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From the water, or sometimes from the top of one of Hokianga's high hills, it is possible to imagine what the harbour
was like centuries ago, before the human race arrived  to make its modifications.   To really find out, you would need
to go back nine or ten centuries in time - that's when archaeologists and oral tradition suggest that Maori made their
first  landfall from their original island home of Hawaiki.  It was the great Polynesian explorer Kupe who after sailing
round the North Island and naming places as he went, settled on the Hokianga Harbour as his home.  Te Puna i te ao
marama (The spring of the world of light) was his rather beautiful name for the harbour, and so it stayed until  in his
old age he decided to return to Hawaiki.  The words he uttered then about his decision became the preferred name
for the harbour and immortalised his years here - "Hei konei ra i te puna i te ao marama, ka hoki nei ahau, e kore ano
e hokianga-nui mai"  "This the spring of the world of light, I shall not come back here again".   So the name Te
Hokianga nui a Kupe was given, and in time became simply "Hokianga".

Tradition has it that Kupe's returning canoe, Matawhaorua, was re-adzed for greater carrying capacity by a later
descendant, Nukutawhiti, who renamed it Nga-toki-matawhaorua.  Together with a brother-in-law Ruanui on the
canoe Mamari, and no doubt the families of each, he followed Kupe's  navigational directions to sail to New Zealand.  
Once arrived in the Hokianga harbour they settled, one on the north side, the other on the south, so founding the
peoples of the north who are now known as the Ngapuhi.  

Oral history takes on different versions as centuries pass and it is presented from a variety of view points.  There is no
right or wrong version, only different; the result is a rich range of traditions where it is impossible to summarise.  The
accounts of the subsequent populating of  Hokianga, and the complex affiliations of the developing tribal groups,  are
best left to such works as The Peopling of the North by S Percy Smith (Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol 5) or
Hokianga by Jack Lee (1987)  Mention must be made, though, of Rahiri, the 17th century ancestor from whom all who
call themselves Ngapuhi descend.  Born on Whiria, the distinctive and impregnable pa at Pakanae near Hokianga's
South Head, he made two strategic marriages whose offspring form the basis for many of the chiefly lines in the
north.   A monument to Rahiri now stands on the summit of Whiria hill.


Forward to 1800, and European culture and artefacts are beginning to make themselves felt.  The narrow Hokianga
harbour entrance was missed by explorers credited with 'discovering' New Zealand and remained unmapped until
1820, but over at the Bay of Islands there was an early and rapid invasion of whalers and traders bearing iron tools,
wool and cotton materials and of course muskets.   The benefits of these were not lost on the Hokianga chiefs on
their cross-country visits.   By 1819, they had persuaded the missionary/trader Rev. Samuel Marsden on one of his
visits from Sydney to the Bay of Islands, with tales of the quantity and quality of the Hokianga kauri, to make an
expedition overland to see for himself.  Marsden and his group spent upwards of two weeks on the harbour and its
tributaries, making strategic contacts with interested chiefs and carrying out the first sounding of the harbour
entrance.     Early the following year, the first known European ship crossed the harbour bar – the schooner Prince
Regent, under Captain John Rodolphus Kent, on 29 March 1820.    The trade in Hokianga kauri was about to begin.   
Two years later, the ship Providence under Captain Herd entered the harbour and loaded “a quantity of fine spars” –
during the time also making a chart of the river and the bar which was used for subsequent entries.

Trade of course was also in land.   The first New Zealand Company, planning colonisation, included Hokianga in their
1825-7 expedition to New Zealand and contracted Captain Herd with the Rosanna to buy land there: he negotiated
with the Chief Muriwai and others to buy the promontory where Rawene now stands.  The land was bought but there
was no settlement made; for an unknown reason the Rosanna instead left rather suddenly for Sydney and the
expedition was called off.  When the second New Zealand Company visited in 1839 to inspect the site Herd had
chosen they  were unimpressed and did not press their claim.

A more definite and permanent land sale was made in 1827 by the little group of Wesleyan missionaries who had
previously been forced to leave their first settlement in Whangaroa.  They had taken refuge in Sydney where the
Hokianga chief Patuone approached them with an invitation to come under his protection to Hokianga instead – which
they did, arriving at the end of 1826.   They made their headquarters at Mangungu, somewhat downstream from
Patuone’s village, later building other stations at Mangamuka, Waima and Pakanae as well as places further south.

