Three iwi (tribes) make up what local Maori call Tauranga Moana (the seas of Tauranga): Ngatiranganui, Ngaiterangi and Ngati Pukenga. Their traditional lands extend from Bowentown, at the northern end of Tauranga Harbour, down to Papamoa south of Mount Maunganui, and inland along the Kaimai Ranges.
Local Maori trace their descent from three waka (canoes) that arrived from Polynesia: Takitumu, Mataatua, and Te Arawa. The Takitimu waka is said to have come from Hawaiki in 1290, it landed at the base of Mauao, the landmark mountain at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour. Tamatea was the captain who named the sacred mountain.
Today visual evidence of early Maori settlement and habitation is mostly confined to the hilltops and promontories around the harbour and its hinterland. Mauao remains the most important of these ‘sentinels.’
The 18th century explorer Captain Cook rounded East Cape aboard the Endeavour in 1769, and entered a wide, open bay with its coastline curving into the distance. The local populations seemed so large and prosperous, he named it the ‘Bay of Plenty.’
According to historian Anne Salmond and contrary to popular myth, Cook wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Off Whakatane, a large sailing canoe came out to the ship, the crew performed songs and dances and then pelted the ship with stones, smashing some of its stern windows.
The city of Tauranga had its beginnings in the establishment of a mission station in the 1830’s. In 1838, Reverend A.N. Brown and his family took up residence at Te Papa Mission Station (later named The Elms). It took years to build the house, with missionaries and their helpers living in raupo (rush) houses made by local Maori. With the Land Wars underway in the Waikato, Imperial troops arrived in Tauranga in 1864. The Strand, known as ‘the Beach,’ was to become the commercial centre of a military township. The famous Battle of Gate Pa on 29 April 1864, is known as a decisive Maori victory, as 250 Maori warriors and one woman, defeated the pakeha.
The turning point in the region’s fortunes came with the establishment of the port. It had been officially gazetted as a port by order of the Governor in 1873, and the first large sailing vessel entered the harbour in 1882 with settlers for Te Puke. The first pile was driven for the Mount Maunganui wharves in 1953.
Another major milestone was the opening of the Kaimai rail tunnel in 1978, which reduced travelling times between the Port and the Waikato and Rotorua. The kiwifruit industry had its beginnings with seeds brought back from China in 1904. It’s been a boom and bust industry that slumped in the early 90’s only to make a remarkable comeback.