#925 Russell, New Zealand

When I was a child I read a lot of historical New Zealand fiction including Jacky Nobody (1984 winner of the Esther Glen Award) about the Bay of Islands area when it was first settled, with the famous chief Hone Heke and various tribes and groups. I particularly remember the trials that Jacky Nobody (the Maori identity-challenged main character) had with going barefoot with sensitive pakeha feet. My mother's family has a farm near Okaihau between Kerikeri and Kaikohe and I spent many a school holiday there, and my favorite thing to do was visit the Historic Places in the area, which after having travelled further afar are really not that old, but to me they will always be my first dose of history.

One thing that I was always shocked about was when I heard that Russell used to be the capital of New Zealand. It's such a tiny, isolated village now -- though charming and quaint -- that it seems impossible that it was New Zealand's first capital (before both Auckland and the current Wellington) even if that was only from 1840 to 1841. It is possible to drive there, but it's quite a long trip because it is at the end of a long peninsula. Most local visitors take the Opua ferry, but even that is a shortcut. When I visited as a child, we often only took the passenger ferry across from Paihia.

However, the capital was actually Okiato (Old Russell), 7km south of present-day Russell (which was then Kororareka). New Russell (which adopted the same name as Old Russell became deserted) was, however, the first European settlement. Russell was named after the Secretary of State for the Colonies (Lord John Russell). Originally a whaling and sealing community, Russell was infamous, known as the 'Hell Hole of the Pacific' rife with prostitution and being lawless, despite being named literally as 'How sweet the penguin is' (Kororareka). It's most significant part of history was for the flagpole on Flagstaff Hill, which was cut down by Hone Heke (John Heke) several times in protest that the British were no longer welcomed by many tribes despite the Treaty of Waitangi.

In a nice connection, this is also where my parents went on their honeymoon in May 1973. They fondly tell stories of emptying all the confetti from their suitcases on Russell beach. Such is the connection to the place in our family that my cousin, Tina, also got married here in Pompelier House in 2010.

Aerial view of Russell from
Map of the lower Bay of Islands with Russel at center. From
Acknowledgements: Most of the photos on this page are taken by Brian Marquand.


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