A Brief History of the Bay of Islands

A short intro to Maori and European history in the Bay of Islands - site of New Zealand's first capital and the first signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Bay of Islands offers fascinating insights into the early days of European colonisation as well as pre-European Maori history.

It is thought Maori tribes first settled in the Bay of Islands briefly in the 10th century, evidenced by sites on Motorua Island. In the 15th century, the Te Awa people came across from Dargaville and occupied the Eastern Bay of Islands for 300 years. In the 17th century, the Nga Manu (now Ngati Manu) tribe occupied the Kororareka peninsula until Nga Puhi arrived in the 19th century and became the dominant tribe of the area. There are hundreds of stories about Maori ancestry, every place name has a tale attached and only by slowly absorbing these tales can you get a true insight into the complexity of this region's history.

Meanwhile, European presence began with Captain Cook, who first landed here in 1769. French explorer Marion du Fresne sailed into Moturua in 1772 and spent some time in the Bay, making repairs to his ship, hunting, fishing and getting to know the Maori tribes. The story of these early explorers, including the grizzly detail of du Fresne’s demise, will be shared in great detail on any of the “Day in the Bay” trips.

The Bay of Islands was not occupied by Europeans until the early 19th century; in fact, Paihia was the site of the first permanent British settlement in New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi – New Zealand’s founding agreement between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Government - was signed in the Bay of Islands on 6 February 1840. Subsequently Waitangi, which lies in the heart of the Bay of Islands, is considered the seat of the country’s rich bi-cultural history. Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to read the manuscript and learn more about life in the early days of colonisation.

Each year, on the 6th February, the Bay comes alive with Waitangi Day celebrations including the spectacle of the Maori waka fleet, cultural performances, presentations by Maori and Pakeha dignitaries and a 21-gun salute from the Navy.

Paihia, just a few minutes’ walk from Waitangi, was the site of the Reverend Henry William’s missionary, established in the 1820s, drawing an influx of Europeans to the region. Across the water in Russell you will encounter a charmingly preserved historical village, formerly known as Kororareka or, less charmingly, the "Hellhole of the Pacific".

Russell was a key whaling and trading post, later tamed by missionaries who built the two oldest remaining buildings - the original church (complete with bullet holes) and Pompalier House, the printing works. Russell is also the site of the famous flagstaff – a symbol of British authority in the Bay – that was felled numerous times by Nga Puhi chief Hone Heke. Just beyond the flagstaff, at Tapeka Point, you find a former Pa site at the end of the peninsula – one of the best viewing platforms in the Bay of Islands.

Up the Kerikeri inlet, which is the western-most finger of the Bay, you’ll find the Kerikeri Basin with New Zealand’s oldest stone building - the Stone Store. This was another missionary site, set up by John Butler – an Anglican missionary – who arrived here in 1819. Not far away from this site, will find the Kororipo pa site, built by Honga Hika’s grandfather, the Nga Puhi chief called Auha. It is believed that prior to Nga Puhi’s arrival in the 19th century the area had been occupied for centuries by a now -obsolete tribe, Ngati Miru.

This is just a very small taste of some of the rich history of the area. To find out more, visit the area’s museums and historical places, take a heritage tour or join the R Tucker Thompson for a traditional sail and a lesson in the area's maritime history.