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Russell - roadside stories

Today a picturesque tourist town, Russell was once a lawless settlement. Then called Kororāreka, it was the site of the flagpole famously cut down four times by Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke, sparking the Northern War of the mid-1840s.


Victorian voice: There are many spirit shops, and the whole population is addicted to drunkenness and all kinds of vice. As Kororāreka is the capital, a person would be inclined to form his opinion of the New Zealanders from what he here saw. This little village is the very stronghold of vice; although many tribes, in other parts, have embraced Christianity, here the greater part remains in Heathenism. 

Narrator: In the 1830s, the town of Russell, which was known as Kororāreka until the 1840s, was a lawless town where drinking, brawling, and prostitution were rife. The town was called ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’. Whaling ships from around the world would stop at Kororāreka to resupply, and for their crews to have some rest and recreation.

By the 1830s, Kororāreka had become the biggest whaling port in the southern hemisphere. Up to 30 ships, many of them American or French, were anchored there with up to 1000 men ashore. Kororāreka was one of the first points of contact between Europeans and Māori – a meeting of cultures that shocked many observers.

Victorian voice: The town is a Gomorrah, the scourge of the Pacific, and should be struck down by the ravages of disease for its depravity.

Narrator: Whalers, seafarers and merchants mixed with adventurers, deserters and escaped convicts from Australia. Prostitution was one of the town’s main industries, and sexual favours were used by Māori in the purchase of many things, including muskets. Three-week marriages were commonly negotiated, and many local Māori women bore the tattoos of their temporary lovers.

Victorian voice: 30 to 35 whaling ships would come in for three weeks to the Bay and 400 to 500 sailors would require as many women. These young ladies go off to the ships, and three weeks on board are spent much to their satisfaction, as they get from the sailors a musket, blankets, and gowns.

Narrator: There were various Christian missionaries in the area. Most were Protestant, but in 1839 some French Catholics, led by Bishop Pompallier, established their headquarters in Kororāreka. They built a two-storied printery and produced thousands of copies of Catholic books, mostly in Māori. The Catholic missionaries left in the 1850s but Pompallier House remains today.

After the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s capital shifted to Auckland. This, along with a number of new levies imposed by the colonial government, caused resentment amongst local Māori. Hōne Heke, the first chief to sign the Treaty, was dismayed to see Māori losing their land and natural resources.

In July 1844, he cut down the flagpole he had originally gifted to the British, which stood on a hill above the town. The flagpole was re-erected the following year, only to be cut down three more times. Governor Fitzroy responded by sending troops to Kororāreka and offering a reward for Heke’s capture.

In March 1845, Hōne Heke attacked the town with 600 men. The attackers withdrew after one day’s fighting, in which 20 of the 250 defenders were killed. A powder keg exploded as they left Kororāreka, destroying much of the old town. This proved to be the first confrontation in what became the Northern War, which ended with no clear winner after two years* of intermittent fighting.

Today, Russell is a tourist town. At the northern end of the beachfront is the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, New Zealand’s first licensed bar. Russell’s Christ Church, built in 1836, survived the sacking of Kororāreka in 1845, and still stands today. A variety of cruises and tours leave from Russell, which is the base for many of the big-game fishing charter boats.

* The Northern War actually lasted for 10 months, from March 1845 until January 1846.

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Russell - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated