Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Māori tribes of the Whāngārei coast operated seafaring and trading networks that reached from the territory of the Muriwhenua tribes in the far north, through Motu Kōkako (Hole in the Rock) and Rākaumangamanga (Cape Brett), to Tāmaki (Auckland) in the south and eastwards to Hauturu (Little Barrier Island) and Aotea (Great Barrier Island). With these overlapping networks, related groups often lived in satellite communities spread along the coast.
Several ancestral canoes landed along the Whāngārei coast. The ancestor Manaia, captain of the Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi, landed at Motu Kōkako. Another account says he captained the Ruakaramea and landed at Whāngārei. Manaia’s people settled much of the coast, as well as the Poor Knights Islands and the Hen and Chickens Islands.
The Tūnui-a-rangi and Te Arawa landed at Whāngārei. The Moekākara, captained by Tāhuhunui-o-te-rangi, landed at Te Kawau Island and Cape Rodney. Te Wakatūwhenua landed in a small bay to the north of Cape Rodney.
Puhi, a captain of the Mataatua canoe, named several places to mark his voyage along this coast: Taiharuru (thundering tides) and Ngunguru (rumbling tides); Tutukākā (snaring parrots), where birds were caught; Matapōuri (darkness), where the canoe made a night landing; Whananaki (kicking), so named because mosquitoes caused a restless night’s sleep; Te Purupurutanga-a-Mataatua (the plug of Mataatua) – leaks in the canoe were repaired there; Whangaruru (sheltered harbour), where the canoe found safety from bad weather; Te Tīheru-a-Mataatua (the bailer of Mataatua), an islet next to Hole in the Rock where a canoe bailer was washed ashore. Puhi also named the Poor Knights Islands (Tawhitirahi and Aorangi).
Traditions say that the mountains Manaia, Maunga Raho and Tokatoka once stood together in Hawaiki. Urged by Manaia, they raced across the ocean to New Zealand, and as the sun rose they became frozen in their present positions. Manaia stands at Whāngārei; Maunga Raho and Tokatoka are on the Northern Wairoa River.
Another tradition explains how Manaia, the ancestor, became part of a mountain summit. One day when out fishing Manaia hooked a fish by its anus. Taking this as a bad omen, he paddled home. As he drew towards the shore he called to his wife to come and meet him. When she lifted up her clothes to swim out Manaia saw from the appearance of her body that she had slept with his servant Paeko. Manaia and Paeko challenged each other with incantations until Manaia and his wife, along with Paeko and several of Manaia's children, were turned into the distinctive jagged peaks atop the mountain.
Ngare Raumati are one of the oldest tribes in the northern Whāngārei region. The centre of their traditional homelands is Te Rāwhiti. Ngare Raumati lost much of their lands during late 18th-century battles with Ngāpuhi, who expanded from Kaikohe and Te Waimate into the Bay of Islands.
Ngāi Tāhuhu, another of the earliest tribes in the northern Whāngārei and Bay of Islands region, descend from Tāhuhunui-o-te-rangi, the captain of the Moekākara canoe. Ngāi Tāhuhu established pā at Pouērua in the Bay of Islands, the Mangakāhia river valley, Whāngārei, Te Ārai, and at Ōtāhuhu (Mt Richmond) in Auckland. By the mid-1800s their lands had diminished to encompass only the upper Wairoa and Mangakāhia valleys. Tāhuhunui-o-te-rangi’s son or grandson, Tāhuhupōtiki, married the famous Waikato woman chief Reipae.
Ngātiwai are descended from Manaia (the captain of the Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi or Ruakaramea canoe) and his people Ngāti Manaia, and are another early Whāngārei tribe. The history of Ngātiwai is intimately connected with the coastal waters. The tribe’s name comes from a tradition at Manawahuna, a cave beneath Motu Kōkako, where priests would foretell their fortunes from the way water (wai) passed through the cave. Well known as coastal raiders and traders, Ngātiwai have links to ancestors from Whangaroa in the north to Tāmaki (Auckland) in the south, and eastward to Little Barrier and Great Barrier islands where Ngāti Rehua, a sub-tribe of Ngātiwai, settled. Today, most of the tribe live north and south of Whāngārei, and are interspersed with other coastal groups such as Ngāti Kahu, Te Whānauwhero, Te Ākitai and Te Panupuha.
