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Northland region

by  Claudia Orange

Northland’s subtropical peninsula, indented with beautiful harbours, bays and estuaries, occupies the northernmost edge of New Zealand – where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. It was also an early meeting place of Māori and European, and the landscape is enriched with signs of a shared history.


Natural features

Like a giant finger, the narrow peninsula of Northland points out into the Pacific. To the west lies the Tasman Sea, and to the east the Pacific Ocean.

The sweeping west coast is pounded by huge ocean swells. Immense sand dunes stretch along a coast broken by the two large harbours of Kaipara and Hokianga, and the two small harbours of Herekino and Whāngāpē.

The east coast is more gentle territory, with numerous headlands, bays, beaches, harbours and tidal inlets.

A warmer climate than the rest of New Zealand provides a hospitable environment for flora and fauna. The vegetation ranges from wetlands to kauri forest remnants, while wildlife includes rare or endangered native birds such as the kōkako and the New Zealand dotterel, and other animals such as giant flax and kauri snails, and the unusual Hochstetter’s frog.


Northland is often called the nation’s birthplace. It was one of the first landing places for voyaging canoes from Polynesia, and an early area of European settlement. The first mission stations were established there. On 6 February 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi (named for the site in the Bay of Islands) was first signed by Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown, enabling two peoples to form a new nation.

The region is rich in historic and archaeological sites. They include massive sites such as Pouērua near Kaikohe, and New Zealand’s oldest European buildings, at Kerikeri. Distinctive to the region are the many small white churches, whose graveyards sometimes contain carved wooden headboards.


Māori refer to Northland as Te Tai Tokerau (the northern tide). They are more numerous than in most other regions, and their language and traditions are strong. Yet many northern Māori have migrated or moved temporarily to Auckland – Northland is known for its fluctuating population. City dwellers and globetrotters come and go like the migratory birds which visit the region.

Other cultural influences have left their mark on the north. While most settlers were British, many Dalmatians (Croatians) came to dig kauri gum after 1880. Religion was also influential. In the 1850s, Scots from Nova Scotia established a Presbyterian settlement at Waipū. The nonconformist settlers of Albertland on the Kaipara Harbour dispersed, but the French Catholic and English Anglican missionaries based at the Bay of Islands had a lasting impact.

Where New Zealand begins

The artist Colin McCahon wrote of the furthest reaches of Northland: ‘The real Far North of New Zealand is unlike any other part of the land. I can’t talk about it. I love it too much … It’s a painful love loving a land, it takes a long time. I stood with an old Māori lady on a boat from Australia once – a terrible rough and wild passage. We were both on deck to see the Three Kings – us dripping tears. It’s there that the land starts’. 1

Society and economics

Northland has the most rural population in the country, and one of the poorest, despite pockets of wealth and recent economic growth. Remoteness, transport difficulties and low skill levels affect the development of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Unemployment is high, and median incomes are well below the national average. In some parts of the region, housing and health problems present a challenge for central and local government.

An isolated region

Northland has numerous small settlements, each with a strong local identity reinforced by community, sporting and cultural activities. While modern communications have brought people closer, isolation remains a feature of northern life. For visitors, the many wild, empty landscapes convey a sense of Northland’s remoteness from the rest of the country.

    • Quoted in J. Daly, Good as gold: being a New Zealander. Auckland: Godwit, 2002. › Back


Northland is a narrow peninsula, stretching about 330 kilometres from Auckland to Cape Rēinga. Of this, 265 kilometres (including the Aupōuri Peninsula) is within Northland’s administrative boundaries.

The region is 85 kilometres across at its widest point, and 7.5 kilometres at its narrowest. The typical inland landscape is rolling hill country. Flat land is rare, and found mainly in narrow river valleys and coastal areas. The main upland areas are the Maungataniwha, Tūtāmoe and Waimā ranges, with the highest point around 780 metres above sea level. There are spectacular remnants of old volcanoes at various places, including Whangārei Heads and around Whangaroa Harbour.

Coastal and inland waters

The coastline, about 1,700 kilometres long, is the most distinctive feature. The straight western coastline is indented by several extensive, shallow harbours, the largest being Kaipara and Hokianga. The east coast has an irregular outline, with rocky headlands, deep-water harbours, and sheltered, sandy bays and beaches. Numerous islands lie off the east coast. The main groups are the Hen and Chickens (Taranga and Marotiri), Poor Knights (Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi) and Cavalli islands. The Bay of Islands is named for its sprinkling of 150 islands.

Rivers and streams dissect the land. Many are short, with small catchments. Intense rainfall causes flash floods, while prolonged summer dry spells reduce the flow in smaller rivers. There are several small, shallow lakes, of human construction or formed by dune or volcanic activity.

Shaping forces

Northland has been shaped by geological processes for over 250 million years. The land has changed size and seas have advanced and retreated many times. About 25 million years ago there was widespread overthrusting of rocks from the north-east. Geologists liken this to a giant bulldozer scraping all before it and slowly rolling it over and over. This has produced a complex arrangement of sedimentary and volcanic rocks.

A different direction

The way Northland points to the north-west is believed by scientists to be a remnant of New Zealand’s original geological orientation. This angle was established between 60 and 80 million years ago, when the opening of the Tasman Sea separated the New Zealand micro-continent from Australia and Antarctica. The rest of the country has been bent around to a north-easterly axis during the past 30 or so million years.


The foundation rock is mostly greywacke, a hard compressed sandstone that was laid down on the seabed between 280 and 135 million years ago. This was once covered by layers of softer rocks – sandstone, coal deposits, limestone and shale – that have eroded away.

Uplifted blocks of greywacke form the broken hill country between the Mangawhai and Whangaroa harbours, and to the west of Whangārei. Deposits are progressively deeper further west, and are over 5 kilometres below the surface along the coast near Dargaville.

Ancient volcanic rocks make up many of Northland’s ranges. In more recent times the inland Bay of Islands became peppered with volcanoes, some of them active until 2,000 years ago. From Matauri Bay south to Tāheke and eastward from Hōreke to Paihia, there were over 20 centres of eruption. Lakes, swamps and waterfalls formed in and around lava flows.


