[tabs titles=”Introduction, Pre-European, Pre Treaty, Treaty Onwards” width=”small”][pane]Russell/Kororareka’s colourful and varied past makes it unique in New Zealand. The sea runs through its history from Maori waka to whaler, coastal steamer to game fish launch, yacht to tour boat.

Artwork on the outside rear wall of Russell Museum by local artist Helen Pick depicts three eras of Russell’s history. Images show pre-European arrival by canoes, the coming of the whalers and the vessels that brought Europeans to these shores.

Despite good road access the peninsula still has an island quality and a sense that history and heritage are treasured. It is a community that welcomes visitors and new residents but keeps its village flavour.

The settlement, nestled between green headlands, shows signs of its past in street names and building styles. The wharf, built originally in 1879 is still the main route into the town. Before road access was put through in the 1930s visiting steamers tied up here as they brought supplies and travellers.

Buildings line the waterfront still – many historic like the Duke of Marlborough hotel (the 4th on the site) and the Victorian Gothic Customhouse (now our police station).

At the south end of the waterfront sits Pompallier House, site of the first Roman Catholic Mission to New Zealand. Established in 1842 it is now restored to its original French Lyonnaise style, the only one of its type in the country. Leather making, printing and bookbinding can be seen once again.

One street inland Pompallier’s “rival” the Anglican Christ Church is the oldest existing church in New Zealand and has also been restored – except for the musket ball holes in the old weatherboards, visible reminder of the fierce fighting near the church during the 1845 Battle of Kororareka.

Above the town on Maiki (the high place) Hill stands a flagstaff, originally the symbol of British authority and cause of conflict between Maori and the British which led to 1845’s battle. It flies New Zealand’s original flag twelve days a year.

Settlement has spread during the twentieth century to the outskirts of the town – Long beach/Oneroa, Matauwhi, Tapeka, Te Wahapu but on headlands, in valleys and on the coast evidence still exists of earlier Maori occupation.


Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand Russell was known by its Maori name, Kororareka. It was just one of many small settlements in Pewhairangi/Bay of Islands region whose numbers increased seasonally as inland Maori came to the coast to fish. The region covered not only the bay but also areas inland including Kerikeri, Waimate, Kaikohe and Kawakawa.

Legend has it that Kororareka is named after a broth made from the little blue penguin which was given to a Maori chief wounded in battle. He was believed to have said “Ka reka te korora – how sweet is penguin”, leading to the town’s name. Today, little blue penguins still come ashore after dark on the beach at Russell/Kororareka to nest under the floorboards of waterfront buildings.

Originally home to the Ngare Raumati iwi (tribe), it is now also home to Ngapuhi, the largest iwi in New Zealand. who had originally arrived in voyaging waka about a thousand years ago. In the 1800’s the iwi expanded eastwards from their Taiamai base pushing out the older tribe.

The earliest European explorers visiting the Bay spoke of a well-populated area, with extensive gardens and people willing to trade and interested in the visitors. (We still are!).

James Cook anchored off Motuarohia Island, just off the Russell peninsula in November 1769. He sent his boats to visit some of the islands and bays, finding “several little plantations planted with potatoes and yams” and people willing to trade “quantities of various sorts of fish which we purchased off them”. He noted villages and kumera gardens. “The place of the country appears green and pleasant” and the soil “pretty rich and proper for cultivation”. His overall impression of the Maori people of the Bay was that they were “far more numerous than at any other place we have yet been in and seem to live in friendship with one another”.

The French explorer Dumont d’Urville on his first visit in the 1820s records the beginnings of European contact and influence, with Maori involved in providing supplies for visiting shipping – fish, greens, pork, kumera and fresh water.

By this stage the Maori settlement of Kororareka was attracting increasing numbers of Europeans. Pa (fortified place) and kainga (village) were being replaced by grogshop and trading post.

[/pane] [pane] “A noble anchorage” was James Cook’s description of Kororareka. Tucked behind sheltering headlands and with good, deep water off shore it was ideal for visiting shipping. Pacific whalers needing a base to pick up supplies, to get repairs done, and to give their men time ashore started visiting from the early 1800s and kept visiting for nearly a hundred years. At first it was English vessels which came; often convict carriers ex-Australia which now empty and needing a return cargo went whaling. American vessels quickly followed in such numbers that an American consul was appointed for a time to offer assistance to whalers if needed.

