New Zealand’s first capital

Was it Russell, Kororareka, Waitangi, Okiato?

Okiato New Zealand's first capital

I followed Governor William Hobson and ran around in a circle to discover New Zealand’s first capital. If you’re thinking it’s Russell, you’re wrong. Kororareka? Think again. Waitangi? Nope.

My final run during my month in the Bay of Islands was the grand loop: it’s 13.5 km, involves two ferry rides, coastal track, beaches, lush bush, some road and long stretches of board walk. And LOTS of history, including the answer to the question: where was New Zealand’s first capital?

I began at wonderful Waitangi, the essential start to any discovery of New Zealand and its people. I talked to the guides, listened to the stories, walked through Busby’s house and the Museum. Busby was brought to Waitangi as British Resident in 1833, partly in response to a petition made by a dozen Māori chiefs to King William IV, directed by missionary Yate (who was later expelled for sexual relations with Māori youth, but that’s another story). They wanted protection from the Pakeha “rogues, riff raff and drifters” who were flooding into the Bay of Islands, steadily buying land, fighting, thieving and behaving badly with no regulation or law enforcement. The French were nosing around. Busby was sent to establish a British presence in Waitangi to keep the pesky French at bay and punish wrong-doers, but he had little authority. Hobson followed with the instruction to obtain sovereignty. He came to Waitangi and orchestrated the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Busby offered his land at Waitangi to Hobson for a government seat where he had mapped out a prospective town called Victoria. It could have been our first capital. But Hobson said no. The anchorage wasn’t good enough.

Hobson went south to look at Waitemata Harbour as a potential capital, suffered a stroke and returned to Waitangi. I ran along the coast road to Paihia and took the ferry to the next prospective first capital, current day Russell.

This Russell was not our first capital despite everyone saying it is. Read your history, people. The current town of Russell is the re-named Kororareka. In the early 1800s, Kororareka was famous for a good anchorage, well maintained gardens and fresh water; the ideal town to re-provision and repair ships while the motley crew took R&R in the grog shops and brothels. Trade and services grew up around this shipping, and in the 1830s Kororareka became the “The Hellhole of the Pacific”. There were battles between Māori iwi, too, over domination of the shipping trade. It was the wild frontier and, as such, was unsuitable as Hobson’s capital.

My search for the first capital continued on a coastal run heading south. As you leave current day Russell you’ll pass Pompallier House, built for the French Catholic Mission in 1841 on land purchased in 1839, making Hobson and the boys nervous of the influence both of the French and the Catholics on “their” patch. Well worth a visit, but not on this run. The next bit is the hardest stretch, which is why I ran the loop anti-clockwise, to get it over with. You’re on the road for a bit, up over a hill, running past a rubbish dump and down winding tracks through scrub. There is a board walk through a raupō wetland. I mention this because raupō was such an important plant in the early days, the stalks used for thatching and bundled to make rafts, the leaves woven for sails and mats and to make poi, the hunehune down was stuffing for pillows and mattresses, the rhizomes full of food starch and the pollen could be baked into a cake. So give it a nod as you pass through here, plenty of history in that plant. Past the Kororareka Oyster Shop (Damn! Closed when I passed) and then you have a long series of board walks through the coastal mangroves. It’s pretty cool. There are oyster-catchers, stilts and kingfishers above and lots of bubbling things in the mud below: crabs and snails and worms all thriving in the rot.

Slightly off topic about the New Zealand’s first capital, but still on the subject of interesting history, there is a hillside here, Mt Tikitikioure, which was mined for manganese in the 1870s. Manganese ore is used to increase the density of steel. Māori and Cornish miners worked the hill, sending down buckets into a steamer in the bay and exported the ore around the world. You can still see white patched boulders dotted around the swamp. Before then, back in the early 1800s, Mt Tikitikioure was a refuge for women and children when Kororareka was being attacked. That’s a hill full of history.

A couple of beautiful native bush walks follow – such sharp light and luminously green ferns scattered between larger karaka, beech and pukatea trees. It’s steep in parts, but gorgeous trail running. And so to Okiato. New Zealand’s first capital.

Hobson had returned to Waitangi after his stroke, leaving the missionaries to take the Treaty of Waitangi around the country for signing. He needed a base for his government. Although he intended to move south eventually, in 1840 Auckland was still the sparsely populated swamp of Waitemata, and Hobson was slow to recognise the ambitious speed of the Wakefields’ settlements in and around Wellington. He predicted the majority of the population and problems would remain in the Bay of Islands. So he sent his Surveyor-General Felton Matthew to find a suitable local spot for government, and Matthew found Okiato.

Okiato had been purchased from Ngāti Manu chiefs by a British trader called Clendon.  The purchase price tells a story of the values of the times. In 1830 for 200 acres, Clendon exchanged: 1 carronade (a short large-calibre naval cannon), 2 muskets, 10 pounds of gunpowder & 3 cartouche boxes. In 1832 he confirmed the sale with an additional payment of: 40 muskets, 4 double barrelled guns and 15 casks of gunpowder. He added 80 acres in a similar exchange later. Okiato is a deep, sheltered anchorage, and Clendon had a house with outbuildings, good well, jetty, storage and a stockade (useful for a gun trader I should think). By 1840 Clendon was a consul for the American government, and the most influential Pakeha in the area.

On 25 Apr 1840, Clendon sold his land to the government and Hobson moved into the first Government House with his family and entourage of troops and workers in May.  Plans were drawn up for the town, which was re-named Russell in honour of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord John Russell. There were temporary buildings and tents, but as Hobson pursued land in Waitemata confidence fell and people drifted away.  The only road built in his time was from the town hall to the jail.

In March 1841 Hobson, his Government and followers decamped to Waitemata and named the new captial Auckland. In May 1842, the house at Russell burned down and the remaining residents moved along the coast to Kororareka.

And here’s the confusing bit. Kororareka had been designated part of the greater “Port of Russell” and, perhaps to escape its rotten reputation, adopted the name of Russell for the town. In 1844, after Hobson’s death, the new Governor FitzRoy made the title official. Okiato reverted to its original name and the wonderful name of Kororareka disappeared off the map.

It’s a loopy story, celebrated with a loopy run. Okiato, our first capital, hasn’t changed much from the map above. There’s evidence of the stockade, the circular drive and the well is there. It is best known now for the dinky car ferry which goes across the bay to Opua from where you can meet up with the Opua-Paihia run back along the coast to Waitangi where it all began. An iconic kiwi run, the loop from Paihia took me 3 hours including ferries and history stops; if you walk it will take you about 5½ hours. Stop for refreshments in Russell, Opua and Paihia. Do start the morning at Waitangi so your head is full of history, put on your shoes and have a wonderful run through the past.

Map Bay of Islands Okiato
Raupo wetland running Okiato bush walk.jpg Mangrove board walk paihia.jpg Okiato Opua Car Ferry.jpg Opua paihia ocastal trail.jpg Paihia beach sunset.jpg

Author: cristinasandersblog

I'm a novelist, photographer, trail runner, tramper, traveller and blogger. For a day job, I run the Hawke's Bay events website: indieVenue.

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