Kapiti Island, near the entrance of Cook Strait and opposite the mouth of the Waikanae River, is some 3 nautical miles from the adjacent coast and comprises almost 5,000 acres. It is an oblong-shaped island arising sharply out of the sea, about 6 miles in length, with a breadth of between approximately 1¼ to 1 miles – the highest point is over 1,780 ft. Together with Mana and the Brothers, Kapiti is significant as the remnant of a land bridge between the North and South Islands.
The name Kapiti is an abbreviation of the Maori “Te Waewae-Kapiti-o-Tara-raua-ko-Rangitane” or the junction line of the boundaries between the Ngai Tara and Rangitane tribal lands. Kapiti was also known as Entry Island – the first record of it we have is in the Journal of Captain Cook's first voyage when he called it by that name on 14 January 1770.
Rauparaha and his Ngati Toa, migrating from the north, attacked the island in the early 1820s, and it was eventually taken about 1823 to become a stronghold of this important chief. At much the same time European ships began to use Kapiti waters and carry on some trade. A few years later the whalers came, and shore whaling stations were established at Kapiti and the adjacent isles. By 1840 whaling had declined, but in the meantime a more permanent link with Europeans had been achieved – in December 1839 an American whaling captain, Mayhew, obtained native signatures for the sale of some 617 acres (called Whareko or Wharekohu). In 1844 Mayhew's land was transferred to Andrew Brown, who appears to have lived there and cultivated it from at least 1839, presumably as Mayhew's agent. Brown was awarded a Crown grant in 1851 and, apart from his area, only two small sectors, amounting to a total of 25 acres, were alienated from Maori ownership, although many Europeans held leases or some agreement before 1900. In 1851 Governor Grey himself attempted to buy Kapiti for £5,000, but his offer was declined.
In 1897 the New Zealand Government determined to make the island a forest and bird reserve and the Kapiti Island Public Reserve Act was passed. This Act compensated the European owners and provided for non-alienation of native rights except to the Crown. All but a small portion of the island is now under Crown ownership and administered by the Lands and Survey Department.
by Judith Sidney Hornabrook, M.A., National Archives, Wellington.