The soils were the despair of early farmers. Most are strongly leached, warm, heavy clays with thin topsoils and low subsoil fertility. Although much of the forest has been removed, its influence on soil formation was marked. Kauri trees produced deep layers of highly acidic litter, resulting in poor soil. Although drainage and fertilisers can improve productivity, many of the soils are better suited to forestry than to agriculture.

Natural environment


Often described as ‘the winterless north’, Northland enjoys some of the highest mean annual temperatures in the country, although like everywhere in New Zealand the weather can be erratic. Typical maximum summer daytime temperatures range from 22°C to 26°C, but seldom exceed 30°C. Average winter maximum temperatures are between 14°C and 17°C. Summers are warm and humid, while winters are mild, with only a few light frosts in sheltered areas.

The prevailing wind is from the south-west, but in summer the remnants of tropical cyclones occasionally bring gusty north-easterly winds and heavy rainfall. In lowland areas mean annual rainfall ranges from 1,200 to 1,700 millimetres. On higher country it can be as much as 2,500 millimetres. Winter is the wettest season. The temperate, moist climate sustains a favourable habitat for plants and animals.

Trees and plants

Over the centuries Northland’s natural life has been greatly modified by human habitation. The region was once covered in native forest and gumland scrub. The latter, characterised by mānuka, sedges and tangle fern, emerged after pre-European fires. Indigenous forest now covers only about 14% of the region. These forests contain some giant kauri trees that survived the extensive milling activities of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but in the 2010s were threatened by kauri dieback, a phenomenon exacerbated by a plant pathogen.

On the west coast north of Dargaville are found the Waipoua Forest, a major conservation reserve, and the smaller Trounson Kauri Park. Puketī in the Bay of Islands hinterland is the most accessible of the more than 30 native forest reserves in the region.

Some 6% of New Zealand’s native plants are unique to the north – the forest reserves contain 125 species not found elsewhere. In summer the coasts blaze with the deep red of the flowering pōhutukawa, native to the north and sometimes called New Zealand’s Christmas tree. The harbours have extensive mangrove forests, which are expanding in some places. Groves of pūriri trees are often seen on farmland.

The pūriri trees are laughing

In the 18th century the dominant Ngāpuhi tribe evicted the people of Ngāti Pou from the Taiāmai plains. The displaced people saw the fires Ngāpuhi had made with pūriri wood and heard the burning trees splutter in a mocking way. The whakataukī (saying), ‘Ka kata ngā pūriri o Taiāmai’ (the pūriri trees of Taiāmai are laughing) expressed their sadness at losing their homeland.


The forests are home to the Northland green gecko, two rare bat species, three species of flax snail and the carnivorous kauri snail, significant populations of the North Island brown kiwi, kererū (New Zealand pigeon), North Island kōkako and Hochstetter’s frog. There are also small numbers of other threatened species, such as the native parrots kākā and kākāriki.

Coastal areas and wetlands provide a habitat for the New Zealand dotterel, the variable oystercatcher, the brown teal, the fairy tern, and migratory wading birds. The survival of many of these species is at risk, due to activities such as forest clearance, coastal development and drainage (most of the original wetlands have been lost through drainage works), and because of introduced predators. Northland has some predator-free islands on which tuatara and some skinks, geckos, forest birds and seabirds that are not present on the mainland still survive.


Possums, feral deer and goats severely damage native forests and threaten the kiwi population, as do dogs. Along with hares and rabbits, they damage horticultural crops and farmland. Weasels, stoats, ferrets, possums and wild cats threaten the native wildlife populations. Wild ginger has been a problem in forest areas.

Pest control is carried out by local authorities, landholders and the Department of Conservation. In the early 2000s, some 20,000 possums were eradicated from the Waimate North district in three years by private landowners.



In 2013, 151,692 people lived in Northland. With 49,161 residents, Whangārei was by far the largest centre. More typical of the north are the many small settlements. The largest towns were Kerikeri (6,504) Kaitāia (4,887), Dargaville (4,251) and Kaikohe (3,915). Paihia, Moerewa, Kawakawa and Taipā–Mangōnui each had between 1,200 and 1,700 people.

Since the 1980s the permanent population has increased slowly but steadily, mainly on the east coast. But Northland is the most rural region in the country, with little more than half the population in urban areas.

While there are very few Pacific, Asian or other non-European residents, there is a very significant Māori population.


Much of the region’s special character comes from its Māori people. In 2013 they made up 32.4% of the total population (more than double the national average, and second only to East Coast). Concentrated mainly in the Far North and Whangārei districts, Māori dominate towns such as Kaikohe. There is constant movement in and out of the region, mainly between Northland and Auckland. The people of Ngāpuhi form the region’s (and the country’s) largest iwi. Around 40% of them live in Auckland.

Lost in the city

Whina Cooper, a Māori leader from Northland, moved to Auckland in the 1950s. She was dismayed by the difficulties her people experienced when cut off from tribal support, and she appealed to Catholic Bishop James Liston for an urban marae. As a result of her lobbying, Te Ūnga Waka marae opened in Auckland in 1966.

Māori language

In 2013, 26.2% of Northland Māori were able to have an everyday conversation in the Māori language. This rate of language retention is exceeded only by East Coast Māori. In the 1980s northern Māori began a concerted effort to preserve the language by establishing kōhanga reo – language nests for preschoolers.

Age distribution

Northland’s age structure differs from that of other regions. There is a higher than usual proportion aged 65 years and over – many of them retired people who have moved to the balmy north. In 2013, 21.6% of Northland’s population was aged under 15 (a proportion second only to East Coast). This is partly a reflection of the proportion of Māori, who have higher birth rates than most other ethnic groups in New Zealand. A relatively small proportion of the population is aged between 20 and 30, as many young people go to other regions in search of work.

A mobile population

Northland has a substantial fluctuating population. At weekends, city dwellers increase the resident population, mainly on the east coast, an estimated threefold. Summer numbers surge well beyond that. Visitors are attracted by the warmth, easy lifestyle, and variety of recreational options.

First inhabitants: Māori

Arrivals from Polynesia

Māori elders say that when the Polynesian explorers Kupe and later Toitehuatahi reached New Zealand, they landed first in the north, or soon sailed there.

By about 1300 CE, voyaging waka (canoes) had arrived with migrants from Polynesia. Northern descendants trace their lineage to one or more canoes. The main ones that landed at sites around Northland were:

  • Kurahaupō – near North Cape
  • Ngātokimatawhaorua – Hokianga
  • Māmari – Ōmāmari and the Whāngāpē Harbour
  • Tinana – Tauroa Point near Ahipara; on a later voyage, renamed Te Māmaru, at Te Ikateretere, near the mouth of the Taipā River
  • Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi – various sites
  • Mataatua – Hokianga.

Other important canoes included Tākitimu, Riukākara, Waipapa and Ruakaramea, which landed in the far north. Tūnui-ā-rangi, Moekākara and Te Wakatūwhenua are associated with coastal tribes north and south of Whangārei.


Some of the migrants moved south, but a number stayed in the warm, fertile north, which had abundant food sources and provided the best chance of survival for tropical plants brought on the canoes.

By the 18th century the north had possibly a quarter of the total Māori population. Archaeological evidence from places such as Pouērua, inland from the Bay of Islands, reveals much about their way of life.

Many settlements were on shores and harbours, and in river valleys. Middens disclose the extent to which Māori enjoyed the abundant fish and seal supplies. Pā (fortified villages) were built for defence, dotting headlands and carved into strategic hill sites and volcanic cones.

Formation of tribes

By the end of the 18th century, the iwi (tribes) of today were taking shape. In the far north, six tribes from the confederation now known as Muriwhenua emerged: Ngāti Kurī, Ngāi Takoto, Te Pātū, Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa.

Naming and claiming

Around 1793 Tukitahua of Ōruru in the far north was kidnapped by Europeans. In captivity he drew a chart of the northernmost part of the region, which was labelled Moodoo Whenua – the first written instance of the collective tribal name Muriwhenua. Northern elders adopted the name when making land claims to the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1980s, but they extended Tuki’s boundaries further south.

Across the central north from Hokianga to the Bay of Islands were Ngāpuhi, a confederation of many tribes, all descended from the ancestor Rāhiri. Each retained a strong independent identity.

To the south of Ngāpuhi on both coasts, there were tribes of the Ngāti Whātua confederation (Te Roroa, Te Uri-o-Hau and Te Taoū) and Ngare Raumati, Ngāi Tāhuhu, Ngātiwai, Te Parawhau, and other tribes around Whangārei.

Tribal changes

From around 1750 to 1840 intermittent intertribal power struggles and battles led to shifts in the balance of power. Fortunes fluctuated, and settlements were often relocated.

In the early 19th century the majority of people in the far north lived in a band of villages from Ahipara to Tokerau (Doubtless Bay). The long northern peninsula was largely deserted. Some tribes had moved offshore to Manawatawhi (Three Kings Islands).

The Ngāpuhi tribe was consolidating its heartland in the fertile area inland of the Bay of Islands. Its influence extended throughout the region – north and east to tribes in the outer Bay of Islands and Whangaruru, northwards into the Ōruru valley and around Mangōnui, and south to related tribes near Whangārei. The population remained much denser in the Bay of Islands and Hokianga than further south. Into this changing scene came Europeans, the first arriving in 1769.

First Māori–European encounters


Northern Māori were some of the first in the country to encounter Europeans – explorers and their crew, arriving in ships:

  • James Cook’s first expedition (1769–1770)
  • Jean François Marie de Surville (1769)
  • Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne (1772)
  • Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville (1824).

Māori provided produce, water and labour in exchange for European goods. The trade served both groups, but was not without violent episodes. Most notable was the massacre by Māori of Marion du Fresne and 24 of his crew at the Bay of Islands, which was followed by revenge attacks which killed hundreds of local Māori.


In 1788 a British penal colony was set up in New South Wales, Australia. As a result, Māori at places such as Hokianga began to trade timber and flax and make visits across the Tasman Sea. In 1805–6 the northern chief Te Pahi visited Port Jackson (Sydney), where the missionary Samuel Marsden introduced him to agricultural skills and new crops such as fruit trees. Other chiefs soon followed.

In 1814–15, New Zealand’s first missionaries, from the Anglican Church Missionary Society – William Hall, Thomas Kendall and John King – settled in the Bay of Islands.

These events led to a revolution in Māori agriculture and the Māori way of life.

Musket Wars

Māori saw the arrival of traders and missionaries as a chance to gain access to European goods and skills, and to enhance their power and influence. Northern iwi were the first to seize the advantage, acquiring muskets in return for food and protection.

Under the leadership of the rangatira Hongi Hika, they travelled south to attack other iwi – notably Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāti Maru, Waikato, Te Arawa and Ngāti Whātua – from 1819 through the 1820s. These wars avenged previous defeats. Through conquest, the northern iwi acquired slaves who helped them grow crops such as potatoes for sale and export.

Religion and literacy

In 1823 Church Missionary Society missionaries Henry and Marianne Williams arrived at Paihia, where a press was founded to print religious literature in the Māori language. New mission stations opened in the area: Wesleyan missions at Kaeo (1823) and Mangungu (1828), and another Anglican mission at Kaitāia (1833).

In 1839, Bishop Jean Baptiste François Pompallier began a French Catholic mission at Kororāreka (present-day Russell). His priests ranged widely in the north in the next decade.

By the 1830s, Māori in the north had started to adopt Christian ways (it was called ‘going missionary’). Their reasons included:

  • a willingness to experiment with change
  • a desire for literacy
  • war-weariness
  • the hope of eternal life, despite demoralising European diseases.

