history of the first European settlers.

The plaque signifies the spot where it was officially agreed a special European settlement should be set up in Canterbury in New Zealand by the officials in Britain at the time. So if you would like to know where the name of the Canterbury province and its main city Christchurch was decided, it was all signed off right here at this spot.

For a quick snapshot of context around European settlement, it’s interesting to be aware of the fact that New Zealand has one of the shortest human histories in the world. Not everyone agrees on exactly when it was first settled by humans but New Zealand’s official history site Te Ara says generally the understanding is the first people came from East Polynesia in  the late 13th century (that is the late 1200s), the ancestors of the Māori.

Therefore the tangata whenua or the local people of the ancestral land, later known as the Māori, were there for hundreds of years before the first Europeans became aware of New Zealand’s existence in 1642 when Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer, discovered New Zealand. Not until 127 years later was another visit made by Captain James Cook and then following this there were other explorers, merchants, sailors and traders all paying visits.

By the time the  Canterbury Association decided to send settlers to New Zealand, Europeans had been officially settled in New Zealand under the Treaty of Waitangi for ten years. The Treaty of Waitangi, an important founding document in New Zealand’s history, was set up as an agreement between 500 Māori chiefs and the British Crown and resulted in the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand by Lieutenant Governor William Hobson in May 1840.

So New Zealand was all very much new territory for the British when eight years later after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, on 27 March 1848, the Canterbury Association met in London and planned the settlement of the Canterbury province. The association was supported by British MPs and English peers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.

They appointed John Robert Godley, an Irish born political personality at the time, as the Officer to lead the new colony which was going to head to Canterbury via a fleet of ships. It was agreed the main city of the new colony was to be called Christ Church, after the Oxford College John Robert Godley attended. Of course it is now known as Christchurch. At the time the address of this plaque was 41 Charing Cross, London but it’s now renamed Whitehall. 

Why did the leaders of the Canterbury Association choose what is now known as Canterbury as a chosen place to settle?  It had good natural resources, fertile plains and hosted a large harbour. It sits to the east of the highest mountain range in Australasia, the Southern Alps, which runs all the way down the South Island, making the land very fertile and rich.

In April 1850 Godly arrived in Port Cooper (now known as Lyttelton) accompanied by his wife and eight months later in December 1850 he greeted the first fleet of English settlers on what is often known as the First Four Ships (and could also be termed the Last Four Ships).

By then, Canterbury had another attraction, because unlike some other regions in New Zealand, the area was already largely in the hands of the British Crown because the Māori tribe Ngai Tahu had sold a lot of the land in June of 1850, six months before the Canterbury Association colonists arrived.

Because the land had been acquired it was able to be divided up and sold to the new arrivals who settled there. Canterbury became well known for wool production  and agriculture.

John Godley, who is since often described as the first European founder of ‘Canterbury’, actually ended up only living in Canterbury for two years before he returned to Britain. Godley believed that the Canterbury Association’s purpose was to found Canterbury, not to rule it. He also thought that the colony should be self-governing and that the people that arrived there should run the colony and not be dictated to by the British Government. He was a big advocate for self-government of the British colonies.

A very easy to read summary of the First Four Ships experience, who went and what it was like as a voyage can be read here at the Christchurch City Library website.

Another much more comprehensive summary from the Christchurch City Library on the first early settler history of Canterbury can be read here.

Recommended Reading:

The Runaway Settlers by Elsie Locke

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