History of The Coromandel Peninsula

The islands of the Hauraki Gulf and the Coromandel Peninsula were likely places of first landfall for Polynesian migrants around 1250–1300 CE. In 1964, a fish lure made from the shell of a pearl oyster was found during an archaeological dig at Tairua. Given the absence of pearl oysters in New Zealand waters, it must have belonged to a migrant from East Polynesia.

The Māori names tell the story of discovery and settlement, beginning with the exploits of the mythical Māui.

  • Coromandel Peninsula: Te Tara-o-te-Ika a Māui (the jagged barb of Māui’s fish), or Te Paeroa-a-Toi (Toi’s long mountain range)
  • Whitianga: Te Whitianga-a-Kupe (Kupe’s crossing)
  • Mercury Bay: Te Whanganui-a-Hei (the great harbour of Hei)
  • Hauraki Gulf: Tīkapa Moana (an allusion to ceremonies designed to protect Tainui and Te Arawa tribes, which took place at a small island off Cape Colville known as Tīkapa or Takapū, which means gannet).

The Coromandel Peninsula still has one of the earliest documented histories on European colonisation. In November 1769, Lieutenant James Cook spent three weeks in the region. He observed the transit of Mercury at Whitianga, sailed around the Coromandel Peninsula into the Firth of Thames, and spent two days on the Waihou River. The township is situated on McGregor Bay and was named after the British Navy ship HMS Coromandel which anchored off Colville on 13 June 1820, visiting Hauraki for kauri spars.

The first European settler in the area was a trader by the name of Bill Webster, a jovial American who was a deserter from a whaling ship. He set up his trading post on Whanganui Island, at the entrance to the Coromandel Harbour, in the 1830s. He was a carpenter by trade and after learning the Māori language, he used Māori labour to build small schooners and prepare timber cargoes for the Australian market.

The Coromandel Peninsula was a natural stopover for traders because of its heavy stocks of the native hardwood tree, the massive Kauri. These ancient forests were mercilessly milled, clearing the countryside of its natural cover. Thousands of feet of timber were taken from the forests. The decimation of the great kauri forests began.

The Coromandel Forest Park (73,000 hectares) was created in 1971 to promote public recreation and conserve surviving native forest. It is divided into a number of blocks: Moehau, Waikawau, Kauaeranga, Hikuai and Maratoto, with smaller areas at Kennedy Bay, Ōtama and Whenuakite.

While the kauri tree had been the initial ‘gold’ of the region, hard on the heels of that came the discovery of the real thing. The first recorded gold discovery in New Zealand was in the Coromandel in 1842. The goldfield had little success until the arrival of well-financed companies with quartz-crushing equipment in the late 1860s. New gold discoveries in the wider area sustained the industry until the end of the century.

In the peak of the gold rush days - from 1880 through to the early 1900s - the population of the Coromandel Peninsula was well over 12,000. Waihi, which is situated at the southern end of the peninsula between Thames and Whitianga, was also experiencing its own gold rush and once boasted no less than 97 hotels. Today, Waihi has the only mine still operating in New Zealand, producing both gold and silver.

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