Oamaru or Te Oha-a-Maru (Māori) is the largest town in North Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand, it is the main town in the Waitaki District. It is 80 kilometres south of Timaru and 120 kilometres north of Dunedin, on the Pacific coast, and State Highway 1 and the railway Main South Line connect it to both.
With a population of 13,850, Oamaru is the 28th largest urban area in New Zealand, and the third largest in Otago behind Dunedin and Queenstown.
The name Oamaru derives from Māori words meaning the place of Maru (compare with Timaru). The identity of Maru remains open to conjecture.
There are some important archaeological sites around Oamaru. Those at the Waitaki River mouth and at Awamoa both date from the Archaic (Moa-hunter) phase of Māori culture, when New Zealand’s human population clustered along the south-east coast from about AD 1100. The Waitaki River mouth had at least 1,200 ovens. Awamoa saw the first archaeological excavation in New Zealand when W.B.D. Mantell dug there at Christmas 1847 and in 1852. Smaller Archaic sites exist at Cape Wanbrow and at Beach Road in central Oamaru. The distinctive Archaic art of the Waitaki Valley rock shelters dates from this period — some of it presumably made by the occupants of these sites. The area also features Classic and Protohistoric sites, from after about AD 1500, at Tamahaerewhenua, Tekorotuaheka, Te Punamaru, Papakaio and Kakanui.
Māori tradition tells of the ancient people Kahui Tipua building a canoe, Arai Te Uru, which sailed from southern New Zealand to the ancestral Polynesian homeland, Hawaiki, to obtain kumara. On its return it became waterlogged off the Waitaki River mouth, lost food baskets at Moeraki beach and ended up wrecked at Matakaea (Shag Point) where it turned into Danger Reef. After the wreck a crew member, Pahihiwitahi, seeking water, discovered the Waitaki River, but on returning south and failing to reach the wreck before dawn he was turned into a hill in the Shag Valley. Modern academics have suggested this tale is an allegorical explanation of the fact that kumara will not grow south of Banks Peninsula.
On 20 February 1770 James Cook in the Endeavour reached a position very close to the Waitaki mouth and „about 3 Miles [5 km] from the shore“ according to his journal. He said the land „here is very low and flat and continues so up to the skirts of the Hills which are at least 4 or 5 Miles [6–8 km] in land. The whole face of the Country appears barren, nor did we see any signs of inhabitants.“ He stayed on this part of the coast four days. Sydney Parkinson, the expedition’s artist, described what seems to be Cape Wanbrow, in Oamaru. On 20 February he wrote „…we were near the land, which formed an agreeable view to the naked eye. The hills were of a moderate height, having flats that extended from them a long way, bordered by a perpendicular rocky cliff next to the sea.“
Māori did live in the area, and sealers visited the coast in 1814. The Creed manuscript, discovered in 2003, records:
Some of the [local] people [had been] absent on a feasting expedition to meet a great party from Taumutu, Akaroa, Orawenua [Arowhenua]. They were returning. The [sealers‘] boat passed on to the Bluff 8 miles [13 km] north of Moeraki where they landed & arranged their boat – & lay down to sleep in their boat. At night Pukuheke, father of Te More, went to the boat, found them asleep & came back to the other Natives south of the Bluff. They went with 100 [men] killing 5 Europeans & eat them. Two of the seven escaped through the darkness of the night & fled as far as Goodwood, Bobby’s Head, after being 2 days and nights on the way.
Pukeheke’s party killed and ate these as well. The Pākehā, a party from the Matilda (Captain Fowler), under the first mate Robert Brown with two other Europeans and five lascars or Indian seamen, made eight in all, not seven as the manuscript says. They had been sent in an open boat from Stewart Island in search of a party of absconding lascars. Brown must have had some reason for searching for them on the North Otago coast.
After Te Rauparaha’s sack of the large pa (fortified settlement) at Kaiapoi near modern Christchurch in 1831, refugees came south and gained permission to settle at Kakaunui (Kakanui), and the territory between Pukeuri and Waianakarua, including the site of urban Oamaru, became their domain.
Whalers sometimes visited this part of the coast in the 1830s. The Jason, for example, probably of New London in the United States, Captain Chester, was reported at „Otago Bluff“ south of Kakanui, with 2,500 barrels (400 m3) of oil, on 1 December 1839.
Edward Shortland visited the area in 1844, coming overland from Waikouaiti. On 9 January he recorded „Our path to-day was sometimes along the edge of a low cliff, sometimes along the beach, till we approached Oamaru point, where it turned inland, and crossed a low range of hills, from which we looked over an extensive plain … Towards the afternoon, we ascended a range of hills called Pukeuri, separating this plain from another more extensive. The sky was so remarkably clear that, from the highest point of the pathway, Moeraki was distinctly in view…“ He made a map and placed Oamaru on it. He was one of several Europeans who passed through the area on foot in the 1840s. James Saunders became the first European resident of the district some time before 1850 when he settled to trade among the Māori of the Waitaki River mouth.
More European settlers arrived in the Oamaru area in the 1850s. Hugh Robison built and lived in a sod hut by the Oamaru Creek in 1853 while establishing his sheep run. J.T. Thomson surveyed the place as a town in 1859, and the Otago Provincial government declared „hundreds“ there on 30 November 1860. The town grew as a service-centre for the agricultural/pastoral hinterland between the Kakanui Mountains and the Waitaki River, and rapidly became a major port, starting construction of a breakwater in 1871. For many years there was a commercial and fishing harbour under Cape Wanbrow at Friendly Bay.
With the development of pastoralism and the associated frozen-meat industry having its historical origins in New Zealand just south of the town at Totara, Oamaru flourished. Institutions such as the Athenaeum and Waitaki Boys‘ and Waitaki Girls‘ High Schools sprang up. The locally plentiful limestone (Oamaru stone) lent itself to carving and good designers, such as Thomas Forrester (1838-1907) and his son J.M. Forrester (1865–1965), and craftsmen utilised it. By the time of the depression of the 1880s Oamaru had become the „best built and most mortgaged town in Australasia“. A major factor in the near bankruptcy of Oamaru was construction of the „Borough water race“, an aqueduct completed after 3 years work in 1880. This major engineering feat replaced the previous poor water supply (obtained from the local creeks) with abundant pure water (and energy for industrial machinery driven by water motors) from the Waitaki river and conducted water in an open channel for almost 50 km through hilly farmland from Kurow to the Oamaru reservoir at Ardgowan until de-commissioned and abandoned in 1983.
Development slowed, but the population continued to grow until the 1970s. With the closure of the port and the New Zealand economy stalled, Oamaru found itself hard hit. In response it started to re-invent itself, becoming one of the first New Zealand towns to realise its built heritage was an asset.
A public art museum, the Forrester Gallery (whose first curator in 1882 was Thomas Forrester), opened in 1983 in R.A. Lawson’s neo-classical Bank of New South Wales building. Restoration of other buildings also took place. The Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust was formed in 1987 with a vision of redeveloping the original commercial and business district of Oamaru’s Harbour and Tyne Streets, and work began on restoring the historic precinct beside the port, perhaps the most atmospheric urban area in New Zealand.
By the early 21st century, „heritage“ had become a conspicuous industry and today, the number of buildings owned by the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust had grown from the original eight to 17. Oamaru contains over 70 buildings registered as Category 1 or 2 Historic Places in Heritage New Zealand register.