Culture & History

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Waka at the Hatea River, Town Basin

Legend has it that famed Polynesian navigator Kupe was the first person to see Whangarei Harbour’s dramatic headlands, while on his way back to Hawaiiki after discovering Aotearoa (New Zealand) around 950 AD.

Local's Tips

Ten carved pou (carved poles) representing many of the cultures that enrich Whangärei can be seen at the entrance to the Whangärei Library. Five of the poles were carved by, and represent, Mäori. In what is believed to be a world first, the rest have been carved or decorated by other cultural groups and one, the Generic Pou, represents all cultures.

Te Tangata Whenua - The People of the Land

Legend has it that famed Polynesian navigator Kupe was the first person to see Whangarei Harbour’s dramatic headlands, while on his way back to Hawaiiki after discovering Aotearoa (New Zealand) around 950 AD. Oral history suggests that around 50 years later the forebears of Northland’s Ngapuhi Tribe arrived on the west coast at Hokianga, and local Maori history points to many more migrations in many more canoes soon after 1000 AD.

Archaeological research has found settlement sites dating back to around the year 1200 and throughout the Whangarei district there remains evidence of these first settlers, often in the form of terracing for their fortified Pa (village) sites and piles of slowly eroding shells and charcoal deposits where they feasted on the region’s abundant shellfish. The social structures of these communities consisted of tribes or Iwi who shared a common view of their history, tracing it back to a common ancestor and to the canoe or waka that brought their ancestors to Aotearoa. Within an Iwi there were subtribes or hapu sharing family and territorial connections.

By the 1700’s the land around Whangarei harbour was densely occupied by several sub-tribes of the Ngapuhi confederation, as confirmed by archaeological evidence on virtually every prominent hill overlooking the great harbour and its valleys.  Whangarei was a popular waypoint for other tribes travelling north and south, with early missionary records indicating that every year as many as 3,000 canoe born travellers would camp and organise their travel on the shores of the harbour. These journeys were often social but could also involve warfare.

European Arrival

One of Europe’s famous son’s came within a few kilometres of this meeting place when in November 1769, Captain James Cook added the name Bream Bay to his Admiralty charts after his crew had enjoyed dining on freshly caught fish (Bream or Schnapper) outside the harbour entrance.

With the introduction of muskets in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, warfare at this natural meeting place took a frightful toll and by the time of early European colonisation, the shores of the bountiful harbour were virtually deserted.

Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840, with early British settlers beginning to establish in NZ, Maori and the British Queen’s representative signed the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Tiriti O Waitangi to confirm the partnership between Maori and non-Maori. This is the founding document of New Zealand. Two versions of the Treaty were signed, one in Maori and one in English. The differing translations of the two versions remain a contentious issue today.

Land Wars

By 1845 there were only 12 European families known to be living in the Whangarei area, but most of them moved back to the safety of Auckland when the Land Wars broke out following early misunderstanding of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. 

The Scots Arrive

Meanwhile in the 1850’s and 60’s, a hardy band of Scottish Presbyterians seeking a place to practice their religion in freedom, migrated via Nova Scotia, settled in and around Waipu, some 40 kilometres south of Whangarei Harbour. Celebrations continue to this day with the longest running annual Caledonian games in the world, held on New Year’s day every year.


It wasn’t until the early 1870’s that a trading post re-emerged on the southern bank of the Hatea River, Whangarei in an area that today includes the popular international yachties’ haven known as the Whangarei Town Basin. Kauri timber and gum were the major trade industries followed by coal mining, wheat and dairy farming, ship building and brick making.

Multicultural Whangarei

In the late 1800’s Whangarei became bi-cultural with extensive settlement by both catholic and protestant families, mainly from Great Britain.  Today the district is a typical multi-cultural South Pacific society.


The meaning of Whangārei has a number of interpretations. One is Whangārei-te-rerenga-parāoa (the gathering place of whales) because whales gathered there to feed during summer. It can also be interpretated as the gathering place for chiefs. Parāoa is Māori for the sperm whale and was highly regarded by Māori and symbolically the parāoa represented persons of chiefly status. Often the chiefs of Ngapuhi met in Whangārei to mobilise their war parties. 

The other meaning is related to Reitu and Reipae two sisters from the Waikato region. They were both aligned to marry a Chief called Ueoneone from the Te Rarawa region. Travelling on the back of a Kārearea (hawk) from Waikato to Te Rarawa the sisters argued and Reipae insisted they land at the beach below them, which is now known as Onerahi. Here she waited for her people and her brothers Te Kanapuiterangi and Kairangatira. This event is remembered in the name Whangārei.