Two hundred years of stories to discover.

As you stroll round Russell today you’re walking back in time. The town’s original street plan and names from1843 are still intact and feature some of New Zealand’s oldest and most significant historic buildings.

Christ Church 1835-6. Te Whare Karakia o Kororāreka, the oldest existing church in NZ. Building began in 1835 with the first service, conducted in both Māori and English, taking place on 3 January 1836. Look for the musket ball holes in the old weatherboards left from the 1845 Battle of Kororāreka.

Pompallier Mission 1841. Bishop Pompallier established the Roman Catholic Mission in Kororāreka in 1839. The building there today was built in 1841 and is now restored to its original French Lyonnaise layout as a working printery again.

The Old Customs House 1870 Built from a Gothic design by W.H Clayton, the first Colonial Architect to New Zealand. With the eventual drop-off in shipping the customs house was no longer required and the Police Department agreed to take it over. The huge Moreton Bay fig next to it was planted in the 1870’s.

Flagstaff Hill. Above the town on Maiki Hill stands the famous flagstaff, cut down 4 times between 1844 and 1845. It flies New Zealand's original flag twelve days a year. The views from the top are spectacular.

Russell Museum. The treasure house of Russell – Te Whare Taonga o Kororāreka. One of the finest little museums in the country. It chronicles our Māori and European history and holds some noteworthy and unique collections - including a stunning 1/5th scale replica of Cook’s ship Endeavour.

Rewa’s village Drawings of Kororāreka from the early19th C show a Māori village on the waterfront. This was chief Rewa’s kainga. Today it’s the site of the Russell Museum and the Kororāreka Marae Society’s wharemahi and art gallery named Haratu in honour of Rewa’s original whare.

New Zealand’s first capital. Kororāreka was considered too unsavoury to be the capital so the capital was established up harbour at Okiato and called Russell. Little remains there now but the site is an historic reserve and has new interpretation signage.

The Gables 1847 One of the oldest buildings in Russell, the Gables is listed with the Historic Places Trust. In its time it has been a bordello, bakery, shop, Salvation Army boys’ home and even a hiding place for sailors who had jumped ship.

New Zealand’s First Licensed Hotel After New Zealand became a colony in 1840 all hotels selling alcohol had to have liquor licences. The country’s first was granted to John Johnson of the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Kororāreka. The hotel in Russell is the fourth on the site.



KORORĀREKA – WHAT’S IN A NAME? Legend has it that Kororāreka 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 kororā - how sweet is penguin", leading to the town's name. Today, little blue penguins still come ashore after dark on the beach at Russell/Kororāreka to nest under the floorboards of waterfront buildings.

The Bay of Islands has always been desirable real estate. Long before Europeans arrived Māori had heavily settled its numerous bays, inlets and sheltering islands. With its mild, frost free climate it was a land of plenty: its waters and seashore were rich in kai-moana (fish and shellfish), the deep forests were larders of wild foods, the fertile soils supported large māra (gardens).

Early European explorers such as Britain’s James Cook (1769) and France’s Marion du Fresne (1772) remarked on how prosperous the area was. Cook, who anchored opposite the Russell Peninsula, wrote that the people were “far more numerous than at any other place we have yet been in”. He saw villages and kumara (sweet potato) gardens: "The place of the country appears green and pleasant" … the soil "pretty rich and proper for cultivation".

Māori first came to Aotearoa-New Zealand about 800 years ago migrating from the eastern pacific in great double-hulled voyaging waka (ocean going canoes). Māori throughout the country still trace their whakapapa (family trees) back to those first waka, and it’s from one of these canoes named Mataatua that people of the local Ngapuhi iwi (tribe) claim descent.

The Bay of Islands is part of the area Māori call Pewhairangi which covers not just the enormous bay and its islands but also as far inland as Kaikohe, Waimate, Kawakawa and Kerikeri. Originally home to the Ngare Raumati and Ngati Manu iwi it is now also home to Ngapuhi, the largest iwi in New Zealand.

Russell itself was then known as Kororāreka. It was just a small coastal settlement, one of many often seasonal villages in the area, but the hills around it had had a number of important and large pā guarding its approaches. When you’re in the Russell Museum look for the “Ipipiri” map which shows the old Māori settlements, pā sites and trails. It’s remarkable how many there were and how today’s roads largely follow the old trails.


By the early 1800s Kororāreka was quite literally on the map. Word had spread about what Captain Cook had declared a “most noble anchorage” with its good, deep-water harbour. Foreign ships started arriving in numbers, especially British and American whalers stopping in for supplies, repairs and time ashore.

Whaling became a major industry, and continued so for the next hundred years. Around the town, there are a number of artefacts dating from the town's whaling history especially at the museum. At Whangamumu Harbour are the remains of an old whaling station, accessible by the beautiful Whangamumu walking track.

Entrepreneurial local Māori traded energetically with the newcomers providing fish, greens, pork, kumara, flax, fresh water as well as a less savoury trade – women. When the ships were in port and their crews loose on shore-leave, grogshops and brothels did a roaring trade. Life on the waterfront was rough, rowdy and sometimes violent earning Kororāreka the nickname “hellhole of the pacific”.

The importance of trade to Māori is illustrated by the “Girls’ War” of 1830. Two Māori women from different tribal groups and both favourites of a whaling captain got into an argument. The conflict spread and Kororāreka beachfront soon erupted into a battle between two large groups, ending with many deaths. The fight was not really about any slight to either woman but about one group wanting to dominate the trade with visiting shipping.

