A new land's storied history

Three carved pou at Sealers Bay/Waikoropupu represent the enduring connection Ngai Tahu have with...
Three carved pou at Sealers Bay/Waikoropupu represent the enduring connection Ngai Tahu have with the island. Photos: Neville Peat
In his newest book, Neville Peat tells the story of Stewart Island’s largest outlier, Codfish Island, known better now as Whenua Hou. Here are edited extracts from the book, which traces the island’s geography and natural history, the first contact between Maori and Europeans, sealing, missionaries, farming, nature conservation, modern archaeology and the island’s status as an ancestral homeland.


Lying at the edge of Foveaux Strait, 3km from the northwest shoulder of Stewart Island/Rakiura, Whenua Hou is well known as a refuge for the endangered parrot kakapo, a poster species for wildlife conservation in New Zealand.

But there is an epic human story here, too.

Who would ever guess from its isolation and exposure to wind and wave that this island was a cradle for Maori-European contact around 200 years ago, some 20 years before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi? Its contribution to the bicultural history of Aotearoa/New Zealand is unique.

Whenua Hou commands a place in Ngai Tahu ancestral history out of all proportion to its physical size - just 5km north to south and a similar distance across. Generations of Ngai Tahu have looked to the island as an ancestral home or turangawaewae, and its name has long featured in Maori oral maps of southern Murihiku.

The earliest European map of this area was made in 1808 by a sealing expedition out of Sydney (Port Jackson) under the command of a veteran American whaler and sealer, Captain Eber Bunker. His ship was the Pegasus. He drew Whenua Hou at a much larger scale than the adjacent Stewart Island/Rakiura.

Nonetheless, the map held encouraging signals for future sealing - an anchorage at Sealers Bay, seals on inshore rocks and "High Land" that suggested mariners might find shelter from the prevailing westerly winds. Pegasus landed the first known sealing gang to work at the island.

The island had a few other European names soon afterwards - Pegasus Island (after the ship) and Passage Island (for its strategic location in Foveaux Strait). In 1824, a French navigator and explorer, Jules de Blosseville, applied the name "Ile de Morne" (Gloomy Island) for reasons unknown, even though by then sealers knew it as Codfish Island.

Bishop George Selwyn’s sketch of sealers’ huts at Whenua Hou. The Anglican  primate visited the...
Bishop George Selwyn’s sketch of sealers’ huts at Whenua Hou. The Anglican primate visited the island in February 1844 and recorded 33 residents, including children, whom he baptised. He wrote in his journal: ‘‘Lovely day. Walked up the hill. Cheerful sight [of] boats returning — little children running down to bring up the fish. Ducks, Geese and Pigs sharing the joy.’’ ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY QMS-1772-168
There was a sealing gang at Waikoropupu/Sealers Bay on Whenua Hou in 1809 and other sealers and flax-traders were living in Maori villages around Foveaux Strait by 1810-13. Sealers' huts, with Maori and Pakeha, were recorded at Sealers Bay in 1823 and again in 1827 when English adventurer John Boultbee visited. Traditional accounts vary as to which chief assigned the use of the island to European sealers and their Maori wives and children, prompting a new name for the island - Whenua Hou, New Land. It had earlier been called Kanawera, after a prominent Ngati Mamoe chief.

One traditional account says that Chief Tukete, who was based at Pa Putatara, near Rakiura's Ruggedy Mountains and in sight of Whenua Hou, allocated the island to sealers and their partners about 1805-06. More commonly, traditional accounts say it was the Foveaux chief, Honekai, who died about 1815, or Tupai, who was near death in 1823. Another early 19th-century chief, Te Whakataupuka, succeeded Honekai as the highest ranking rangatira in Murihiku, and he also is said to have supported the mixed-race settlement of Whenua Hou. These fragments of evidence allow the possibility that sealers with Maori families could have been living at Whenua Hou between about 1805 and 1813, especially if the arrangements were made by Honekai.

