Boundaries and region
The East Coast is a relatively isolated region. Bounded by mountain ranges to the west and rugged country to the south, and facing east onto the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, it has fewer routes linking it with the rest of the North Island than any other area. Until the 1920s most travellers from outside the region arrived by sea. In the 21st century, only two state highways link the region with its neighbours.
The region is commonly divided into the East Coast proper, or East Cape, and Poverty Bay. East Cape is a series of bays, small river flats and townships along State Highway 35 north of Gisborne. Inland, large tracts of hill country culminate in Hikurangi mountain (1,752 m). Poverty Bay, with the city of Gisborne, the seaport, vineyards, cropland and surf beaches, resembles Hawke’s Bay, to its south.
The East Coast is the region with the highest percentage of Māori – 48.9% in 2013 (compared to 14.9% for New Zealand as a whole). In East Cape, the heartland of Ngāti Porou, over 85% of residents are Māori. In 2013 the population of the region was 43,653.
The territory of the Gisborne District Council, which covers the region, is the largest in the North Island. With an area of 8,351 square kilometres, it is 7.3% of the total area of the North Island.
The region as a whole is also sometimes referred to as East Cape and, more recently, Eastland (which can also include Ōpōtiki and Wairoa). Another name, Te Tairāwhiti – the coast of the rising sun – in the past referred to the whole eastern coast from Tauranga to Wairarapa.
Māori settlement and traditions
For centuries Māori hapū groupings populated the region, migrating from the coast to inland and back again as the seasons changed. As the populations of hapū increased and stretched available resources, warfare between groups became common. Many Māori place names throughout the region tell of tīpuna (ancestors) who were either victorious or vanquished in battle.
Deeply ingrained in the traditions of the East Coast region are the achievements of the legendary demigod Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga. Māui is known for a number of feats, including slowing down the sun, acquiring fire and obtaining the sacred jawbone of enchantment and knowledge. But to this region his greatest feat was fishing up the North Island – Te Ika-a-Māui (the great fish of Māui). As he and his brothers hauled the fish from the depths, the seawaters receded and their canoe Nukutaimemeha was grounded on the first piece of land to emerge – Hikurangi mountain.
Many ancestors are associated with Hikurangi, the highest non-volcanic mountain in the North Island. One ancestor – who became widely known due to the internationally successful movie Whale rider (2002) – is Paikea, who took refuge on the mountain to escape great waves sent to drown him by his half brother Ruatapu.
The Tūranganui River in Gisborne is where British explorer James Cook originally set foot in New Zealand. Te Toka-a-Taiau, a rock that once stood in the river, was the site of the first meeting between Europeans (Cook’s party) and Māori in 1769.
From the arrival of Europeans
Europeans first came to the region as traders and missionaries. In the 1860s Māori faced conflict both among themselves and with the government over matters of religion and self-determination. From the 1870s onwards Māori in Poverty Bay had to deal with Pākehā settlers. Māori frequently became indebted to Pākehā traders, and often lost their land to repay the debt. In East Cape, Ngāti Porou had more success in holding on to their land and autonomy.
From the 1890s to around 1920 the settler economy boomed. Many fortunes were made and Gisborne grew from a township to a substantial urban centre. Following the economic depression of the 1930s, there was another period of prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s. From around 1970 the region faced challenges, as its economy depended on a limited range of industries.
The later 20th and early 21st centuries saw a burgeoning of economic activity around recreational opportunities, along with events such as music festivals.
In contrast to other regions, nearly half of the East Coast’s population identify as Māori..The conflict between races played a large part in the region’s history. The high Māori population gives the region its unique character.