History And Heritage

Where did our names come from?

Te Whitianga a Kupe is the original place name of our town, meaning Kupe's crossing place. It is one of the few places in New Zealand to commemorate Kupe.

Following his visit in about 950 AD, many of Kupe's tribe settled here so Whitianga can lay claim to over 1,000 years of continuous occupation. The original European settlement was situated on the opposite side of the river from approximately 1836 to 1881. The past industries included boat building, kauri milling, flax milling, gold mining and gum digging.

For many years, it was a leading timber port, with sailing ships from Norway, Sweden, France, Italy and Great Britain coming to load timber. Overseas vessels of 2000 tons with a draught of 18" and carrying with their decks loads over a million feet of timber worked the harbour entrance. The larger ships were towed into the port from near Centre Island. Over a period of sixty years, it is estimated over 500 million feet of kauri was exported from the Whitianga district.

The first kauri gum was exported in 1844. It reached its peak in 1899 when over 11,000 tons of gum was exported at an average of $120 per ton. Today, Whitianga depends on fishing, farming and tourism for its prosperity.

The people of Hei commemorated their leader in a few place names, one being the bay at the head of which he had settled, Te Whanganui o Hei, (the Great Bay of Hei). This large sheltered bay was later renamed by Captain James Cook when he came here in November 1769 to observe the transit of Mercury. Cook was accompanied by Charles Green, the Royal Society expedition astronomer who died on the homeward journey in 1771.

From Cooks journal - "my reasons for putting in here were the hopes of discerning a good harbour and the desire I had of being in some convenient place to observe the Transit of Mercury, which happens on the 9th instant and will be wholly visible here if the day is clear between 5 and 6 o'clock." Cook also named the Whitianga Harbour "River of Mangroves" and this area is still referred to as "The River".

The sighting of the Transit of Mercury is commemorated on Cooks Beach by a cairn of Coromandel granite which tells the story; "In this bay was anchored 5 Nov 1769, HMS Endeavour, Lieutenant James Cook RN, Commander. He observed the transit of Mercury and named this bay."