Converts often became keen teachers, taking the Christian message and Māori-language literature into remote districts, ahead of the missionaries.

Whalers, traders and sailors

British and American sperm whalers had first used sheltered northern anchorages in the 1790s, and these visits increased in the 1830s. Northern Māori moved to coastal settlements, organised a supply of labour, and cultivated crops suitable for ships’ crews. Sometimes taken on by whalers as crew, they travelled the Pacific Ocean and beyond. By the mid-1830s Kororāreka was a bustling port, refitting and refreshing American, French and British whaling vessels, and attracting Pacific traders.

First impressions

Early traveller John Liddiard Nicholas described Muriwhenua Māori in 1814, at a time when Europeans usually considered other races inferior:

‘I never thought it likely they could be so fine a race of people as I now found them. In their persons they generally rose above the middle stature, some were even six feet and upwards, and all their limbs were remarkable for perfect symmetry and great muscular strength. Their countenances … were pleasing and intelligent … Though too often ill-treated by Europeans, they shewed not the least distrust of coming among us.’ 1

British protection

Trade brought a few hundred permanent settlers: retired ships’ captains, deserters, traders, artisans, escaped convicts and drifters. They coexisted with Māori in a working relationship, but in the 1830s some appealed for British law and order.

The British government’s representative, James Busby (known as the British Resident), took up his appointment at Waitangi in 1833. The following year he organised the selection by Māori of a national flag, primarily to be flown by ships being built at Hokianga. Northern Māori appealed in 1835 for British protection of their country’s independence, as other countries showed colonising ambitions. But Busby lacked the means to assert British authority. New Zealand did not become a British colony until 1840.

    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Between worlds. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 454. › Back

Māori society: 1840–1900

The Treaty of Waitangi

On 5 February 1840 several hundred northern chiefs gathered at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands. They were presented with a treaty by William Hobson, representing the British Crown. Hobson wanted the chiefs to accept British sovereignty, in return for guarantees of certain Māori rights.

Signed on 6 February by over 40 chiefs, the treaty circulated around the country for six months, and was signed by up to 200 northern Māori and over 300 others. Meanwhile, in May, Hobson proclaimed British sovereignty over the whole country.

Shadow or substance?

Te Rarawa chief Nōpera Pana-kareao talked about his understanding of the treaty at the Kaitāia signing in April 1840: ‘Ko te atarau o te whenua i riro i a te Kuini, ko te tinana o te whenua i waiho ki ngā Māori’. 1 (The shadow of the land will go to the Queen [of England], but the substance will remain with us.) A year later he reversed this opinion.

Challenging British control

The key benefits of the treaty expected by Māori – European settlement and trade – were short-lived. A British administration was initially established at Okiato near Kororāreka (present-day Russell), but moved south to Auckland in 1841. Much of the north’s shipping and trade followed. As commercial activity declined, so did local settler and Māori economies.

Dissatisfied with British control and its effects, Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke challenged British sovereignty in 1844–45 and war followed. It began in March 1845 with Russell largely destroyed, and ended inconclusively in January 1846. Many of the settlers who had been evacuated to Auckland stayed there.

Loss of land

The government investigated land purchases from Māori which had been made before the signing of the treaty, and made limited land grants to European settlers as a result, retaining the remainder as ‘surplus’ land. The grants were not always taken up, because the government encouraged settlers to accept equivalent land allotments elsewhere. Māori who had sold strategic sites in anticipation of reciprocal benefits of settlement, lost both.

Between 1850 and 1865 the government made extensive land purchases from Māori. After 1865 the Native Land Court made land more readily available for private as well as government purchase and transfer to settlers.

The government took no steps to create adequate reserves of land for Māori, or to hold sufficient land back from sale. By 1908 less than 20% of the entire north was in Māori control. Most of this land was isolated, under-developed, and economically marginal. An aggressive government purchasing policy had left Māori with inadequate land for their needs.

A helping hand

Māori helped early settlers establish themselves in many areas of the north. In the 1840s and 1850s they cut tracks and developed roads, built rush cottages, and cultivated crops. Europeans could buy potatoes, wheat and maize from Māori at very reasonable prices.

Māori in the economy

Māori had been drawn into a cash economy even before 1840, as the need for European goods such as flour, sugar, tools and clothing expanded. This pattern continued after 1840. Māori were keen to participate in commercial development: a few prospered, but many were only partially involved. Where land was not sold, some grew crops for sale to settlers, farmed a little or sold timber-cutting rights. Others were employed in timber-milling, coastal trade and other ventures. From the 1860s many took up gum digging. Most relied on fishing and seasonal work to supplement their income.

Appeals and petitions

From the 1870s northern Māori petitioned the colony’s government on matters such as settlers encroaching on their land and fishing grounds. In 1882 Hirini Taiwhanga led an appeal to the British government. In the 1890s northern Māori spearheaded moves to set up a pan-tribal Māori parliament. Fair government, anticipated by Māori as a benefit of European settlement, had not emerged in the north.

    • Quoted in Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1984, p. 83. › Back

European settlement: 1840–1900

Northland developed as a source of produce and raw materials for commercial Auckland. To promote settlement the Auckland provincial government offered each settler 40 acres (16 hectares), with additional acres for family members. Grants of land were also made under later schemes.

Special settlements

Sometimes the grants were taken up by groups wanting to form settlements with a special character. Arriving from 1854, some 800 Scottish settlers from Nova Scotia flourished at Waipū.

Modes of transport

Jessie McKenzie of the Waipū settlement recalled her hardworking childhood: ‘At first I used to walk to Whangarei [40 kilometres] with butter or eggs for sale or barter. Then we bought a horse and that seemed too good to believe. But when, after a few years, we became the owners of a buggy, life seemed just too easy.’ 1

Between 1862 and 1865 about 3,000 English immigrants sailed to New Zealand to establish Albertland, a nonconformist religious settlement at Port Albert on the Kaipara Harbour. The Albertlanders struggled, many moved on, and some who had intended to live at Port Albert decided that other settlements in the Auckland region were more attractive.

Other small settler groups included one under the leadership of Thomas Ball that took up land at Mangōnui.

Timber trade

The north’s richly forested areas and kauri gum (the solidified resin of the kauri tree) provided the main basis for economic development. The kauri, one of the largest trees in the world, was systematically milled for export and for the building industry.

The areas of felled forest steadily expanded in the 19th century, and associated industries such as shipbuilding developed. Tramways, bullocks and river dams took the felled logs out to local mills or to ports for shipping to Auckland. By 1900 timber from the north supplied many of Auckland’s mills.

Coastal settlements

Settlements initially developed as harbour and river ports, dependent on the north’s coastal shipping fleet for transport and communication. Enterprising settlers set up stores to supply goods and services. By the end of the century, timber towns began appearing in inland areas. Over the region as a whole, however, settlement remained scattered and sparse. Land communication was difficult between most areas of the north well into the 20th century.

Kauri gum

As demand for timber began to outstrip supplies of the slow-growing kauri, settlers began to dig kauri gum from the ground. The substance was a valuable export, used in the manufacture of varnish and linoleum. Gum digging was most profitable in the years between 1870 and 1935.

Thousands of diggers were engaged in the business at its peak around 1900. They worked the gum mainly in wetlands and swamps where there had been ancient kauri forests. Gum, taken mostly from the north, was Auckland province’s most valuable export for the 50 years to 1900. Around 450,000 tons, worth £25 million, was sent to Britain or North America between 1850 and 1950.

The Dalmatian influence

Many of the gum diggers came from Dalmatia (in present-day Croatia), where desperate conditions forced them to emigrate in search of work in the 1880s. Those who arrived at the height of the gum-digging years were mainly single men.

They endured harsh living and working conditions in order to earn enough to send money home. They also faced prejudice from British settlers and suffered under discriminatory legislation. Though many returned to their homeland, others settled and turned to farming, fishing and winemaking. Their descendants, some of whom intermarried with Māori, became a distinctive ethnic sub-group in the north.

    • Quoted in Barry Mitcalfe, Northland, New Zealand. Coromandel: Coromandel Press, 1984, p. 109. › Back

Farming and forestry

A slow start

Livestock farming developed in the early 20th century – first to supplement natural resources such as timber and kauri gum, and then to replace them. Although much of the north was not ideal for farming, many areas were gradually brought into use for sheep and cattle. Small dairy factories had been established by 1910. But progress was held back by the region’s remoteness, poor access and infertile soils, and the uneconomic size of holdings.

Government assistance

To overcome the many obstacles to farming, the government introduced development schemes for land owned by Māori or the Crown. The Māori schemes began in the 1930s and were only partially successful. Title and tenure difficulties were only gradually sorted out in the mid-1950s. The farms were generally too small, and many Māori migrated to Auckland in search of work.

The growth of farming

After the Second World War, state subsidies and grasslands research assisted farming. For those farmers who could afford it, aerial topdressing increased productivity from the late 1950s.

Dairying expanded on fertile lowlands, and by 1960 Northland had 22.6% of the country’s dairy cows, making it New Zealand’s second-most important dairying area. Over 30% of the region’s cows were milked in herds of less than 50, on small land blocks known as ‘billycan farms’. Improved roads and new technology in the 1960s led to the closure of many smaller dairy factories, leaving two centralised processing plants at Kaitāia and Moerewa.

By the 1960s sheep numbers had increased markedly. A trend towards larger farms, diversification of farm stock, and cattle farming was evident by the 1970s.

In 2012 the region’s farms covered 765,155 hectares, about 5% of the total area farmed in New Zealand. Beef cattle outnumbered dairy cattle, and sheep predominated, though to a far lesser degree than in previous years. The small dairy farm had long gone. There were major dairy processing plants, including one at Kauri, north of Whangārei, and one at Maungaturoto.


In 2012, 2,443 hectares were producing horticultural crops. In terms of area farmed, Northland was a relatively minor horticultural producer.

Horticulture, particularly fruit farming, has always been a distinctive feature of the region. For years before 1900, Whangārei was one of the country’s most important fruit-growing districts, particularly for citrus fruit. Kerikeri developed as a citrus-producing area from the 1920s and later diversified into tamarillos and kiwifruit. Grapes were grown for wine by Dalmatians as early as 1899, and more vineyards were planted in the later 20th century. Avocados are now an important crop.

One significant crop not indicated by statistics is marijuana, which is cultivated and sold illegally, often by Māori, as part of Northland’s alternative economy.

Early wine production

By 1907 Herekino, about 26 kilometres south of Kaitāia, had around 14 vineyards, all established by Dalmatian settlers. Between them they produced about 9,000 litres of wine a year.

Native forests

By 1900 it was obvious that the indigenous forests were a fast-diminishing resource. The government imposed prohibitions or restrictions on felling in some state-owned forests. Later, it created reserves such as the Waipoua forest sanctuary (1952). In the 1950s most of the milled timber was still taken from indigenous forest, but by 1960 exotic forests were the major source.

Exotic forests

Production forests were planted from the early 1920s. A range of exotic species was trialled before radiata pine became the main crop. Planting increased in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1960s the Forest Service controlled roughly half the total planting. The other half was owned by forest companies, local bodies, government departments and private individuals. Two-thirds of the total area planted was in radiata pine.

In 1987 all state-owned planted production forests came under the management of New Zealand Timberlands, a state-owned enterprise. A number of private forestry interests were then granted Crown forestry licences, giving them a right to harvest.

It was estimated that there were 151,735 hectares of production forest in 2014. Timber and wood products are exported to Japan and elsewhere through Northport, at Whangārei Harbour.



Northland’s economic minerals include aluminium, antimony, copper, iron, manganese and mercury. All were once mined, as were coal, gum and silica sand, but no longer.

Mining now focuses on non-metals or industrial minerals – clays, limestone and road metal. Ceramic clay is mined at Matauri Bay. Limestone is recovered for agricultural purposes and cement manufacturing (Portland quarry and cement works south of Whangārei is the country’s largest). Good-quality road metal is available over most of Northland.

