The Historic Bay of Islands

February 24, 2023
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ONE of my very first blog posts is called Cape Brett: Hiking to the Birthplace of Aotearoa. In it, I talk about how, by tradition, the oceangoing craft by which the Māori first settled Aotearoa New Zealand used to rendezvous at Cape Brett. They did so under a seven-peaked row of hills at the end of the peninsula, a row of hills called Rākaumangamanga.

The Bay of Islands and Cape Brett. Background map data ©2018 Google. The red box and the words “Bay of Islands and Cape Brett” have been added further. North at top.

A sign showing the Cape Brett Track (2018)

Here is a closer view of the locality, showing some key localities on the Cape Brett Peninsula but also the Bay of Islands itself and the best-known local townships of Russell, Waitangi, and Paihia, which are right in the middle of the map, as well as towns a little further afield like Kerikeri and Kawakawa.

The Bay of Islands, Cape Brett Peninsula, and Environs. Background map data ©2018 Google. The names of Cape Brett, Deep Water Cove and Rākaumangamanga and two arrows have been added further. North at top.

With all the islands, the Cape Brett Peninsula, and the forest parks, you can see just by looking at the map why the Bay of Islands is an absolute holiday favourite.

The Bay of Islands: view from Motukiekie Island toward Cape Brett and Piercy Island/Motukokako in the far distance. Photo by Fuadounet, 8 January 2006, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The ‘Hole in the Rock’ under Piercy Island/Motukokako, a common destination for boat trips. Photo by Pseudopanax, 24 January 2018, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But there is more than just scenery and boat trips to the Bay of Islands, for its towns are really interesting and historic as well.

In my earlier post about Cape Brett I mentioned how, by tradition, Rākaumangamanga is the birthplace of the Māori as a settled people in Aotearoa. Well, as it happens, the nearby locality of Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands, is the birthplace of modern Aotearoa New Zealand: the spot where the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi was first negotiated and signed.

A quick historical and geographical backgrounder, on a panel at the Koropiro Heritage Park in the Bay of Islands town of Kerikeri

Many holidaymakers base themselves at Paihia, next to the village of Waitangi and just across a bridge from the Waitangi National Reserve.

The Waitangi National Reserve

You know you are in Paihia if you can see the giant bronze statue of a marlin on a specially built section of the waterfront.

The Paihia iSite, with the marlin in the background

The marlin statue, in all its glory

You can then catch a local ferry to Russell, the first capital of colonial New Zealand. It is also possible to get to Russell from Paihia by car, but the journey is very roundabout because Russell is built on a peninsula.

More exactly, Russell spreads across an isthmus or neck of land just before Flagstaff Hill, also known in Māori as Te Maiki, where the peninsula ends.

Russell. Map data ©2023 Google. North at top.

In Russell, the waterfront facing Paihia is dominated by the amazing wooden gingerbread façade of the Duke of Marlborough Hotel. Just slightly to the south is the Pompallier Mission and Printery, a sort of working museum of old-fashioned bookmaking techniques named after the early colonial-era Roman Catholic missionary and bishop, Jean-Baptiste Pompallier. On the other side of the isthmus is Long Beach. And atop Flagstaff Hill/Te Maiki, there has been a flagstaff for the best part of two hundred years.

New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) sign advertising the Flagstaff Hill Historic Reserve, in Russell

The first flagstaff was erected by Hōne Heke, a Ngāpuhi chief who had been educated by the missionaries in Kerikeri and who was a lay reader in the Church of England, to fly the 1834 flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. (At that time the name Aotearoa was not yet commonly used in Māori to describe the whole country, though it is now.)

A drawing of the United Tribes flag, described as “The New Zealand National Flag,” by Nicholas Charles Phillips, ca. 1834, via Wikimedia Commons (Attribution: State Library of New South Wales), CC BY-SA 3.0 AU.

When New Zealand became a British colony, this flag was hauled down and replaced by the Union Jack. Hōne Heke subsequently became famous for chopping down the flagstaff several times, on the grounds that the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi — which Heke, like many others, held to stand for an equal and dignified partnership between British and Māori, even if that was not quite what the words said — thus meant that the United Tribes flag should still be flown, even though the Union Jack was now being flown as well.

This and other grievances against British colonial rule, which was rapidly becoming less of a partnership with Māori and increasingly coercive instead, led to a dispute called the Northern War, which raged from 1845 to 1846 and included the burning of Kororāreka, as the main part of the town known today as Russell was then known, by Heke’s forces, who otherwise acted with restraint and did not harm the townsfolk.

Flagstaff Hill/Te Maiki Loop Walk

The modern flagstaff on Flagstaff Hill/Te Maiki

Interpretive panel about Te Maiki and its Māori history

The New Zealand Institute of Surveyors Centennial Sundial, erected atop Te Maiki in 1968

On the steel wall behind the part of the sundial that casts a shadow, you can make out the words “Pākehā living on stolen LAND.” So, the spirit of Hōne Heke still lives. If you look closely at the modern flagstaff, above, you can see that its lower part is encased in spiral-welded steel pipe. Nuff said.

The immediate cause of the disagreement

Hōne Heke had a sort of alter ego in the person of Tāmati Wāka Nene, an older Ngāpuhi chief who had had a more traditional tribal upbringing in the days when there were hardly any Europeans in Aotearoa, and who then became a Methodist. Though he too had some misgivings about colonisation, Tāmati Wāka Nene was more friendly to the British than Hōne Heke, and actually fought against Heke in the Northern War.