Eleven years after the Wesleyans, in 1838, Bishop Pompallier with two French Marist priests arrived in Hokianga in
response to pleas from Catholic settlers, and after trying a site near Omanaia,  based their mission on the northern
side of the harbour at Purakau.  The Bishop himself soon realised that the Bay of Islands would be more effective as
his headquarters and moved to Kororareka, but one priest was left to continue the work at Purakau. Between the
Wesleyans and the Catholics the differing teaching and practices were often contradictory and confusing, with bad
feeling shown on both sides.  Maori, however, resolved the problem in their own way by adopting whatever practices
sat comfortably with their own culture and  keeping ‘on side’ with both parties as much as possible.  The various
denominations now exist amicably and interchangeably together, easily overlapping family members.


Muriwai had already been involved in a land sale to a Sydney firm of an area across the harbour at Horeke.  This
became the site of New Zealand's first ship-building enterprise, which was established in 1826 under the
management of Captain David Clark.    At its peak it employed 50 shipwrights and mill hands, and three sizeable
ships  were built in the period to 1830.  The owners went bankrupt shortly after and the business was sold; the milling
continued but no more ships were built there.  A small bronze plaque near the waterfront at Horeke commemorates
the years of that first industry.


The harbour mouth opens to the Tasman Sea, turbulent in many moods.  Like most west-coast rivers or harbours
there is a shifting sand bar about a mile out from the heads, treacherous even to those who know it well, and when a
south-westerly storm also sweeps in few responsible sea captains would consider entering.

For the Maori, safe passage could be assured by a Tohunga who had special powers and strong karakia to control
the wind and waves.  No doubt common sense played a part too.  But the  Europeans were not so lucky: in the early
years of the timber trade at least five ships came to grief in or around the entrance.  This led John Martin, a seaman
who had previously been Captain Kent's first mate before settling on land just inside the Heads, with the
encouragement of local chief Moetara, to provide a pilot service for incoming ships.  Later, on his own initiative but still
with local Maori support, he also erected a signalling mast on the high point of the South Head.   Signals were based
on an accepted code of coloured flags and the flagstaff also worked on a pivot so it could droop to the north or south
to direct a change of course as vessels approached.   It is possible that John Martin's service, begun in 1832, was the
first of New Zealand's navigational aids, and it seems to have been without remuneration until he was officially
appointed considerably later.   He retired in 1858 but the position of pilot stayed in the family until 1870, by which time
the Marine Department had been established and made its own appointments.   The pilot station, adapted and
updated to suit the times, remained in operation until 1951 when technology and decreased harbour use brought its
closure and dismantling.  The final flagstaff still sees good use, however, above the R.S.A. hall in Opononi, and the
final signal light is in the local museum.


For the next hundred years, the principal industry and export remained timber - mostly kauri, but puriri, rimu and the
white pine kahikatea were also cut in quantity.  Initially the demand was for tall straight young trees to form spars for
the ships of the British Navy: in the upper harbour these were plentiful right to the water's edge.  The flax trade
flourished briefly at this time for the same reason (New Zealand flax made good tough rope)  But squared and cut
timber for building continued to be in demand in Australia and elsewhere throughout the nineteenth century.   Small
individually owned mills dotted the harbour with varying success until the 1880's, when the giant Melbourne-based
Kauri Timber Company swept in with new technology and a firm financial base.  They bought up existing mills and
established new ones at Waimamaku and Koutu, in the latter creating a township with school, store and housing out
of a quiet little peninsula. Within thirty years the hills were stripped of most usable timber and little but scrub and bare
stumps remained, bordering a harbour which had lost its pristine clarity through the dumping of sawdust and the
beginnings of soil erosion.  With the timber dwindling the Kauri Timber Company moved on, closing most of its large
mills and leaving a population searching for new employment.


During the slump of the 1880's, when unemployment in the towns was high, a government practice of buying up tracts
of unused land for assisted settlement hastened this denudement.  Families were leased fifty acre blocks cheaply in
return for breaking it in, in many cases being supplied with fruit-trees to plant each year, with the hope that they would
eventually supply the city markets with reasonably priced produce.  Six of these settlements were in the Hokianga
region.   Given the isolation that still has its effect on finding markets, the idea was a pipe-dream:  Of those six
settlements, only one (Waimamaku) survived to celebrate its centennial in 1988.  Even before they arrived its settlers
had formed themselves into a homogeneous organisation, and they had unfailing support from the adjacent Maori
community.   Early on, they also had the foresight to abandon fruit-growing in favour of dairy farming, establishing a co-
operative cheese factory in 1903, only fifteen years into the existence of the settlement.

Some settlements, less cohesive at the beginning and with back-breaking, unforgiving land to work, barely got off the
ground. Finances were always short and numbers of men left their farms to earn money on the adjacent gum-fields,
or by stone-breaking for road construction.  In others, after a short trial  many families returned to the more familiar life
of the towns and their 50 acre blocks were taken over or absorbed into other properties.