Cutting edge

Northland’s production of industrial minerals began in pre-European days when Māori quarried obsidian from the Mokohinau Islands. This volcanic glass was used to make tools, especially cutting implements.


Most manufacturing is based in or around Whangārei, Kaitāia, Kaikohe and Dargaville. Northland’s exports are handled at the neighbouring ports of Whangārei and Marsden Point. Major industries include milk processing, meat processing, cement and fertiliser works, wood processing and clothing manufacture. Boats are built and ships repaired at Whangārei and on the Kaipara Harbour.

Oil refining

New Zealand’s only oil refinery, built in the 1960s, was at Marsden Point. In 2015 Marsden Point Oil Refinery produced half of New Zealand’s petrol, nearly 80% of its diesel and over three-quarters of its bitumen for roads. The refinery closed in 2022 and Marsden Point became solely an oil storage facility.

A pipeline extends from the oil refinery to a terminal at Wiri in South Auckland. For most of its 170-kilometre length it shares a trench with a natural-gas pipeline running from Westfield to Whangārei.

Fishing and aquaculture

The region’s coastal waters support a substantial commercial fishery, based on finned fish such as snapper, flounder and mullet. There are also crayfish, scallop, cockle, pipi and tuatua fisheries. Marine farming, long a profitable venture, by 2015 produced around 35% of the country’s Pacific oysters.


In the 1920s Russell was already a holiday resort and deep-sea fishing mecca. As roading improved, the Bay of Islands became the focus of tourism. By the last decades of the 20th century the region’s mix of historic, cultural and natural attractions, and its benign climate, guaranteed a booming tourism industry.

Domestic and international tourists increasingly visit the region over the summer months, and cruise ships make an important contribution to the local economy, especially in the Bay of Islands. Initiatives that aim to get a better spread of tourism and its income throughout the region include the Twin Coast Discovery Route, an 800-kilometre circular driving tour which traverses both the east and west coasts, and the Twin Coast Cycle Trail – Pou Herenga Tai, which stretches between the Bay of Islands and Hokianga Harbour.  

Transport links


Good roading came later in the ‘roadless north’ than in many other regions. In 1950 there was just 170 kilometres of sealed road. By 1961 there was still only 536 kilometres; in the 2010s only a third of the road network was sealed, one of the lowest proportions in New Zealand.

The region grew slowly, so improving the roads had low priority in national main-route planning. Unlike in other regions, one main route could not connect all areas. There were other difficulties: unstable land foundations and local authorities’ limited funds. In the 2010s a road network of around 6,600 kilometres made the north an accessible, compact region.

Not quite paradise

In the early 20th century, Northland was referred to as ‘God’s own country, with the Devil’s own roads’. 1

Road transport remains the main means of moving freight and people. The condition of major and secondary routes, and the number of one-lane bridges, became an important political issue in the 2010s. The National Land Transport Programme aimed to invest $460 million from 2015 in improving the state of Northland’s roads.


Northland had one of the first stretches of railway in the North Island (between Kawakawa and Taumārere). However, only short lengths were built to meet special needs, such as to service coal mining near Whangārei and Kawakawa. Rail extensions were built north from Whangārei before the main line was extended south to Auckland in 1925. The line from Auckland stopped at Ōkaihau, leaving the far north without rail access.

A branch line runs from Waiotira to Dargaville. By 2000 most of the rail freight out of the region was containerised meat and dairy produce, ceramic clay, and triboard, a building material. Within the region some logs were carried, but rail has had to compete with road transport. Its future is uncertain; in 2016 rail services to and within Northland were reduced. The end of the line is now at Whangārei (previously it was at Ōtiria, near Moerewa), and weekly freight services between Whangārei and Auckland were halved.


For years the north relied on coastal shipping, and there were numerous ports around its coastline. In the 20th century trade patterns changed as pastoral farming and forestry developed. Coastal shipping declined, as did activity at the many minor ports.

Awanui, Mangōnui and Whangaroa still functioned as coastal ports in the 1960s, but better roading soon made them redundant. For many years, barges on the east coast carried sand and fertiliser between the north and Auckland. But the seagoing trade became concentrated at one or two major ports.

Ōpua in the Bay of Islands opened to ocean-going vessels in 1924, but closed for security reasons during the Second World War. In 1957 it reopened as an international port. In the early 1960s Whangārei Port was developed as the chief port and servicing centre for the region’s southern section. Both ports primarily served export needs and had a low value of imports. Ōpua is now seldom used, except as a ferry wharf and recreational marina.

There are now several other port facilities on Whangārei Harbour, in addition to Whangārei Port. At Marsden Point a deep-water three-berth port opened in 2002, primarily for exporting forest products. A variety of cargo can be handled at both Whangārei and Marsden Point ports. The Marsden Point oil refinery has two oil jetties. There is also a specialised loading port at Portland cement works on the harbour.


An aerodrome for Whangārei was completed in 1939, and airfields at Kaitāia and Kaikohe were built for military purposes during the Second World War. Domestic air travel became possible from 1947, when the National Airways Corporation was formed. The first NAC service was from Auckland to Whangārei, Kaikohe and Kaitāia.

There are now three commercial airports: the main one is at Whangārei, with smaller airports at Kaitāia and Kerikeri. The north had no direct commercial flights to parts of the country other than Auckland until 2003. Over the years aero clubs and numerous private airfields have been established.

    • Terence Hodgson and A. M. Ringer, Auckland and Northland. Auckland: Whitcoulls, 2002, p. 10. › Back


Central government

The first election for a national government in New Zealand took place on 14 July 1853 at Russell. The successful candidate for the Bay of Islands parliamentary seat was Hugh Carleton. Over the years the north made few ripples on the political scene, with three notable exceptions:

  • Gordon Coates won the Kaipara seat in 1911 and held it until his death in 1943. He was prime minister and minister of external affairs from 1925 to 1928, and for periods he held the portfolios of justice, postmaster-general, telegraphs, railways, public works and native affairs.
  • Vernon Cracknell, a Kerikeri accountant, won Hobson (formerly Bay of Islands) in 1966, to become Social Credit’s first MP, for a three-year term.
  • Matiu Rata, Labour MP for Northern Māori from 1963, was minister of Maori affairs and lands from 1972 to 1975. In 1980 he resigned to set up a new party, Mana Motuhake.