Around the town, there are a number of artefacts dating from the town’s whaling history.

Whangamumu Harbour provides evidence of the area’s earlier whaling history with the remains of an old whaling station. It is accessible by a Department of Conservation track. Whaling continued until the 1950s but is now outlawed.

Whalers were not the only Europeans. A visiting English artist Augustus Earle recorded seeing a group of tradesmen, “a respectable body of Scotch mechanics…here is heard daily the sound of the sawpit, while piles of neat white planks appear arranged on the beach”.

Other visitors were more transient: escaped convicts from Australia or deserting sailors (a whaling ship was not the most pleasant work place) helped Kororareka develop a nickname Hellhole of the Pacific. When the whaling ships were in port and crews loose on shore leave grogshops and brothels did a roaring trade and life on the waterfront was rough, rowdy and sometimes violent.

The importance to Maori of trade with visiting shipping is illustrated by the Girls War of 1830 in which two favourites of a whaling captain from different tribal groups got into an argument. The conflict spread and Kororareka beachfront soon erupted into a battle between two large groups. At the heart of the conflict was not any slight to the girls but the wish for one group to dominate the trade with visiting shipping. The missionaries who came over from Paihia were powerless to avert hostilities.

Law and order in the settlement was largely non-existent despite a local vigilante group and the appointment of a British resident at Waitangi so responsible settlers at Kororareka decided to sign a petition to the British king William IV asking for the benefit of British government.[/pane] [pane]HISTORY – TREATY ONWARDS

Petitioned by the Europeans in the fledgling colony the British government eventually agreed to declare New Zealand a British possession. Captain Hobson, the first governor announced the decision in proclamations read in Christ Church Kororareka and on 6th February 1840 the founding document of New Zealand as a nation, The Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and the British Crown, was signed at Waitangi.

The Treaty Grounds at Waitangi are a ferry ride and short walk from Russell. More information about the Treaty Grounds can be found at http://www.waitangi.net.nz/

Treaty information
For more information about the Treaty of Waitangi visit www.treatyofwaitangi.govt.nz

Law and order
The historic Police Station in Russell started as the Customs House built in 1870 from a Gothic design by W.H Clayton, the first Colonial Architect to New Zealand but as visits from whalers became fewer a small office on the wharf was sufficient. The Police Department agreed to take over the building to provide Russell with a Police Station.

The new colony now needed a capital but Kororareka was considered unsuitable partly because of its unsavoury reputation. Instead the capital was established up harbour at Okiato and called Russell. But even Okiato’s tenure as capital was short lived and the administration was moved to Auckland.

As a result much of the shipping started bypassing the Bay. Early land sales were investigated so land values fell. Local Maori were unhappy with the imposition of harbour dues, their loss of power and authority, and the economic downtown. A local chief Hone Heke led a faction to express their discontent by cutting down the flagstaff and the British Union Jack on Maiki hill above the town. The flagstaff was restored but cut down again three more times, the last on the 11 march 1845 involving another chief Kawiti and local hapu Kapotai in a three pronged attack on the town. The Battle of Korareka was won by Maori (helped by the accidental explosion of the town’s ammunition store) who sacked and burnt the town sparing only Christ Church, Pompallier and a few buildings at the south end of the beach. The settlers evacuated and fled to Auckland and it was years before any settlers returned.

Now included under the name of Russell the town was rebuilt and continued to serve shipping. Manganese mining at nearby Tikitikioure, a fish canning factory, and coal mining at Kawakawa brought steady prosperity.

From the 1920s Russell was discovered as an idyllic unspoilt place for holidays or retirement. The town’s reputation was given a huge boost when American game fisherman and writer Zane Grey visited and praised the Bay’s game fishing, leading to the town developing as a base for deep-sea game fishing.
In the 1930’s a road was finally put through (now the Old Russell Road via the coast) which opened the town and peninsula up to tourism, fishing, oyster farming and the cottage industries which now provide employment. Visitors enjoy the Russell lifestyle all year round. It’s not just a place; it’s a state of mind.

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