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Māori history of the Greater Wellington region

Māori history of the Greater Wellington region

Updated 12 April 2018 11:56am

The Wellington region has a long and eventful Māori history, including its identification as "Te Upoko o Te Ika a Maui" or the Head of the fish of Maui.

This naming presupposes the ability of early Māori to view Aotearoa from the heavens and envisage the fish-like shape of the whole North Island.

The head of the fish, in Māori thinking, is the sweetest part.

Modern archaeology has confirmed that sites found in the Palliser Bay area of south Wairarapa, along the southern Wellington coastline and on Kapiti Island are some of the oldest recorded sites in New Zealand, dating back some 650 years. This distinction is shared with sites in the Far North.


According to Māori mythology, Maui is credited with fishing up a large fish (ika). This became known as the North Island of New Zealand or Te Ika a Maui and the South Island was his canoe (waka) or Te Waka a Maui.

There are several landmarks in the region that are associated with this deed.

Wellington Harbour and Lake Wairarapa are referred to as the eyes of the fish (Ngā Whatu o te Ika a Maui). Palliser Bay, on the south coast of the Wairarapa, is the mouth of the fish (Te Waha o te Ika a Maui) and Cape Palliser and Turakirae Head at either extreme of the bay are the jaws.

The Remutaka, Tararua and Ruahine mountains make up the spine of the fish.


Kupe is generally considered to be the first Polynesian explorer to come to this area. His influence is evident in the names around the region.

For example, Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington Harbour is named after one of Kupe's daughters and Ngā Ra o Kupe (the sails of Kupe) are rock formations near Cape Palliser. Kupe and his people did actually populate the area, but returned to Polynesia.

Kurahaupo waka

Whatonga is noted as the next Polynesian traveller to arrive in the region.

Whatonga captained the Kurahaupo waka that is said to have landed at Nukutaurua on Mahia Peninsula. Whatonga had two sons, Tara and Tautoki, whose descendants eventually settled the lower half of the North Island and the top of the South Island.

Tara and Tautoki and their people migrated to, and settled throughout, the lower North Island. Their descendants include the tribes of Ngai Tara, Rangitāne, Muaupoko, Ngāti Apa, and Ngāti Ira.

Tara's name is immortalised in many prominent landmarks. The Māori name for Wellington Harbour is Te Whanganui a Tara or the great Harbour of Tara.

The Tararua Mountains that divide the Wellington Region from east to west are named after him also. The name Tararua is derived from the saying "Ngā waewae e rua a Tara" or "the spanned legs of Tara", meaning that his people had a foothold on either side of these ranges.

Takitimu waka

The next arrivals were Ngāti Kahungunu who descends from the Takitimu waka. They settled extensively throughout the East Coast from Mahia Peninsula down to Wairarapa.

They also migrated to, and lived in, the Heretaunga area or the Hutt Valley and inhabited the Eastern Wellington Harbour along with their Ngāti Ira relations up until the 1820s.

Taranaki and Tainui mana whenua

Since then, there has been considerable movement of Māori into and around the region. The Wellington Harbour area (Te Whanganui a Tara) has seen various tribes occupying in succession and periods of simultaneous occupation by different tribes.

The most complex and turbulent period began when Europeans arrived in the early 19th century and continued until the arrival of the New Zealand Company settlers in 1839. The harbour has been held by Taranaki tribes since 1832.

In the early 19th century, the migration of both the Tainui tribes, from Kawhia and Maungatautari, and the Taranaki tribes to the western part of the region (including Porirua), caused major changes for the Ngai Tara, Muaupoko and Rangitāne people who had been resident for many generations.

A taua (war party), led by Ngā Puhi and Ngāti Whātua, and including Ngāti Toa and Ātiawa chiefs, lay to waste many of the Muaupoko, Rangitāne, Ngai Tara and Ngāti Ira people in an area ranging from the west to the east of the region.

This taua proceeded as far as Hawkes Bay before returning to their home areas.

A series of migrations from these attacking northern tribes moved into the region over the next 20 years. This was the pattern of occupation that existed when the New Zealand Company settlers arrived in Wellington in 1839.


Ngāti Tama was the first of the Taranaki people to settle near Lake Wairarapa in the late 1820s.

In 1834, a series of battles between the West Coast tribes (Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga) and Wairarapa Māori led to the exodus of the Rangitāne and Kahungunu inhabitants back to their relations at Mahia.

After several years in exile and further exchanges between Wairarapa and Wellington (Taranaki) tribes, peace was declared at an historic gathering at Pitone (Petone) in 1840. Following this, Rangitāne and Kahungunu hapū began to return to the Wairarapa.