But every settlement had its school central to the community and though the number of children went up and down the
school building was put to many and varied uses – church services, socials, choir-practice, library, political meetings,
electoral booth…


In 1876 the first Local Government Act was passed and County boundaries proclaimed throughout New Zealand.  
Hokianga was to have two ridings, Waihou and Waima, with seven councillors; the first elections were to be held on
Friday, 22 December 1876 with the first meeting in the Magistrates Court, Herds Point, on Tuesday 9th January 1877.  
The speed at which it was pushed through took the settlers by surprise, but not the Maori population.  When the first
results were announced, Hokianga had three Maori councillors, two European and two half-and-half – an accurate
representation of the population both then and now.It was a ratio never achieved again.

As a side-effect, Herds Point, or Rawene as it was increasingly called, now had new status as the County town which
gave it a slight edge over the larger and more prosperous Kohukohu.  Inter-town rivalry was alive and well.


The first week of May, 1898, saw the culmination of a strongly-held sense of injustice on the part of Maori against the
imposition of a European-made regulation, the Dog Tax, upon them.  Hitherto Maori communities had not been
generally subject to European taxes, but ten years earlier the Hokianga County Council, desperate for funds and in an
effort to control the increasing dog population with their depredations on local farm stock, had legislated that the dog-
tax of 2/6d per dog applied to all dog owners. This followed the practice of other counties to raise finances.  Posters in
Maori and English were produced and, after the local policeman had intimated that he could not afford the time, the
collection of the tax was put into the hands of a hired lay person.   The people of Waima refused to pay.  They were
threatened with arrest.  Under the leadership of  Mahurehure chief Hone Toia they stood firm and continued to refuse
to pay.  After increasingly dire threats, such as banishment to ice-bound regions forever, they decided to march upon
the County headquarters in Rawene in a show of force to settle the matter in their own way.   Twenty-five years had
passed since the worst of the Waikato wars, but reaction was immediate and definite.  The Government despatched a
column of the Permanent Force, 120 strong, with two Nordenfeldt field guns and two Maxims and the gun-boat Torch;
The Glenelg made an extra trip to evacuate all women and children from Rawene.   The current Northern Maori MP,
Hone Heke, left Parliament in session and came post-haste north to join other elders and chiefs in defusing the
situation.   Within a day of his arrival the Mahurehure leaders lay down their arms and surrendered; the whole episode
was over in less than a week.   Not so for the Mahurehure.  Their leaders were arrested, taken to Auckland for trial on
the grounds of treason, and imprisoned for a term in Mt Eden.  Only one shot had been fired, and that was into the air
through excitement. Hone Heke lost his Parliamentary pay for the time he was absent.  The Dog Tax remained in force.


As the forest retreated, dairy farming proved to be the way to go, given the high rainfall of the region and the limited
size of many cleared farms.   Herds were small, families did the milking.  In 1907, a co-operative was formed to
establish a dairy factory at Motukaraka, one of the assisted settlement areas.  It was built on the harbour, with its own
wharf, and its catchment area ran from Mitimiti to Waimamaku in the west to Otaua/Punakitere in the east, taking in all
tributaries of the harbour in between.   Waimamaku farmers, who had their cheese factory already operating, had to
choose - cheese or butter? Whole milk or cream only?  Big cans or small? Local or distant?   Cream was collected by
launch wherever possible, being sledged or drayed from land bases.  Collection was of necessity governed by tide-
times, and launch drivers were skilled in navigating into and up the correct tributaries at any time of the day or night.  
The launches - named appropriately the Dairy Maid, the Butterfly etc. - were built to accommodate maximum cream-
cans, full or empty:  empties being dropped off as full cans were taken on.

By about 1920 enterprising farmers were experimenting with milking-machines and also cream separators.   The
extra technology did not always make life simpler; the first milking machines involved the milk being pumped into
large buckets which had to be watched and emptied at the right time.  The separator with all its intricate parts took
more care and time to wash and scald.   Dairying was still a full family affair, and remained so as WW II took many of
the men away.

Hokianga did not get electric power until the early 1950's; before that it was kerosene lamps and petrol engine for the
milking machine, or diesel generator shared between house and shed.  Morning and evening the countryside was
filled with the throb of motors.   The advent of electricity  changed every aspect of life, even though the line to the more
remote places was of such low voltage that, for instance, cooking could not start till the milking was finished.