But not all was entirely hellish in the town. The missionaries were busy: the Church Missionary Society built the Anglican Christ Church (still standing today) in 1835-36 while their rival Bishop Pompallier and the Marist Brothers from France arrived in 1839 and built their mission and printery on the south end of the beach in 1841. Both of these important historic sites are open to visitors today and well worth a visit.

An evil trade. One catastrophic consequence of trade with Europeans came from Māori acquiring muskets. The result was The Musket Wars, and during the 1820’s old feuds between tribes were settled with the powerful new weapons. The northern tribes especially were quick to take advantage of them and set out on raids of utu (revenge) as well as simple plunder; the bloody slaughter was immense with some tribes being decimated and old tribal boundaries altered.


Law and order in the Bay during the 1830’s was pretty much non-existent despite the missionaries’ best efforts. Even the British Resident (a kind of consul) appointed to Waitangi in 1833 had so little power that Māori named him the “man of war without guns”. Responsible residents at Kororāreka, European and Māori, decided to petition the British King William IV asking for the benefit of British protection. The reluctant British eventually agreed and declared New Zealand a British possession and it was in Kororāreka’s little Christ Church that New Zealand’s new first governor, Captain Hobson, officially announced the proclamation.

Declaring New Zealand a colony couldn’t be done without the agreement of Māori, still by far the majority population – so on 6th February 1840 a treaty between Māori and the Crown was signed at Waitangi, across the bay from Kororāreka. Although still the subject of debate, the Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand as a nation.

The new colony now needed a capital. Kororāreka’s unsavoury reputation put it out of the running so instead the capital was established a mile up harbour at Okiato and called Russell, after Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Colonies. But even Okiato's time as capital was short: Auckland by then was growing rapidly so in 1841 the capital was moved there. The name Russell eventually came to include Kororāreka as well and over time it stuck while Okiato later reverted to its original name.

Much of the shipping that used to come to the bay now started going to Auckland instead. Harbour duties were imposed. Early land sales were investigated for authenticity, so land values fell. Local Māori who had been doing nicely out of trade were hit by the economic downturn and loss of power and authority. Discontent was rumbling.


Māori chief Hone Heke, who had been one of the signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi, was becoming disenchanted by what he saw as Government oppression of Māori. Disgruntled too by the economic losses to his people, in July 1844 he led a faction to protest by cutting down the flagstaff and the Union Jack flying on Maiki Hill in Russell. The flagstaff was quickly restored but then cut down again three more times. The last was on 11 March 1845, this time in a three-pronged attack on the town involving Heke and two other chiefs, Pūmuka and Kawiti. The first of the Northern Land Wars had started.

The Battle of Kororāreka In the dead of night, 11 March 1845, Heke’s men crept up Maiki Hill toward the British army blockhouse. At the same time Pūmuka and Kawiti created a diversion. When the dawn star rose they attacked the town from two different directions. The troops in the blockhouse rushed out to see what was going on – that’s when Heke attacked, taking the blockhouse completely by surprise. The battle for the town was fierce, one big skirmish took place right by Christ Church - you can still see the musket ball holes in its walls. The British settlers were evacuated to ships anchored in the bay. Fighting continued all next morning when suddenly the garrison’s ammunition store exploded setting nearby buildings alight. With their ammunition reserves gone the British retreated to their ships while Māori took the town. Even a last bombardment by the British sloop ‘Hazard” couldn’t save Kororāreka. The town was sacked and burnt, all except for the south of the town which was spared on Heke’s orders - which is why Christ Church and Pompallier still stand today. This battle was the first of a series in this part of New Zealand known as the Northern Land Wars, the last of which was at Ruapekapeka, a remarkable site about half an hour’s drive south of Russell.

Whakakotahitanga – The Flagstaff on Maiki Hill. A new flagstaff was erected on Maiki hill in 1857 and stands there still. It was gIven by the son of Kawiti as a symbolic gesture and called Whakakotahitanga in Māori or ‘Being as one’ in English. It has suffered damage over the years from vandalism, fire, lightning and dry rot. Restored in recent years it flies the United Tribes flag of 1834 on twelve days a year. You can walk to the flagstaff through the bush tracks of the Kororāreka Reserve, or drive up. The views are amazing.


After the battle, Europeans stayed away, trade died off almost completely and Russell languished. The town was rebuilt however and continued to serve shipping. Manganese was discovered at nearby Tikitikioure (above Orongo Bay) and mining was established. A fish canning factory was built at the northern end of Russell beach. Coal mining up-river at Kawakawa brought steady trade. Europeans began to come back to settle, fish and farm. Slowly prosperity returned.

From the 1920s Russell was discovered as an idyllic unspoilt place for holidays or retirement. The town's reputation was given a huge boost when American game fisherman and writer Zane Grey visited and praised the Bay's game fishing. The town developing as a base for deep-sea game fishing and it’s still famous for its fishing today.

But Russell was still off the beaten track, hard to get to as there were no roads, with access only by boat or ferry. But in the 1930's a road was finally put through: not the nice, easy, sealed main highway from Kawakawa we enjoy today but the coastal route now known as the Old Russell Road. This opened the town and peninsula up to tourism, fishing, oyster farming and the small industries which now provide employment. Visitors discovered the laid-back Russell lifestyle and many came back as residents to enjoy it all year round. Russell is not just a place; it's a state of mind.
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