Great Barrier Island ~ History

The first settlers to arrive on Great Barrier Island were the Maoris, arriving from distant Pacific islands. They named the Island Aotea, which means White Cloud after an early canoe. Captain James Cook discovered the Island during the Endevour's exploration of  New Zealand in 1769. He named the Island Great Barrier because it formed a breakwater between the Hauraki Gulf and the Pacific.

Large numbers of Maori people occupied Great Barrier Island prior to the arrival of the first European settlers. During 1838 in Tryphena, an awful massacre occured between the fighting local tribes, and invaders from Coromandel.  Descendents from both the Ngatiwai and Ngatimaru tribes still inhabit the northern end of the Island. They have cultivated land around Katherine Bay since European occupation. In the past, they cut Puriri posts for sale in Auckland. After World War II, many left to find work on the mainland due to a decline in the economics of dairying.

The first European settlers arrived during the 1840's and were involved in extraction industries. Kauri milling was established in 1840, and later in 1888 the Kauri Timber Company took over an earlier operator and established a large scale logging enterprise. At Whangaparapara, the Southern Hemispheres largest mill operated, consisting a settlement of 200 people. Timber was shipped directly to Australia and Europe, and in later years timber was brought across from Northland for milling. They built three timber dams, and tramways to take out the massive logs. The kauri bushmen were tough, gutsy and resourceful. Pohutakawa was also exported for boat-building. Logging operations continued until around 1927.

From 1847, settlers arrived from Cornwall, Westmoreland, Germany, Dublin & Tipperary. They cleared the land for agricultural use, and from the 1860's Manuka and Kanuka was shipped to Auckland for firewood. They were resourceful people, using what the land could provide to survive. With few roads, travel about the Island was difficult with bulls and horses being used to cross the rough hills.

Beekeeping was first started by George Blackwell (Les Blackwell's great grandfather), and during the 1880's the Island had over 1,000 hives originating from imported Italian bees. Claimed to be one of the first bee keeping ventures in New Zealand, during 1895 10-tons of honey was produced, most being shipped to England.

During 1892, silver was found at Okupu (by Bev Blackwell's great grandfather, Sanderson), and gold was discovered at White Cliffs nearby. Shortly afterwards, the Oreville stamping battery catered for the processing of the Sunbeam and Iona mines, and during the early 1900's had a settlement of 1,000 people. In 1908 the Barrier Mining Company closed it's Oreville operation. Other small-scale mining operations have continued since then. Copper has also been extracted from the Island, together with manganese and sulphur. Locations include the Whangaparapara enterance and Miners Head at the northern-end.

A pigeongram servce began in 1896, because news of the S.S. Waiarapa tradgedy one year prior, took 3-4 days to reach Auckland by sea. It became the world's first regular airmail service, and used the world's first airmail stamps. It continued until the closure of Oreville in 1908.
Dairying has been the main agriculture pursued, with fresh cream being sent to Auckland by boat for many years. A shortage of farming equipment, bad soil and high freight costs have made farming difficult. Today, much of the land previously used has either converted back to natural bush, or been sub-divided into sections - especially in the Southern end of the Island. Farming today is more likely to be biodynamic, and successful horticulture includes barbacos and macadamia nuts.

Whaling first began in 1829, with a resurgence in the 1950's. In 1957 a whaling station was opened at Tennis Court Bay, Wharaparapara. Ships from as far as Norway came to load whale oil. The operation was difficult, and the whalers were forced to search further out to sea, pressured by large captures in the area by Russian and Japanese whaling fleets. The whaling station closed in 1962.

No records have been found on when fishing started on the Island. It is known, crayfish were taken commercially as far back as the 1950's. Mussel farming has been operating at Port Fitzroy, and several long-liners operate from throughout the Island. Fishing is less economic nowdays due to the previously introduced licensing and quota system, and over-fished waters.

Alternative lifestylers have been coming to the Island since the late 1960's, to face the challenge of hardship and self-reliance. They have a deep attachment to the Island as a good place to live. Living on the Island allows them to come close to nature. They prefer to live by their own rules and despise encroachment of city life on their once sleepy hollow. They are usually conservation minded and want to protect endangered land and wildlife species. They despise restrictions and bureaucacy, seeking instead self-sufficiency.
During the late 1960's the Islander's aided the country's first pirate radio station - Radio Hauraki which broadcast illegally from local waters in the Colville Channel. In Janurary 1968, the M.V. Tiri was forced onto rocks at the entrance of Whangaparapara Harbour during a storm. A second vessel, the Tiri II suffered a similar fate only months later, in the same area.

The Island is unique through it's isolation - an unspoiled paradise. It has geothermal hot springs. The rugged hills and mountains provide a wilderness of sub-tropical vegetation. The wildlife includes mainly birds, and some wild pigs, rabbits, rats and mice. It contains one of the only two nesting areas in New Zealand for the Black Petrel.

Compared to city life, the Barrier has no street lighting, with many homes only accessible by long bush tracks through rugged countryside. Recent changes during the 1990's include a crackdown on vehicle safety, with warrant of fitness now required for all vehicles.

The isolation from the rest of New Zealand is most responsible for the hardships suffered by the Island's settlers. Even todays residents are forced to bear the associated burdens of this isolation which includes infrequent mail and supplies of fresh food such as bread, high freight costs on all grocery items, and limited educational and work opportunities. No schooling exists after Primary level except by way of correspondence. It is a far reach from city facilities like libraries and other information centres. The Island does not have reticulated mains power, water supply or sewage system.
The resident population is around 800 people but in peak summer when pleasure boats anchor in the bays and holiday makers arrive by plane and boat, numbers reach over 30,000. Activity is seasonal consisting only a short period of the year. A small tourist industry is geared towards catering for all-season visitors, usually backpackers, many from overseas.

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