The history of the Coromandel Peninsula and the Mercury Bay area offers a fascinating insight to life and industry in early New Zealand. The region has been continuously settled for over 1000 years providing the first landfall for the great migration fleet from Polynesia as well as Captain James Cook in 1769.
THE COROMANDEL PENINSULA
The Coromandel Peninsula, situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island is a popular destination for both locals and international tourists. This is due to the untouched sandy beaches, easy access to the sea (for fishing, boating, diving, water sports), temperate climate and iconic scenery of white shelly sands and native pohutukawa trees.
The area got its name from the “HMS Coromandel”, a British Naval ship that first anchored off the western side of the peninsula in June 1820. The ship itself was in turn named after the Coromandel coastal region in southern India.
The peninsula's close proximity to Auckland and Hamilton means there are many holiday homes in the area (or 'baches' as we kiwis call them). During late autumn and the winter months, the area is very quiet and relaxed. During the New Zealand Summer (Dec-Feb) the population grows significantly and there are many local events and festivals to enjoy.
The area itself has a long history of human settlement and is likely to have been one of the first landfalls of migrants from Polynesia who arrived in New Zealand on large sea-faring waka (canoes) in the 1300s.
After James Cook’s arrival in the area in 1769, areas of the Coromandel became popular destinations for European merchants due to its resources of timber, kauri gum, flax and gold (discovered in 1852). Settlers started to arrive during the 1830s, quickly acquiring land (often unscrupulously from the local Maori) and establishing industry around the local resources. Demand in England was high for timber and flax especially, due to the increased pressure on the boat building industry by the British Naval Fleet and the lack of local resources.
Mercury Bay is a large bay located on the eastern coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. The principle town of Whitianga sits within it as well as the seaside communities of Kuaotuna, Ferry Landing, Flaxmill Bay, Cooks Beach, Hahei and Hot Water Beach.
Mercury Bay was previously called Te Whanganui-o-Hei (The Great Bay of Hei) and was named after an important Maori chief, Hei, who arrived on the Te Arawa waka. The local iwi (tribe) are called Ngati Hei and his name was also given to the town of Hahei.
In November 1769, Captain James Cook sailed into the area on the HMS Endeavour in order to observe the transit of Mercury across the sun. This was to determine the longitude and therefore, the exact position of New Zealand on the world map. Cook significantly named the area “Mercury Bay”.
2019 marks the 250th year since Cook's voyage and there will be many celebrations and events marking this milestone.
FLAXMILL BAY AND THE FLAX INDUSTRY
In the late 1700s, Maori introduced the European visitors to the strong, abundant local flax and how it could be processed to make rope (and other useful items). This led to a booming trade in flax fibre, flax stripping and flax processing from the late 1860s.
Flaxmill Bay (known at the time as Homestead Bay) had a flax mill based there for many years until the early 1900s when the demand for flax dropped and the industry in the area quickly dried up. This is thought to have been due to the more cost effective hemp market coming out of India.
In 1769 James Cook was in the Mercury Bay area for 12 days, stocking up on provisions, carrying out maintenance to his ship HMS Endeavour and interacting and trading with the local Maori. He landed at Cooks Beach near the Purangi Estuary, hence the name Cooks Bay.
Cook also thought the profile of the cliff at the western end of Cooks Beach resembled the profile of William Shakespeare, so he aptly named it Shakespeare Cliff.
There is a small cairn at the eastern end of Cooks Beach marking the point where he landed. A larger one with more information sits at the observation point on Shakespeare Cliff.
WHITIANGA, FERRY LANDING AND TIMBER
According to Maori tradition, Kupe was the first explorer who visited New Zealand or Aotearoa (the Land of the Long White Cloud) prior to the great fleet of canoe migrations from Polynesia. He is said to have first landed at Te Whitianga-a-Kupe (Kupe’s Crossing Place) around 950AD.
In the 1830s Whitianga (and the surrounding areas) started being settled by European merchants who recognised the potential of the area. The original settlement of Whitianga was on the Ferry Landing side of the river and developed around the Kauri timber and ship building industry. Timber from Whitianga was New Zealand's first private export.
The original stone wharf (built in 1837) used to load up the logging ships, still exists at Ferry Landing and there is a Heritage Trail plaque near where you catch the passenger ferry to Whitianga. The wharf is believed to be the first of its kind in Australasia.
By 1838 the original town was bustling with a sawmill, trading post and boat yards. However, by the 1880s more space was needed to deal with the demands of the booming timber industry. The timber mill was relocated to the western side of the river and the second town (where Whitianga is now) developed around it. The new mill operated from around 1888 to 1922.
For many years, Whitianga was a leading timber port, with sailing ships coming from Sweden, Norway, France, Italy and Great Britain to load timber. The timber of the Kauri tree was popular due to its long straight trunk and few side branches (especially good for ship building). Over a period of 60 years, about 500 million feet of Kauri timber was milled, sold and exported overseas.
Unfortunately the vast Kauri forests that sprawled all over the Coromandel were over-exploited and exhausted by the mid 1920s.
COROGLEN AND KAURI GUM
Coroglen was a leading centre in the Kauri gum trade in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Formally called Gumtown, Coroglen is located about 20 km from Flaxmill on State Highway 25 towards Whitianga. Its proximity to the river that drains into the upper Whitianga Harbour, meant the town was well placed for transporting the gum (as well as timber) to the Whitianga shipping yards.
Kauri gum (fossilised resin from the Kauri tree) was found in layered sites (gum-fields) of long extinct Kauri forests that had flourished and disappeared centuries ago. Ranging in colour from light amber to dark brown, it was used by the Maori as a chewing gum and a fire-starter (due to its flammable properties) and also to make jewellery and decorative items.
Commercially, for the European market, the gum was used primarily as a varnish and later as an ingredient in linoleum flooring. Kauri gum diggers took out 100,000 tons of gum out of the Coromandel over 50 years, mainly from this area. Again supply dried up from over exploitation, but also demand dropped with the invention of cheaper synthetic materials. By the early 1920s the gum-diggers were gone from Coroglen.
In 1922 Gumtown changed its name to Coroglen, after a famous NZ Racehorse.
Progressively, better roads and routes in the area diminished Coroglen’s importance. The town is now home to the iconic Coroglen Tavern – popular in the Summer months as a venue for live performances by well known kiwi bands.
Paul Monin. 'Hauraki–Coromandel region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/hauraki-coromandel-region/sources
Janet Riddle ‘Saltspray and Sawdust - One Thousand Years of History in Mercury Bay, Te-Whanganui-a-Hei’
Carl Walrond. 'Kauri gum and gum digging', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/kauri-gum-and-gum-digging
A Flaxmill -1905 - Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050608-15-2
Bleaching Flax Fibre 1903 - Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19031029-2-2
Whitianga Estuary 1899 - Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990714-7-1
Men on Logs 1910 - Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-62133
Gum Diggers Camp - Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19111109-15-2