In the 2010s Northland was covered by two electorates, Northland and Whangārei. Those who chose to go on the separate Māori electoral roll voted in the Te Tai Tokerau electorate, which covered Northland and took in part of Auckland.

Education and health

Education and health are funded in whole or part by central government. NorthTec (formerly Northland Polytechnic), based at Whangārei but with several campuses throughout Northland, is the main tertiary institution. There are also a number of private training institutions. Many people who live in isolated areas do not have ready access to tertiary education, but in 2015 there were 151 primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

Health care is provided by four hospitals, general practitioners and a number of other providers. Free medical care for the impoverished district of Hokianga (established in 1941 under the Hokianga Special Medical Area) was threatened when health services were restructured in the early 1990s. However, the community took action, setting up the Hokianga Health Enterprise Trust to retain the services.

Early local government

For a long time Northland was known as North Auckland. Under the provincial government system of 1853 to 1876 it was part of a wider Auckland province. Subsequently smaller territorial authorities emerged, and in 1964 there were seven counties, four boroughs and three town districts.

Hounded for money

From the 1870s, some northern local authorities required that dogs be registered and issued with a collar at a cost of 2s. 6d. each. The Māhurehure people of Waimā in the Hokianga refused to pay the dog tax, and descended on Rāwene on 1 May 1898 armed for battle. An over-anxious government dispatched a warship, two steamers, more than 120 armed men, two field guns and two rapid-fire guns. The protesters were arrested and tried, and the leaders jailed in Mt Eden prison, Auckland.

Local government

Since local government boundaries were redrawn in 1989, the Northland Regional Council has had responsibility for regional issues such as water resources, erosion control, and roading. Based in Whangārei, it administers 12,600 square kilometres (1.26 million hectares) of land area and some 12,000 square kilometres of coastal waters, which extend 22 kilometres (12 nautical miles) offshore.

There are three district councils, each responsible for local administration – Far North (based at Kaikohe), Kaipara (based at Dargaville), and Whangarei. There are a number of community boards in each district.

The social and economic disparities across Northland, as well as its geography and scattered population base, have influenced the finances and activities of local councils. The region’s high proportion of non-rateable properties such as Crown-owned land, reserves and state forests, has also affected the operation of councils. A budget blowout on a sewerage scheme in Mangawhai made the Kaipara District Council the most indebted in the country – $4,395 for every person in the district – and Mangawhai locals began a rates strike in protest at the council’s actions. From 2012 to 2016, government-appointed commissioners managed the council.

Richer and poorer

Despite Northland’s steady development over recent years, it remains one of the country’s poorest regions.

Employment and income

In 2013 Northland had an unemployment rate of 9.7%, the highest in the country. Personal and household median incomes are some of the lowest in New Zealand. There is also wide variation in personal incomes and standard of living. Inland townships such as Kawakawa, Kaikohe and Moerewa, with high unemployment, compare unfavourably with towns nearer the coast like Kerikeri and Paihia.

Contributing factors include:

  • a higher proportion of low-paid workers
  • a low level of school-leaver qualifications
  • young people leaving the region for better training and job opportunities elsewhere.

Health and deprivation

In the 2010s Northland continued to have special health needs, some of them a reflection of the high Māori population and its lower life expectancy. Māori life expectancy in Northland was nine years less than that of the region’s non-Māori. Nationally, the difference was 7.6 years. On average, Māori admitted to the region’s hospitals were 13 years younger than non-Māori.

The Northland population as a whole was more socio-economically deprived than other areas. In 2013, 43% of Northlanders were on the most deprived or lowest band of the national deprivation index, compared with 20% of all New Zealanders. The Far North District Council had the most deprived population of any local authority.


Housing in the north has long been a source of concern. The first surveys of Māori housing in the 1930s showed appalling conditions. A series of fatal fires in the early 2000s drew attention to the continuing issue of unsafe housing: no electric power, poor sanitation and other problems.

In 2001 Housing New Zealand, with other agencies and tribal organisations, began a five-year programme to eliminate substandard housing. This involved household assessments and property repairs, with improved wiring, installation of septic tanks, and access to safe drinking water. Moves were also made to provide some rental housing and low-deposit loans for purchasing homes.


Northland and its people are still recovering from the 1980s and 1990s, when many urban unemployed were drawn back into the north’s rural areas. The local economy was also severely affected in the last two decades of the 20th century by government restructuring. When the forestry sector became a state-owned enterprise, for example, many people lost jobs, especially Māori who were a high proportion of the forest work force. Employment opportunities remain limited.

Leisure and sport

Overcoming isolation

Events such as picnics, concerts and musical performances initially centred on home, church and school. As settlement expanded, a variety of organisations, societies and clubs flourished, serving to overcome some of the loneliness of rural life as well as forging community solidarity.

Community events

From early days Māori and Europeans joined together in celebrating special occasions, big and small – royal coronations, agricultural and pastoral shows, the return of troops, gala balls, weddings and farewells. Important too in this community life were events at marae that drew hundreds and occasionally thousands of people. Pākehā expected to be involved and the occasions were usually mixed. Perhaps the north’s many European–Māori families encouraged this.

In modern times, annual celebrations such as Waitangi Day draw large, mixed crowds to enjoy organised performances and sideshow fun. The north makes the most of its coastal waters by holding its famous fishing contests.

Cash for a catch

Fishing contests, with prize money for the biggest fish of various species, are a distinctive part of Northland’s sporting life. An annual contest has been held at Ninety Mile Beach since 1954, and similar events are held around the region during the summer holidays.


