Bay of Islands

By Professor Tony Ballantyne

The Bay of Islands region, in the northeast of New Zealand’s North Island, was the initial focus of Church Missionary Society (CMS) activity in New Zealand. The Bay itself is characterised by long inlets, hilly peninsulas, and is studded with over 150 islands. The fertile soils surrounding the Bay, its rich rivers and estuaries, and sheltered bays made it an important centre for Māori agriculture, settlement and trade. When James Cook’s Endeavour arrived in the Bay in early summer 1769, he and his fellow officers were struck by the size of Māori communities in the Bay, the sophistication of Māori fishing techniques and waka, and the region’s vast natural resources. In the wake of the Endeavour, other European explorers visited the Bay for short periods and in time it became a significant anchorage for European and American vessels and ships from the eastern seaboard of Australia following the establishment of the New South Wales penal colony in 1788.

Strong connections between the Bay and the world beyond developed in the wake of the kidnapping of Tuki Tahua (‘Tuki’) and Ngāhuruhuru Kokoti (‘Huru’) from near the Cavalli Islands by the HMS Daedalus. This was on the orders of Lieutenant Governor Philip Gidley King of Norfolk Island, who hoped to learn the best ways to treat and prepare New Zealand flax growing there. After Tuki and Huru returned from Norfolk Island, some leading rangatira, including Te Pahi, recognised the value of trading with Europeans and the usefulness of potatoes and iron. In turn, Reverend Samuel Marsden, the principal chaplain to the colony of New South Wales, was impressed by the intelligence of Te Pahi and other rangatira such as Ruatara. Marsden’s positive estimation of Māori cultural capacity encouraged him to develop a plan for establishing a mission in the Bay of Islands with the assistance and patronage of rangatira, especially Ruatara. The genesis of the Church Missionary Society mission in the Bay is typically dated to Christmas Day 1814 when Samuel Marsden preached at Rangihoua, under Ruatara’s direction, on Luke 2:10: ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.’

In 1814 a range of hapū (sub-tribes) that are associated with Ngā Puhi as well as Ngāti Hine and Ngāre Raumati had claims to different parts of the Bay of Islands region. Scholars have identified an alliance of chiefs who controlled much of the northern area of the Bay during the first decade of the CMS mission, including Ruatara, Hongi Hika, Waikato, Tītore, Tāreha , and Wharepoaka, while another group of rangatira such as Tara, Pōmare, Te Morenga, and Te Koki controlled much of the southern Bay of Islands. In the early years of the mission, the authority of Ngāre Raumati rangatira like Korokoro focused in the east of the Bay until they were defeated in 1826 by warriors from the northern part of the Bay.

The relationships and rivalries between these Māori leaders shaped much of the mission’s development and helped determined where and when mission stations were established, who the missionaries could trade with, and where they could access key resources, such as timber, from. Missionaries themselves became important elements in the relationships between these kin-groups and indigenous political leaders. Dictating where ships could anchor, where missionaries might work, controlling cross-cultural trade, monopolising access to new goods, tools, technologies, and weapons became important tactics for rangatira who wished to increase the wealth of their people, gain strategic advantage, and demonstrate their mana (power, charisma).

The letters and journals gathered in this digital archive offer important insights into the shifting relationships and rivalries between Māori communities and the increasingly complex entanglements that linked those communities to the CMS mission and to the new plants, animals, technologies, commodities, and ideas introduced by these newcomers. Through these pages we can encounter the compelling cross-cultural struggles that accompanied the establishment and growth of the mission and the reshaping of Te Ao Māori as a result of these connections.