Veteran surveyor, Captain Joseph Thomas, armed with instructions to select, survey and prepare a site for the Canterbury Association settlement, boarded the ship Bernicia, at Gravesend, in July 1848, bound for New Zealand. After a tumultuous journey of almost four months at sea, blighted as it was by foul weather, and even fouler tempers, illness, and several deaths, it must have been a great relief to all on board when, in early November, the lofty peak of Mount Egmont finally came into view.
Though the Wairarapa Valley had been considered, it quickly became apparent to Thomas, and his assistants Charles Torlesse and Thomas Cass, that the South Island district of Port Cooper would be the most amenable site for the new settlement. As well as an abundance of natural resources, including a vast harbour, and extensive and fertile plains, the area offered the distinct advantage of being already largely in the hands of the Crown; Ngai Tahu having sold the bulk of the land under the provisions of ‘Kemp’s Deed’ in June that year.
By the time that John Robert Godley arrived in Lyttelton to take up the reins of leadership, in April 1850, an immense amount had been achieved by Thomas and his men. Large tracts of the countryside had been explored and mapped, and Edward Jollie, who had joined the surveying party in August 1849, had planned and laid out the towns of Lyttelton and Sumner, and the city of Christchurch. When the First Four Ships arrived, in December, settlers were surprised by the amount of infrastructure already established in Lyttelton, including the extensive Immigration Barracks, which would serve as a temporary home for many.
Hot on the settlers’ heels were squatters from Australia, and other parts of New Zealand, who had heard that the land and relatively temperate climate of the region were ripe for pasturage. Anxious to secure their livestock, as well as their financial and human capital, particularly in the face of lagging land sales, Godley saw fit to ease the regulations on pastoral licences hitherto enforced by the Association. Though officialdom took some convincing, in granting the first of his modified licences to the Australian squatter, John Christie Aitken, Godley had, in the eyes of many contemporaries, saved the settlement.
Sources: C. Amodeo & R. Chapman, Forgotten Forty-Niners: Being an Account of the Men and Women who Paved the Way in 1849 for the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850, (Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 2003).
J. Hight & C. R. Straubel (Eds.), A History of Canterbury: Volume I: To 1854, (Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1957).
G. W. Rice, Christchurch Changing: An Illustrated History, (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999).