Where it all began
In 1840 Apihai Te Kawau, the paramount chief of Ngāti Whātua-o-Ōrākei, invited Governor Hobson to establish a new capital on the shores of the Waitematā.
Te Kawau knew the prophecy made by the visionary Titahi; that the warm north wind would bring a paper nautilus upon the sea, that a great post would be erected, and that wisdom would prevail. Te Kawau believed a partnership with Hobson would bring peace and prosperity, and welcomed the European ships, blown in on the warm north wind.
Hobson’s ships anchored in bays separated by cliffs and headlands. On the point overlooking the deepest anchorage, Hobson’s troops raised a flagpole and officially established the new capital.
Three bays quickly adopted a specific purpose; the administrators settled in Official Bay; the tradesmen in Mechanics Bay; and the deepest bay, with the best anchorage, was designated Commercial Bay for trading ships.
As Hobson’s men quickly established a store in the bay, early entrepreneurs led by John Logan Campbell set up tents and began trading. Goods into and out of the new Capital were passed through Commercial Bay, and soon the flax gave way to tents, tracks and buildings. The city had begun.
While the deep water further out was ideal, the beach was shallow, and soon proved difficult for unloading cargo. The first wharf built to reach deeper water is not far from today’s Queen’s Wharf, and so the shaping of Auckland’s shoreline began. Within a decade work to level the cliffs and headlands was underway and the bays were being reclaimed to form deep water quays.
Queen Street was quickly established as the main thoroughfare. The tidal stream that ran there, Waihorutiu, was first controlled, then levied, and eventually all but hidden beneath a plethora of boards and bridges.
As the settlement’s population grew, so too did the challenges of keeping the bays clean. Waihorutiu became known as Ligar’s Canal and was used to wash waste from houses further inland. This persuaded early engineers to pursue the in-filling of the bays as a means to keep the shoreline free from pollution.
Even as the headlands were removed and the original shape of the bays concealed, the nature of the business heart of Auckland remained, and began to overflow. Commercial Bay continued to be the prime connection between sea-borne trade and inland trade at a time when New Zealand had few roads and was dependent on coastal shipping.
Trade blossomed, and records show many of the businesses that set up in buildings in Commercial Bay. Exporters sent New Zealand materials and products back to the United Kingdom. Importers brought in every worldly product. Sails gave way to steam and ever larger ships, many bringing more people from around the world. Generations of New Zealanders can trace their roots back to an arrival in Commercial Bay.
Influential early traders included Dan Ah Chee, who arrived in New Zealand from China in the 1870s. He soon became the preferred supplier of fruit and vegetables to the many ships in the harbour. Ah Chee’s descendants went on to help establish the first FoodTown in 1958.
Great national events have taken place around Commercial Bay, including the departure of troops to fight in the great European and Pacific wars. Years later crowds gathered to greet those servicemen and women that returned.
Today, Commercial Bay is still the home of some of New Zealand’s most important trading companies. Auckland is in another wave of development. The city’s economy is shifting emphasis, from importing goods, to exporting ideas. Established businesses are innovating, new businesses are growing, and Auckland’s trade with the world is booming.
The abundant and sparkling waters of the Waitematā make Commercial Bay the heart of New Zealand’s trade story now, as it has been since 1840.