• Donna Zabel

Russell--A Lovely Place with a Lawless Past

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

Approaching quaint and charming Russell, a day’s sailing from busy Auckland, the quiet harbor lined with historic buildings and tourists sipping morning coffee from terraced balconies, it’s hard to picture this as the mid nineteenth century “hell hole of the Pacific”. It is even harder to imagine the famous Women’s War that resulted in deaths and destruction. But what began with insults and curses between a couple of Maori princesses over the affections of a whaling captain ended in a bloody battle that helped cement British control of the island.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

The recorded history of New Zealand began with Maori arrival around 1300 AD, the last of the Polynesian explorers. The sheltered bays and abundant fishing and wildlife were irresistible to these ancient explorers who traced their ancestry to Hawaii. For awhile the fierce Maori hunters kept the occasional European explorer away, but in 1769 Captain Cook arrived, charted the coastline, and within a few years whalers and traders had arrived, turning Russell into a lawless outpost. Even Charles Darwin, stopping briefly in Russell in 1936, commented how foul a place it was, “the land of cannibalism, murder, and all atrocious crimes.” He left as soon as possible.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

The Women’s War of 1830 was but one of many clashes between warring Maori tribes, and between Maoris and the British, mostly over the rights to land ownership. By this time the French were also interested in New Zealand. Partly to thwart any attempt at French settlement, and largely to extend the reach of the British Empire, the Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up in 1840. The treaty was ratified by all sides—Maori tribes and British officials, but there was one problem that has clouded relations to this day. There were two versions of the treaty: the one in English gave Britain control and ownership over all the land of New Zealand. The Maori translation, signed by the chiefs, did not translate the crown’s exclusive right to Maori land, nor did it translate that the Maori would be subject to British law.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

In Russell the treaty signing led to some interesting pushback, particularly the battle over the flagpole. On a hill overlooking the city British flew their flag. In the middle of the night a group of Maoris cut it down. The British put up another. In total, six flagpoles were erected and taken down. The skirmishes after the fourth flagpole debacle led to fighting and an explosion of ammunition and fires that leveled most of the city. Today hiking up to the top of the flagpole hill, looking down on the pretty seaside resort, it’s hard to imagine Russell’s often violent history.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0


· Enjoy a leisurely coffee or tea with delicious homemade croissants at one of the restaurants or guesthouses along the waterfront.

· Join a tour of the Mission Printery and learn the fascinating history of the missions’ handmade books. Try your hand at making your own inked print on an historic press.

· Pop into New Zealand’s oldest surviving church where musket holes from the 1845 war dot the outside walls, and the pews are lined with handmade needlepoint covers, a local tradition.

· Relax with a drink at New Zealand’s oldest licensed hotel.


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