Pingao, the native golden sand sedge, is well established in the Sealers Bay dunelands.
Pingao, the native golden sand sedge, is well established in the Sealers Bay dunelands.
Initially, the settlers were relatively few in number. The revival of sealing in southern New Zealand in the 1820s brought about a substantial increase in the size of the settlement, especially from about 1826. Whenua Hou would come to be recognised as the first planned settlement of Europeans and Maori anywhere in New Zealand.

In pre-European times the island had been known to Maori as a maritime way point, a stepping stone and staging post for parties of muttonbirders going by boat from Murihiku to the titi or muttonbird islands off the southwest coast of Stewart Island/Rakiura. Their purpose: the seasonal harvest of the young of countless sooty shearwaters. What came to be mapped as Sealers Bay was known then as Te Whanga Waikoropupu, a name that suggests how the surf can cause the inshore waters to "boil up". Here, though, a short distance beyond the breakers, is safe anchorage as the sandy seabed close to shore gives way to deep water. At the western end of the bay, a beautiful bush-clad and tannin-stained small river called Waituna meanders serenely to the sea.

As Bunker observed, the island presents a blockish high profile, rising to 280m at a summit called Puke Hou. It is, in fact, a chip off the old granite block that is Rakiura, with granite cliffs and boulder beaches surrounding much of it. At about 1400ha, Whenua Hou is the largest of Rakiura's 170-odd satellite islets.

Sealers Bay, also known as Waikoropupu, is the main landing place on Whenua Hou, whether by sea...
Sealers Bay, also known as Waikoropupu, is the main landing place on Whenua Hou, whether by sea or by air. Light aircraft land on the wide sandy beach and there is a helicopter pad here too, near the Department of Conservation base for the kakapo recovery programme.
The longest beach is at Waikoropupu/Sealers Bay, a welcoming stretch of creamy sand, gently arcing for about 500m. Penguin Beach, immediately west of Sealers Bay and separated from it by a narrow headland, and Rodriques Anchorage around the eastern corner have the only other stretches of sand on the island. Neither of these beaches is very long. Behind the dunes at Sealers Bay is a landform rare for this island - a lowland flat. It opens up the longest valley. The western shores are steep and forbidding, not easily traversed.

Tall forest and shrubland cover the bulk of Whenua Hou today, with dunelands and upland wetlands adding variety to its habitats. The tallest trees are podocarps - rimu, miro and totara, many of them hundreds of years old. Southern rata and kamahi are common. Same-age kamahi, 20m tall and thick-trunked, are dominant on old fire scars dating from the sealing or farming eras.

In common with Rakiura, beech trees are absent, despite their abundance on the Southland ranges across Foveaux Strait/Te Ara a Kewa. Whenua Hou's exposed higher slopes carry expanses of shrubland featuring inaka/grass tree and tree daisies of various kinds, notably teteaweka, which presents masses of large purple-centred flowers in early summer. Windshorn shrubland on the island's western faces speaks of the southwest gales and cold fronts that hurtle off the South Tasman Sea. Whenua Hou lies at the heart of the "Roaring Forties" latitudes. Annual rainfall in the range of 1500mm to 2000mm, similar to that of Halfmoon Bay on Rakiura, keeps the rainforest happy.

Codfish, the island's European name, dates from the sealer era, when blue cod or rawaru, a marine fish that grows large and delicious in the south, was in plentiful supply. The bountiful fishing, good anchorage, abundant freshwater, native spinach and other greens, ample timber, a lee shore and sheltered landing place were compelling qualities, long known to Maori. The newcomer European mariners were also impressed.

By the mid-1820s the island had a substantial sealing village, the only one of its kind in New Zealand. The industry of sealing, operating mostly from Sydney from the 1790s and continuing through the next few decades, generally did not create settlements. Rather, dropped-off gangs of men would camp for a few months at a time in makeshift dwellings before being moved to new sealing grounds. The sealers generally left little evidence of their time ashore, except for the eradication of fur seals locally.

