A Hell Hole

By the early 1800s Kororāreka was quite literally on the map. Word had spread about what Captain Cook had declared a “most noble anchorage” with its good, deep-water harbour. Foreign ships started arriving in numbers, especially British and American whalers stopping in for supplies, repairs and time ashore.

Whaling became a major industry, and continued so for the next hundred years. Around the town, there are a number of artefacts dating from the town’s whaling history especially at the museum. At Whangamumu Harbour are the remains of an old whaling station, accessible by the beautiful Whangamumu walking track.

Entrepreneurial local Māori traded energetically with the newcomers providing fish, greens, pork, kumara, flax, fresh water as well as a less savoury trade – women. When the ships were in port and their crews loose on shore-leave, grogshops and brothels did a roaring trade. Life on the waterfront was rough, rowdy and sometimes violent earning Kororāreka the nickname “hellhole of the pacific”.

The importance of trade to Māori is illustrated by the “Girls’ War” of 1830. Two Māori women from different tribal groups and both favourites of a whaling captain got into an argument. The conflict spread and Kororāreka beachfront soon erupted into a battle between two large groups, ending with many deaths. The fight was not really about any slight to either woman but about one group wanting to dominate the trade with visiting shipping.

But not all was entirely hellish in the town. The missionaries were busy: the Church Missionary Society built the Anglican Christ Church (still standing today) in 1835-36 while their rival Bishop Pompallier and the Marist Brothers from France arrived in 1839 and built their mission and printery on the south end of the beach in 1841. Both of these important historic sites are open to visitors today and well worth a visit in Russell, Bay of Islands.

An evil trade. One catastrophic consequence of trade with Europeans came from Māori acquiring muskets. The result was The Musket Wars, and during the 1820’s old feuds between tribes were settled with the powerful new weapons. The northern tribes especially were quick to take advantage of them and set out on raids of utu (revenge) as well as simple plunder; the bloody slaughter was immense with some tribes being decimated and old tribal boundaries altered.