Te Parawhau are located to the north and south of Whāngārei, and inland. They have close connections with Ngātiwai, Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua, and also with Tahuwhakatiki, a captain of the Te Arawa canoe who settled in Whāngārei. One account says the name Parawhau comes from the practice of making floats for fishing nets out of wood from the whau tree. Another traces the name to the practice of preserving the dead in the gum of the whau tree. There is also a tradition that says when the tribe was under siege on a mountain in Whāngārei the ancestor Para performed a haka (war dance) to rally his people to victory. The name of the mountain has since changed from Parahaka (the haka of Para) to Parahaki.
Patuharakeke, Ngāti Kahu, Ngāti Manuhiri and Te Ākitai are tribes related to Ngātiwai and Te Parawhau, and occupy the coastal lands mainly from the southern side of Whāngārei Harbour to Mahurangi. Te Ākitai (meaning to be beaten by the tide) take their name from an ancestor whose body was dashed on rocks. Ngāti Kahu is an old tribe with an important link to Ngāti Kahu of Muriwhenua.
There are several histories that describe how Whāngārei (pronounced with two long vowels) was named.
One meaning of ‘whanga’ is harbour; these names mean the harbour of Reitū, or the harbour of Reipae. Two sisters, Reitū and Reipae, flew from Waikato in the form of two birds. Reipae stayed at the Kaipara. Reitū flew on and was seduced by Manaia in the harbour that bears her name. A variation of this tradition is that Reitū and Reipae arrived on the back of a single bird and that Reipae married Tāhuhu-pōtiki there.
Another tradition says ‘whanga’ means to wait and ‘rei’ to ambush. Whangarei is a rock (Castle Rock) opposite Marsden Point, where sentries kept watch over the harbour. This version of the name means to lie in wait.
Whangarei can also mean to gather. Ngātiwai named the harbour Whangarei-te-rerenga-parāoa (the gathering place of whales) because whales gathered there to feed during summer. Another interpretation is that the harbour was a gathering place for chiefs.
This name means ‘waiting for the breastbone of the whale’. One tradition refers to an incident where a young tohunga attempted to trick an older tohunga into revealing his highest knowledge. The master tohunga rebuffed his inquiries, saying, ‘E whanga nei i te rei o te tohorā?’ – Are you waiting (whanga) for the opportunity to extract the breastbone (rei) of the whale (tohorā)?
European pressure to acquire land for settlement has led to the Whāngārei coast tribes losing much of their lands. After the Hauraki, Waikato and Taranaki regions, Māori own less freehold land per head in the Auckland region than anywhere in New Zealand.
By 1860 some 42% of all tribal land had been lost. A further 1.6 million acres (about 650,000 hectares) was acquired by 1865, and by 1890 only 25% of all land remained in Māori ownership. There were further losses in the 20th century, so that by 1939 only 5% was in Māori hands – under 10 acres (4 hectares) per head. The economy of the coastal tribes was further disrupted as the government seized control of offshore fisheries and took land for nature reserves on Great Barrier and Little Barrier islands, the Hen and Chickens Islands, and the Poor Knights Islands.
In the early 2000s the coastal tribes of the Whāngārei area, often under the umbrella of the Ngātiwai Trust Board, submitted a number of claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. They were also at the forefront of many issues regarding the environment, including the taking of sand from Pākiri Beach, the destruction of kiore (rats) on Hauturu Island, and the preservation of important cultural heritage sites.
On 21 May 2011 Ngāti Manuhiri settled its historic treaty claims. The $9 million settlement included the vesting in Ngāti Manuhiri of Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island Nature Reserve. The whole of the island was then gifted back to the people of New Zealand, with the exception of 1.2 hectare site for buildings.
In 2016 Ngātiwai and other Whangarei tribes were continuing to negotiate over their treaty claims.
In the New Zealand censuses since 1991, residents of Māori descent were asked to indicate the tribe to which they were affiliated. The figures below show the number who indicated Ngātiwai (including those who indicated more than one tribe), and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013.
Daamen, Rose, Paul Hamer, and Barry Rigby. Auckland. Waitangi Tribunal Rangahaua Whanui Series. Wellington: Waitangi Tribunal, 1996.
Keene, Florence. O te raki: Maori legends of the north. Auckland: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1963.
Keene, Florence. Tai Tokerau. Whāngārei: F. Keene, 1986.
Lee, Jack. ‘I have named it the Bay of Islands’. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983.
Sissons, Jeffrey, and others. The puriri trees are laughing. Auckland: Polynesian Society, 1987.
Smith, S. Percy. The peopling of the north. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1998 (originally published 1897).