A kakapo on the forest floor of Whenua Roa. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
A kakapo on the forest floor of Whenua Roa. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
So when the sealers and their Maori wives settled on Whenua Hou it became a kohanga or nest for people, a dwelling place for families, a place to call home. Two centuries on, the island is a kohanga of a different kind, the home and cradle of one of the world's most endangered parrots, kakapo - a kind of "ark" giving safe haven to creatures as different as small diving petrels and the even smaller native short-tailed bats.


Rakiura and its largest outlying island were occupied by Maori from the 13th century, not long after the first voyagers from Eastern Polynesia arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand in their ocean-going craft. These pioneer settlers quickly explored the length of their vast new unpopulated land. They even reached into the subantarctic region as far as Maungahuka, also known as Motu Maha - the Auckland Islands, 400km south of Rakiura.

Traditional stories suggest Waitaha people, who were moa-hunters, were the first to occupy Rakiura followed by Ngati Mamoe in the 16th century and the larger iwi, Ngai Tahu, in the 17th century.

Rakiura was no doubt a significant discovery, although colder and darker in winter than northern parts of the newly-settled land and separated from the mainland by a strait called Te Ara a Kewa (Foveaux), whose seas were dangerous when whipped up by a westerly gale with little warning.

Whenua Hou and Codfish are place-names that have echoed through the generations of people of Ngai Tahu whanui, whose ancestry incorporates the Waitaha and Mamoe people. To many the island is a turangawaewae, literally a standing place, which inherently carries with it not only genealogy ties but also guardianship and spiritual values. But in reality, the descendants of Whenua Hou settlers saw it as a mythical place, so far away and so difficult to access. Special permits to land had been required since 1986, when the island was designated a nature reserve. Descendants who looked upon the island as an ancestral home were estranged.

Part of Bunker's 1808 map of the Foveaux Strait region, showing an anchorage at the island and ...
Part of Bunker's 1808 map of the Foveaux Strait region, showing an anchorage at the island and "seal" on rocks to the left. Photo: State Library of New South Wales Mitchell Map collection
In 2012, redress came. Thirty-seven nga uri/descendants journeyed to their ancestral island in three groups - the first time an event of this kind and this scale had been organised.

The next major connection occurred on September 2, 2017, when descendants of the island's Maori-European pioneer families gathered at dawn at Waikoropupu/Sealers Bay for a ceremonial unveiling of three newly carved pou.

This pou project was led by Whenua Hou Committee chairman, Tane Davis. Carver James York, of Dunedin, carved the pou from totara. Installed ceremonially near the mouth of the stream at the eastern end of the sandy beach, the three pou represent a significant visual acknowledgement of the special and enduring connection Ngai Tahu have with the island.

The native Olearia tree daisy teteaweka flowering in shrubland near the island's summit. Photo:...
The native Olearia tree daisy teteaweka flowering in shrubland near the island's summit. Photo: Rachel Egerton
The tallest of the pou is Te Pou Nehera, representing the Deep Past. The middle-sized pou, in two pieces joined by steel flanges, is Te Pou Haumi, epitomising the joining of the two canoes, Maori and Pakeha, at the historical Whenua Hou settlement. The smallest pou, nearest the sea, is Te Pou Hou, representing the present and the future. Te Pou Nehera and Te Pou Hou have the generalised shape of poha titi with cross-binding. Poha are traditional muttonbird containers made from rimurapa/bull kelp fronds encased in totara bark.

James York gained inspiration for the design while sourcing the logs on Whenua Hou. All the timber for the pou came from fallen totara trees, some of which had bark removed. His use of steel flanges on Te Pou Haumi symbolises the joining of Maori and Pakeha through the latter's introduction of iron and steel into Aotearoa New Zealand.


About 90% of Stewart Island and a few of its islets became a national park in 2002 - Rakiura National Park, New Zealand's southernmost. Excluded from national park designation were blocks of Maori land on the east coast of Stewart Island/Rakiura and several islands. Whenua Hou was among them. It was recognised as an island worthy of separate status and management, as enshrined in the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998.

Whenua Hou - A New Land: The story of Codfish Island was published this year by the Department of Conservation, in association with the Whenua Hou Committee and with financial support from the Ngai Tahu Fund.


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