Motiti Island is an offshore island in the Bay of Plenty, 6 miles to the north of the Te Puke coast and 10 miles north-eastwards by sea from Tauranga. The island reaches an altitude of 186 ft in its southern half and is composed of volcanic rocks, mainly hornblende and pyroxene andesites, probably of Miocene age (11–25 million years ago). Similar rocks occur on the adjacent mainland, west of Te Puke, and the presence of a submarine ridge linking these and the Motiti rocks suggests that they were formerly a continuous mass. The volcanic rocks at the southern tip of the island (Wairere Bay and Motiti Spit) are veneered with sands, silts, and pumice tuffs, laid down during the Pleistocene period (10,000–1½ million years ago) when the Bay of Plenty coastline extended further out to sea. Similar and slightly older sediments, trimmed back by the sea, form cliffs behind the Ohope and Opotiki coasts and at Maketu, on the Te Puke coast.
On 2 November 1769 during his first voyage, Cook sailed close inshore to Motiti where he reported the most extensive complex of fortified villages he had yet seen. In his journal he refers to it as the “Flat Island”. His interpreter, Tupaia, conversed with the Maoris in the vicinity. In 1832 Te Haramiti, an old Ngapuhi tohunga who dreamed of emulating the feats of Honga Hika and Te Morenga, brought a small war party (140 men) to Mayor Island and easily overcame its few inhabitants. He then took his party to Motiti where they awaited expected reinforcements from the north. When 1,000 warriors were seen approaching in war canoes they were welcomed from the shore; these, however, turned out to be Ngaiterangis who landed and annihilated the Ngapuhi party. This defeat, following that of Pomare in the Waikato, caused the Ngapuhi to cease their depredations. About 1845 there was a dispute between the Whakatane and Tauranga tribes over the ownership of the island. This was settled amicably, neither side taking possession. Twenty years later, when the Government was negotiating to purchase Maori lands in the district, the dispute flared up again. By this time the Whakatane claim to the island appears to have passed to the Arawas. There was considerable tension in Tauranga for a while because the Maoris were also being pressed to sell to local speculators.
Motiti Island, which is now farmed, is a habitat of the tuatara. The meaning of the name Motiti is obscure. As it stands, the word means “extirpated” and may commemorate the Ngaiterangi victory of 1832; it may, however, be a contraction of Motu-iti (literally “little island”).
POPULATION: 1956 census, 93 (75 Maori, 18 Europeans); 1961 census, 61 (42 Maori, 19 Europeans).
by Thomas Ludovic Grant-Taylor, M.SC., New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt and Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.