In November 1769 Captain James Cook spent three weeks in the region. He observed the transit of Mercury at Whitianga, sailed around the top of the Coromandel Peninsula into the Firth of Thames and spent two days on the Waihou River. Botanist Joseph Banks declared the Hauraki Plains to be ‘the properest place we have yet seen for establishing a colony’.1 The immense trees, good anchorages and fertile soils greatly impressed the visitors, whose glowing reports of these brought Hauraki to the attention of Europe.
The tree measured by Cook
A kahikatea in the vicinity of present-day Hikutaiā had a circumference of 6 metres and a height of 27.2 metres to the first branch. When felled in about 1900 its trunk proved to be hollow.
Britain’s shipbuilding industry faced serious shortages of masts and spars in the late 18th century. The reports of Cook and Banks encouraged timber vessels to look to New Zealand. Among the six timber ships known to have visited the Waihou River at this time were the Fancy in 1794, the Hunter in 1798 and the Royal Admiral in 1801.
These vessels took spars of kahikatea, a soft timber which was in fact unsuitable for naval purposes. It was only around 1820 that a vessel – HMS Coromandel – visited Hauraki for the more suitable kauri spars. It was followed by HMS Buffalo in 1833 and 1837. Sydney companies entered the Hauraki timber trade in the mid-1830s.
Hauraki Māori welcomed early European contact because of the new goods it brought – iron tools and new crops in particular. They exchanged food and labour for European goods.
Marutūahu expansion to Tāmaki and Mahurangi, on the far side of the Hauraki Gulf, had led to conflict with Ngāti Whātua and Ngāpuhi in the late 1700s. Meanwhile, internal jealousies and tensions continued.
Shortly before 1820 a dispute between Ngāti Pāoa and Ngāti Maru led each to seek external allies. Ngāpuhi to the north remained eager to settle old scores with Marutūahu and were acquiring muskets through trade with Europeans. The stage was set for warfare on a new scale.
Ngāpuhi defeated Ngāti Pāoa at Mokoia-Mauinaina (Panmure) and Ngāti Maru at Te Tōtara (Thames) in 1821. The Marutūahu tribes fled inland to refuges in Waikato (around present-day Cambridge), leaving Hauraki virtually depopulated.
By 1830 Marutūahu had outstayed their welcome in Waikato; after the battle of Taumatawīwī, between Marutūahu and the local Ngāti Hāua people, they returned to Thames, prompted also by the arrival of European traders there.
In the early 1830s, the first resident European traders arrived in the Firth of Thames: flax traders at the mouths of the Piako and Waihou rivers. Soon after, Gordon Browne established a timber-trading station at Whitianga and William Webster established another at Coromandel Harbour. Places of European economic activity became magnets to the Māori population.
The Anglican Church Missionary Society established a mission station at Pūriri, on the lower Waihou, in 1833. The ‘Waharoa war’ in 1836 amongst inland and Bay of Plenty tribes greatly set back its work, although Hauraki kept out of the fighting. In 1837 the Pūriri station, surrounded by swamp, was abandoned for healthier locations at Parawai (Thames) and Maraetai.
The Māori population of Hauraki was probably about 6,000 in 1800, 5,000 in 1820, 1,000 through the rest of the 1820s – the years of the exodus – and 4,000 in the 1830s.
The toll taken by European diseases on Māori probably increased after 1840 because of the greater settler presence. An 1859 census by Francis Fenton put the population at 2,000, a considerable drop.
Treaty of Waitangi
Chiefs of Ngāti Pāoa signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Waitematā in 1840, but most other Hauraki chiefs chose not to, fearing a loss of independence. Tāraia of Ngāti Tamaterā led a war party to Tauranga in 1842, in open defiance of British authority. Until the 1860s Hauraki Māori generally managed their own affairs and often used muru (traditional plunder) against offending settlers.