The north’s local loyalties are strong and interests are strenuously defended, especially in sport. Horse racing on beaches and flat land began early and by 1911 there were around a dozen racing clubs in Whangārei district alone. In some areas golf and tennis clubs were the focus of social life. Organised sports such as cricket, netball and softball grew in popularity in the 20th century.


Matches were first played in the 1870s, and Whangārei Rugby Club was set up by 1885. Local miners gave the game fresh impetus, and the first rugby union was formed in Whangārei in 1895. Called the Marsden Football Union, it changed its name several times. In 1920 it became the North Auckland Rugby Union, and in 1994 the Northland Rugby Union.

The north has produced outstanding administrators and players – among them J. B. (Johnny) Smith, ‘Doc’ Manahi Paewai, Sid Going, Peter Jones and Ian Jones (the ‘Kamo kid’). In the early 21st century Northland had the most rugby clubs of any union in the country. The Northland colours – blue with a kauri-tree logo – are virtually the regional flag.


Despite the commitment to rugby, Northlanders have excelled in men’s and women’s hockey, providing a succession of players for national teams. Jenny McDonald, a national representative from 1971 to 1985, is considered to have been New Zealand’s finest woman hockey player. She was raised at Maungakaramea, near Whangārei.

Creative life

Visual arts and crafts

The Northland region has attracted and produced artists of all kinds. In the early years of European settlement, painters such as Augustus Earle and Charles Heaphy recorded their impressions of people and landscape. In the 20th century Eric Lee-Johnson and Louise Henderson also contributed the outsider’s perspective. Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser made his home in the region and produced distinctive buildings such as the public toilets in Kawakawa.

The renowned artist Colin McCahon found Northland unlike any other part of the world. He expressed its uniquely New Zealand atmosphere in the acclaimed ‘Northland panels’ and the ‘Ahipara’ series. Other artists of national stature who have roots in Northland include Milan Mrkusich, Ralph Hōtere of the Aupōuri tribe, and Shane Cotton of Ngāpuhi, whose works have featured people and places important in Northland’s Māori history.

The photographers G. Radcliffe, Tudor Collins and A. J. Northwood recorded the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries, while documentary photographers such as Ans Westra produced memorable work in the later 20th century. Craftspeople have always found the region inspiring: potter James Wright was one of the earliest. They now cater to a burgeoning tourist market.

History and scholarship

In the 19th century, Māori historians and genealogists – among them Āperahama Taonui, Himiona Kāmira and Te Riri Kawiti – wrote down traditions and knowledge, previously transmitted orally. Early European writers, including Joel Polack, William Yate and Frederick Maning, described the north’s life in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s. In the 1830s the mission printer William Colenso produced thousands of copies of the Old and New Testaments translated into Māori.

In the 20th century Ruth Ross and A. H. Reed pioneered serious history writing about Northland, and Dick Scott wrote Seven lives on Salt River (1987), about settlers on the upper Kaipara Harbour. The publication of local history continues, and Northland’s past is exhibited at over 20 museums. Libraries developed early and some, such as the Whāngārei Library, hold major local collections.

Creative writing

William Satchell’s novels The land of the lost (1902) and The toll of the bush (1905) told of pioneering challenges in Hokianga, while Jane Mander evoked Kaipara’s kauri-felling days in The story of a New Zealand river (1920). Balladeer-poet Ante Kosovich voiced the often harsh Dalmatian experience, as did short-story writer Amelia Batistich in the later 20th century.

Fiona Kidman has used the north as the setting for several novels. The poet Hone Tuwhare, of Ngāpuhi descent, reflected on his Northland origins in some of his work, while Glenn Colquhoun, then a doctor at the small Bay of Islands settlement of Te Tii, won a national award for his first book of poetry, The art of walking upright (1999).

Pressure on the press

In 1840 at Russell, the English immigrant Barzillai Quaife published the New Zealand Advertiser and Bay of Islands Gazette – the second newspaper in the colony. But Quaife’s support of Māori rights and censure of government led to a clash with authority. The last issue appeared in December 1840. Two years later Quaife launched another, the Bay of Islands Observer, but his critical remarks soon led to his dismissal.

The press

Northland’s newspapers have helped build local identity. The Northland Age at Kaitāia had its origins in 1904. The Northern Advocate was launched at Whangārei in 1875. It was purchased in 1902 by Frank Mander, the father of author Jane Mander, who until 1906 was its junior reporter. Dargaville and Kaikohe have also had long-lived newspapers.

Performing arts

Theatrical and literary groups have flourished in some towns. Regular arts and music festivals are held, notably the biennial Bay of Islands Arts Festival based at Kerikeri. Northland has produced nationally recognised performers such as comedian Pio Terei, and Warren Maxwell, a vocalist with Trinity Roots and saxophonist with Fat Freddy’s Drop. Renowned opera singer Joan Kennaway trained Northland singers of international repute, such as baritone Kawiti Waetford.

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Northland: 12,600 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km


(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) data, 1981–2010)


  • Mean temperature, January: 19.5°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 12.1°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 1,350 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,115 hours


  • Mean temperature, January: 19.9°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 11.6°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 1,304 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,003 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Northland: 148,440 (2006); 151,692 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • Northland: 75.7%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Northland: 32.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Northland: 3.2%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • Northland: 2.8%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Northland: 0.4%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes:

Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua, Ngātiwai

Population of major urban area, 2013

  • Whangārei: 49,161

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Northland: 21.6%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Northland: 60.1%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Northland: 18.3%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 2013

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • Northland: 8.9%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%


  • Northland: 9.5%
  • New Zealand: 10.9%

Wholesale trade

  • Northland: 3.2%
  • New Zealand: 5.4%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Northland: 9.7%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012

(Agricultural Production Survey, Statistics New Zealand)


  • Northland: 282,916
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Northland: 240,447
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Northland: 269,244
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Claudia Orange, 'Northland region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Claudia Orange, i tāngia i te 12 o Tīhema 2005, updated 1 o Mei 2015