Whangaroa History

Geological History

Like other Northland harbours, Whangaroa Harbour is an old river system, drowned when the sea level rose about 6,000 years ago. Whangaroa is distinctive because of its steep rocky outcrops, formed of ancient volcanic rocks. The volcanism evident around Whangaroa is some of the earliest in New Zealand.

The small township of Whangaroa is dominated by a pinnacle known as St Pauls, or Ohakiri. St Pauls is most likely an ancient eroded volcanic plug. St Pauls has a twin, St Peter, facing it across the water.

There are extensive mangrove swamps at the head of the harbour, and some of the oldest fossils in the North Island, dating to the early Permian about 270 million years ago, are in the Whangaroa area - at Arrow Rocks, just off shore from Tauranga Bay.


A Long History of Human Occupation

According to Maori traditions, the waka Mahuhu-ki-te-rangi explored the Whangaroa harbour during early Maori settlement of New Zealand. The area was settled by descendants of Te Mamaru and Mataatua waka crews.

The name comes from the lament "Whaingaroa" or "what a long wait" of a woman whose warrior husband had left for a foray to the south.

Many important Maori myths and legends have their source in the Whangaroa area, testimony to the harbour's importance in Maori folklore and its long history of human occupation.


Whangaroa in More Recent Times

Today Whangaroa is a quiet, beautiful location surrounded by farms, with popular ocean beaches nearby. There is little indication of its turbulent and busy early years.

The first Europeans to visit Whangaroa were whalers in the late 1790's.

British trading ships visited Whangaroa from 1805 to 1809, including the General Wellesley and Commerce in 1806, and Elizabeth in 1809.

The Boyd Incident

Sixty-six members of the crew of the Boyd were killed by local Maori in 1809 after the crew whipped the son of a chief. The visits ceased as a result, resuming when the British trading ship Dromedary loaded Kauri timber in 1819.

(For a more detailed account of the Boyd incident and the early history of the harbour, click on this link).


The township on the Kaeo River, which flows into the Whangaroa Harbour about 4 km to the south-west is named after the kaeo, a freshwater shellfish found in the river.

Kaeo was the site of Wesley-Dale, New Zealand’s first Wesleyan Mission station, established by Samuel Leigh and William White in 1823. The station was abandoned after a raid by warriors of Ngapuhi chief, Hongi Hika. In 1828 Hongi Hika died at Whangaroa, from a musket wound suffered 14 months earlier in the Hokianga.

(For a more detailed account of the history of Kaeo, click on this link).


Europeans settled the harbour in the 1840s, and a Catholic mission was established at Waitaruke.

Due to its proximity to vast stands of mature kauri trees, the harbour was a centre for timber milling and later, gum digging. Acacia Cottage, the first European-built house in Auckland, belonging to pioneer settler John Logan Campbell, was constructed from Whangaroa kauri.

The kauri logging industry rapidly expanded after the arrival of the immigrant ship Lancashire Witch in 1865.

Totara North

Shipyards were established in Totara North in 1872 by Lane and Brown.

Kauri logs were chained together to make rafts, and towed by steamer to Auckland. It took three days for the logs to reach Auckland.

(For a more detailed account of the history of Totara North, click on this link).


In the early 20th century, Sea Sick Bay, near the south head was a whaling station, which by the 1920's had moved to Ranfurly Bay, near the north head.


After the Mangamuka Gorge road was sealed in 1961, it became the main land route from Whangarei to the Far North, bypassing Whangaroa. With these changes in road infrastructure and a steady decline in coastal shipping, the area's settlements slowly became less busy.


Reference: Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand