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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: Russell Business Association