With hindsight, these were the decades of prosperity - enough work, enough income, for all, and mostly generated
from within the community.   But the two local dairy factories were facing demands to upgrade, to tighten hygiene
regulations, to install new plant…Waimamaku's cheese now had to be made from pasteurised milk, changing its
texture and taste (but not for the better).   A merger was suggested, linking the two with the larger Bay of Islands Dairy

In 1957, this was agreed to.  Almost immediately, Motukaraka suppliers were notified that their cream would now be
taken by road to Moerewa, and Motukaraka would close - it was uneconomic, the launch collection cost too much to
run.   To the whole community, this was a body blow.  The launches had been a lifeline for many small farmers
around the harbour as their means of transport; even though roads were improving in the north, the river was still the
main road, and the dairy factory had been a friendly meeting-place. With hindsight, again, this one action of closure is
held to spell the end of Hokianga's prosperity.  Waimamaku's cheese-making limped on until 1972.   Under local
control, but monitored from the Bay of Islands Dairy Company, it had difficulty keeping ahead of increasingly stringent
standards of production.   Its suppliers were dwindling as farmers retired and the next generation looked for easier
city jobs.  So, regretfully, it was closed, and Hokianga no longer had any industry it could call its own.


The summer of 1955-56 will always be
remembered as the summer of the dolphin
- the few months when the village of Opononi
was invaded by crowds of holiday-makers
come to see a young dolphin willing to play
with humans.

Dolphins normally live closely with family groups and no-one knows how Opo, a young female bottle-nose dolphin,
came to lose herself so completely as to be
living alone in the harbour.  She was never
known to go out over the bar but seemed
content to stay close to human company,
particularly, at first, if that human was running
an outboard motor.  Gradually she started to
come inshore to join humans as they swam,
and to everyone's joy she found she could take
part in their games and play even better than
they could.  Given a ball, she shone:  Her agility
in the water allowed her to keep it in motion
effortlessly.    Fortunately her antics were caught on film for everyone to see by two expert photographers: one the artist
Eric Lee Johnson who was living in the Hokianga at the time and was contracted to supply the NZ Herald with
photographs; the other, the veteran film-maker Rudall Hayward who was commissioned from the USA to supply
footage of the events.

One can only speculate what Opononi would be like now, had Opo lived longer.  But after the few months of that
summer of 1956 she disappeared, and a day or two later was found dead, stranded in rocks a little way up the
harbour.  There was no autopsy, so what caused her death will never be known.  The whole community mourned for
her.  She was buried in front of Opononi's newly built RSA Hall, close by the stretch of harbour she played in and knew
best.  Later, a "Boy on a dolphin" statue by Russell Clark  was erected in her memory  close by -
also see our page on
"Opo Returns".


With empty farms being sold for a song, the way was open for a further migration: Alternative lifestylers in search of a
truly alternative lifestyle away from the city.  Hokianga had much to offer in this way and in many parts of the region
groups of young people moved in - many of them well educated, creative and idealistic.  Some moved into empty
houses, others built their own using materials that came to hand.  Some were fair-weather trialists, but others were
stayers, determined to live out the difficulties and create a better life for themselves and their families.

Relations were often uneasy between the newcomers and the old established settlers.  The County Council, the
Medical Officer of Health and the Police each had their concerns about the possible effects that the newcomers'
lifestyle might have on the community at large.  Older farmers could not comprehend why anyone should want to
return to such pioneering ways as earth floors and raupo roofing, and were sad to see fields which had once been
cleared by backbreaking toil, reverting to scrub and bush.  On the whole, though, toleration and co-operation won
through; the children went to school, their parents took part in community doings, a new dimension enlivened what
had been a depressed community.


Nation-wide changes to the social structure have not helped Hokianga.  No bank operates in the area, no post shops
(though postal agencies in the local stores carry out the day-to-day postal business) and lack of current employment
opportunities means that most young persons are forced to leave the area.  There is little spare money for anything
but the basics of living and new businesses find it hard to stay afloat.  Tourism, the white hope of many areas of
Northland, varies according to the state of the dollar.   

On the other hand, it is one of the most beautiful and relatively unspoilt parts of New Zealand: its low population
means uncluttered beaches and room to move; the climate is mild at all times of the year and the gardens grow well.  
The people are an amalgam of Maori / pakeha, old and young, academic and practical, way-out and conservative, in
which everyone generally respects each other's ways.   A small piece of Paradise?    Some think so.
Brief History of the Hokianga edited by the
Hokianga Historical Society
Updated: 15 March 2019
Website Owner: Dr. Kenneth M. Baker
The Hokianag Heads and difficult entrance to the Hokianga river on a calm day - photo courtesy Ken Baker
"Boy on a Dolphin" by Rusell Clark, originally erected at Opononi  c.1960,
now after restoration, lodged in the Historical Society Museum at Omapere,   
photo courtesy Ken Baker
Hokianga History and Memorabilia