Short biographies of the two great Ngāpuhi adversaries

The town of Russell was originally founded just outside Kororāreka to serve as the capital of the new colony of New Zealand. After Kororāreka was rebuilt, it became common to refer to the whole town as Russell.

Ironically, Russell was only the capital of New Zealand for a short time. It was succeeded by Auckland in 1841 and then in 1865 by Wellington, the present capital.

The name Kororāreka might have survived the burning, had it not become tainted by association with the settlement that had just been razed.

For the Kororāreka that Hōne Heke burned had become a sort of pirate colony, a town that had grown up in the days when it was by no means clear who was in charge of European settlement: a lawless sort of a town that even came to be known as “the hellhole of the Pacific.”

Old-Time Kororāreka, with British flags flying on Flagstaff Hill, shortly before the town’s destruction by Hone Heke: A print in the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, Russell

Charles Darwin visited the Bay of Islands for a few days in 1835, in the course of his famous voyage on the Beagle, and was thoroughly put off by the nature of Kororāreka, a town of pubs and brothels frequented by “the very refuse of society.”

Some respectable colonists even said that Hōne Heke had done the colony a favour by destroying Kororāreka.

Having said that, there is some pressure these days to restore the old name, which refers to the allegedly tasty (reka) quality of the little blue penguin or kororā.

In Kawakawa, a driver of the local tourist train offered to show me around Waitangi. When we went to Waitangi, he said that during the height of the Covid lockdowns, many homeless people had been housed in backpacker hostels and that there was a gang problem in Paihia.

So, I decided that I did not want to stay in Paihia because of that. But there was some cheap food in Paihia and I decided that I would make my way to Waitangi. I stayed at the campground there for $20: all in all, a really enjoyable experience.

In Russell, I took some photos of the rather wedding-cake-like interior of the Duke of Marlborough, a holdover from pre-Treaty Kororāreka, “refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827” as its website has it.

Albeit, no doubt, in new premises as compared to the ones it was operating in before Hōne Heke’s raid. It certainly looks a lot more respectable these days.

Inside the Duke of Marlborough today

Some of the photos were from the early days of tourism, with proud anglers holding up huge fish (probably bigger than what you can catch now) or standing beside even bigger marlins on a hoist.

Then I went to Bishop Pompallier’s Mission and Printery, which had been spared at Heke’s order along with other worthy sites.

The tour was really well done by local Māori women and other guides. It shows you how they used to make books. They cured the leather for the covers, and this took about 14 months: it was a long process. It showed how they used to make the books: they used to sew the pages by hand and how they used to stretch the leather for the covers. In the old days, they would have used these methods to make Māori bibles and Māori dictionaries.

A sign advertising the Pompallier Mission and Printery

The grounds of the Mission and Printery

The main building at the Mission and Printery

You could also see how they used to print the books on the printing press, placing the letters by hand.

A printing press

Stretching the leather

Other leather treatments

Choosing the type

The printing press in front of a window for natural light

Tāmati Wāka Nene was also given a house there, on a site that has since become a park.

A larger portrait of Tāmati Wāka Nene, in the Duke of Marlborough

Tāmati Wāka Nene Reserve

A gate at Tāmati Wāka Nene Reserve

Pou, or poles, at Tāmati Wāka Nene Reserve

Nene lived to be about ninety and is buried in the churchyard of Christ Church, in Russell. Hōne Heke, who was only in his forties when he died, was buried in a traditional Māori burial cave somewhat inland from the Bay of Islands. Heke’s bones were moved from the cave when it began to be encroached upon by development (is nothing sacred?) and reburied at a secret location in 2013.

So, I went to Hone Heke’s flagpole, a walk up the hill outside Paihia. And a popular surf beach over there was Long Beach. They are popular areas. I took the ferry over.

Advertisement for the Long Beach Coffee Cart

There were some lovely flowers.

Flowers scattering petals on the footpath

The grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, with the famous waka taua (war canoes), marae, and Treaty House, are across a bridge from Waitangi itself, in the Waitangi National Reserve. ‍

Te Waka o Te Ana o Maikuku at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, 6 February 2017. Public domain image by Dirk Pons via Wikimedia Commons.

The Marae on the Waitangi Treaty Ground. Photo by Steve, 8 March 2009, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Treaty House at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Photo by DXR, 1 March 2010, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

From there you can go on a 6 km coastal hike to Haruru Falls, at Haruru.

Haruru Falls

Here’s a video I made, with scenes from a harbour boat trip, the interior of the Duke of Marlborough, the famous flagstaff, and Haruru Falls:

The last place I visited on this history tour (with hikes) was Kerikeri, where there is the excellent Kerikeri River Track and the Koropiro Heritage Park, which includes the Kemp House (1822), the oldest still-standing building in New Zealand, and some more walks.

The location of Kororipo (and Kerikeri)

From a Koropiro Heritage Park information display

A bridge on the Kerikeri River Track

A view from the bridge

The old Kerikeri Mission House

Te Ahurea, “Northland’s Living Village and Cultural Experience”

Rapids at the Koropiro Heritage Park, with Te Ahurea behind

The Old Stone Store

Further information at the heritage park

Finally, before you leave these parts, it makes sense to take in the Manginangina Kauri Walk in the Puketi Kauri Forest.

To round off, it is worth noting that while Darwin strongly disliked Kororāreka and indeed New Zealand in general, or what little he saw of the place, the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, went on to become the second Governor of New Zealand, succeeding William Hobson, who had signed the Treaty of Waitangi. FitzRoy served as Governor from 1843 until 1845.

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning new book about the North Island, available here.


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