Story: Hawke’s Bay region

Page 5. European contact

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First contact

Lieutenant James Cook sailed the Endeavour into Hawke Bay (which he named after the British First Lord of the Admiralty) in October 1769. Captain and crew remained on board, but some Māori paid them a visit by waka (canoe). Others approached the ship but either refused to come aboard or threatened to attack. Some trading of goods occurred during this visit, and during Cook’s second visit in 1773.


Cook reported on the abundant natural resources of New Zealand, and it was not long before others made the long journey south to harvest them. The British government later encouraged whaling by offering financial incentives. Ship-based whaling off the Hawke’s Bay coast started first, and shore-based whaling stations were established in 1837 at Waikōkopu, near Wairoa, and on the Māhia Peninsula.

In addition to traditional harvesting of beached whales, Māori also took part in commercial whaling. Whalers often married Māori women, who acted as mediators between the whalers and Māori when necessary.

Hawke’s Bay became a whaling centre, but, as elsewhere in New Zealand, excessive hunting led to a sharp decline in the whale population. Larger operations ceased by the early 1860s.

Lawless times?


Hawke’s Bay was far away from the major towns and the seat of government, and was described in 1850 as ‘the Alsatia of the colony, whither all the disorderly and desperate characters resort to be out of the reach of the law’.1 (Alsatia was an area of London that had been a haven for those running away from the law). However, this statement probably says more about the prejudices of the Wellington-based newspaper – historians of Hawke’s Bay have not noted an excess of criminality amongst its earliest European residents.



By necessity, whalers were also traders. Other Pākehā came to the region specifically to trade with Māori. The first known is flax trader Barnet Burns, who arrived at the Māhia Peninsula in 1831. He established a trading station, but this was closed by his Sydney-based employer 11 months later. Northland-based trader J. S. Polack spent some time in Hawke’s Bay in 1836, but it is not known if he did much trading.

Merchant William Barnard Rhodes opened trading stations at Māhia and Clifton, near Hastings, in 1839, and installed agents to manage them. They obtained commodities like flax, pork and seasonal produce for the Australian market in return for goods desired by Māori. Scotsman Alexander Alexander arrived in 1846 and set up a number of trading posts. Unlike most, he stayed in the region, dying there in 1873.

Whalers and traders introduced Hawke’s Bay Māori to new ideas and practices such as farming for financial gain. However, because Pākehā were present in small numbers, Māori society was not much altered by this contact at this stage.

Fiery faith


Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries competed for Māori converts, and intense public debates were common. Father Jean Lampila, a Catholic missionary resident in Hawke’s Bay in the early 1850s, turned up the heat considerably by challenging his Anglican rivals in the district, William Colenso and James Hamlin, to walk through fire as a test of their religious beliefs. They refused, but Lampila continued to issue similar dares to missionaries in other districts. There is no record of anyone taking up the challenge.



William Williams of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) visited Māhia in 1834, and spent time in Hawke’s Bay in 1840 after he had established a mission station at Tūranganui (Gisborne). Mission stations were not established in Hawke’s Bay until 1844, when one was started by William and Elizabeth Colenso at Waitangi, near Clive, and another by James and Elizabeth Hamlin at Wairoa. However, the presence of CMS-educated ‘native teachers’ meant that the Christian faith had a modest toe-hold in the region before this.

The Catholic Church was not far behind. Bishop Pompallier visited Māhia in 1841 and Father Claude-André Baty landed in Wairoa later that year, travelling throughout the district. A permanent mission station was founded at Pākōwhai in 1851, and later transferred to nearby Meeanee.

  1. New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian, 3 April 1850, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Hawke’s Bay region - European contact', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 13 Aug 2009, updated 1 Jul 2015