Russell to Paihia car ferry - 1935

1,000 years ago

Dating back about a 1,000 years the Maori Ngare Raumati iwi (tribe) arrived in voyaging waka to the sub-tropical paradise of the Bay of Islands. Russell known in pre-European times as Kororareka was just one of many small settlements in the area with populations fluctuating seasonally as inland Maori came to the coast to fish.

Kororareka (Russell) was named when a Maori chief wounded in battle sipped on broth made from the little blue penguin. He was believed to have said "Ka reka te korora - how sweet is penguin". This lead to the name of the town. Today, after dark, little blue penguins can be found coming ashore to nest under the floorboards of waterfront buildings.


In November 1769 James Cook anchored near Motuarohia Island, just off the Russell peninsula. He sent boats to explore the shore line and bays. James Cook's diaries note they found "several little plantations planted with potatoes and yams" and people willing to trade "quantities of various sorts of fish which we purchased off them". Cook noted villages and kumara gardens as well as more Maori in the bay than anywhere else they had visited. He also made note of the relative harmony in which they appeared to live.


The Pacific whalers started to arrive in the 1800's and used the Bay of Islands and Russell to stock up on the necessities of life at sea, trading happily with the local iwi, repairing their vessels and providing leisure time for their crew. Russell was soon to be nick-named the hell-hole of the Pacific as brothels and liquor stores traded with the rough and rowdy whalers.

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

During the 1800's the Ngapuhi iwi began to dominate the region and is now the largest iwi in New Zealand.

In 1830 the importance of trade with visiting ships for local Maori is illustrated in the Girls War where two tribal groups lobbying to trade with a ships Captain got into an a bloody dispute.

Mid 1800's

Eventually the British government adhered to the desires of European settlers and declared New Zealand a British possession. The first governor, Captain Hobson announced the decision in proclamations read in Russell's Christ Church (New Zealand's oldest church) . Then on 6 February 1840 The Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and the British Crown was signed at Waitangi... just across the bay from Russell.

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 soon 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 downturn. Hone Heke, a local chief 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 felling was on 11 March 1845 and involved 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.

Late 1800's

Under the new name of Russell those remaining, rebuilt the town continuing to serve shipping. Prosperity resulted in nearby Mangenese mining, a fish canning factory and coal mining at nearby Kawakawa. In 1870 the old Custom House was built and still stands today as the local Police Station.

Early 1900's

Tourism for the region was born upon the acceptance of an invitation to a famous American writer and adventurer, Zane Grey. His praise of the big game fishing off Russell lead to the development of Russell as the base for big game fishing.

In the 1930's the Old Russell Road was built opening the peninsula up to tourism, fishing, oyster farming and cottage industries which continue to provide employment for local communities.

If you have any questions or need help please call us +64 9 403 7875 or email us: info@hananui.co.nz

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