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Introduction to Bay of Islands history

June 7, 2023

Pēwhairangi, or the Bay of Islands, was the first place in New Zealand to have permanent European settlement, with missionaries arriving in 1814 and settling at Hohi next to Rangihoua pā. The settlement of these missionaries, and all future settlers, was built off the back of decades of relationship building between Māori and Pākehā.

Following the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1769 the Bay of Islands was put on the world map and quickly whalers and traders, explorers and entrepreneurs made their way to Aotearoa New Zealand. The Bay of Islands had an estimated population in the tens of thousands and was a bustling hub both prior to and following European arrival.

James Busby, the first official British Resident of New Zealand, had a house at what is now the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Today, the house continues to overlook the Bay of Islands with a clear view out into the Pacific. From his house, Busby could see ships moving around the Bay, undertaking his duty of maintaining British law and order over members of the British Empire in New Zealand. With a view from his front lawn to Kororāreka and all the islands in between, Busby had a prime position to observe the comings and goings in the Bay of Islands.

Kororāreka was later renamed Russell, though the original Russell is several kilometres around the coast at Ōkiato. ‘Old Russell’ as it is often called, was where the first capital city of New Zealand was, and where the first United States Consul to New Zealand made his home in the 1830s. In fact, the house of the first US Consul at Ōkiato was sold to Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson following the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and was the first Government House. The capital city moved to Auckland in 1841; Ōkiato’s time as the capital of New Zealand was short-lived.

The New Zealand Wars started in 1845 with the Northern War and was predominantly fought at inland pā. However, the Northern War began with the Battle of Kororāreka in the Bay of Islands. Those with an interest in history can walk the town of Kororāreka today and see the scars of the battle in buildings such as Christ Church. There are many opportunities to learn about the history of the Bay of Islands at Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and other heritage properties like Pompallier Mission and Printery.