“Containing a greater number of rogues than any other spot of equal size in the universe.”
When you read a phrase like that, you wouldn’t think someone would be talking about a place in dear old sweet New Zealand. But they were, and he did and it was true.
The place this early Christian minister was speaking about was Kororareka, which has also been described as the ‘Hell Hole of the Pacific’, a settlement in the Bay of Islands region in the northern part of the North Island frequented by whalers in the early 1800s. It gained this reputation for the extreme licentious behavior of its inhabitants and visiting whalers notably involving ample amounts of drinking, fighting and prostitution.
On Cook’s voyages to New Zealand, he had noted plentiful marine life including large numbers of seals and whales surrounding the New Zealand coastline. Around 1791 when British ships were bringing convicts to Australia, it was felt more profitable if the ships brought something back to England on the return trip, and the ships began hunting for both seals and whales and bringing the skins and oil back to England. Soon numerous whaling ships began to ply the waters around New Zealand attracted by the large numbers of whales.
Whales were killed for whale oil, derived from boiling their blubber, which was used in Europe and America as an oil for heating and lighting, to make soap and margarine and also as a high-end lubricant for machinery. Sperm whales produced a particularly desirable type of oil, which burned smoke free and odorless, but all types of whales were fair game.
Kororareka was initially a Maori settlement. Over time, whaling ships began to stop there to resupply, and Kororareka became the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand, and soon became the biggest whaling port in the Southern Hemisphere. The Maori supplied the whaling vessels with food and timber in exchange for European items such as muskets and blankets. Soon enterprising Europeans set up grog shops to meet the thirsty demands of the sailors. During the early 1800s the settlement led the country in its consumption of alcohol, and was the first to begin production of alcohol when a brewery was constructed.
Because of its location and services offered, Kororareka attracted an unsavory variety of residents.
In 1827 Augustus Earle, an English aristocrat visiting New Zealand, described three types of European inhabitants populating Kororareka: a respectable group who ran such things as the blacksmith shop, a second group that he termed ‘Beach Rangers’ consisting of men mostly from whale ships who had deserted or been forcibly expelled from ships usually for serious crimes, and finally a third group of runaway convicts from New South Wales in Australia described as having ‘downcast and sneaking looks’. The New Zealand Company, a London based organization promoting the systematic colonization of New Zealand, similarly described the inhabitants as ‘vagabonds of dissolute habits’. Still another Presbyterian minister, John Dunmore Land, didn’t mince words defining the inhabitants as ‘the veriest scum of civilised society’.
When Captain Robert FitzRoy (captain of HMS Beagle of Charles Darwin fame) stopped at the settlement in 1834, he described it as consisting of some 50-60 reed huts with around 1000 Europeans living there along with the Maori.
Despite this relatively small number of permanent inhabitants, in its heyday, upwards of 35 ships could be in the port at any time, with hundreds of men ashore. Along with the drinking, the whalers also wanted sex, some having been at sea for upwards of two years, and a brisk trade of prostitution developed among the Maori women to satisfy this need. ‘Short term’ marriages were often negotiated. By some it was felt that the environment not only encouraged any bad habits the Maori might have, but also taught them new ones including the consumption of alcohol.
As one might imagine, it was also not uncommon for large, drunken brawls to occur often spilling out onto the beach. One fight apparently involved several hundred men and lasted two hours. Numerous crimes are committed ‘under the excitement of alcohol,’ the Missionary Register described the situation in 1833. Lawlessness was rampant, which along with the usual variety of crimes included such things as kidnapping seamen and selling them to other ships. It was the Wild West town of the South Pacific. And apparently to add to overall disagreeable nature of the environment, a large fetid swamp was situated directly behind the settlement.
To be fair, life aboard a whaling vessel in the 1800s was an extremely hard life, and one can’t entirely begrudge the sailors their respite, no matter how ill-mannered.
To provide contrast across the bay from Kororareka was Paihia, a model missionary settlement with proper houses and gardens approximating those in England. From here, missionaries preached on the sins of its neighboring Gomorrah.
In 1844 the price of whale oil fell and the prosperity of Kororareka declined. During this time, after negotiating the Treaty of Waitangi, William Hobson established the seat of the fledgling British government a few miles away from Kororareka in Okiato. Later it would be moved to Auckland and eventually to Wellington.
In 1844, the name of Kororareka was officially changed to Russell as it was part of the Port of Russell, and in 1845 a Maori uprising occurred and most of old Kororareka was destroyed by fire.
Today, Russell (the old Kororareka) has a resident population of about 800. It consists mostly of holiday homes and tourist accommodations including B&Bs, cafes and gift shops.
Drinking in one of the bars on the beach, one can only imagine what it must have been like some hundred and eighty-five years ago.
Wolfe, R. (2005). Hell-hole of the Pacific. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Books.