19 Jan 2023

Russell or Kororāreka? Historic Bay of Islands town could return to its original Māori name

12:18 pm on 19 January 2023

By Peter de Graaf of NZ Herald

Russell in Te Tai Tokerau/Northland.

Russell was originally known as Kororāreka, which translates literally as "sweet penguin". Photo: 123RF

One of Northland's most historic towns could revert to its original Māori name if a proposal being considered by the New Zealand Geographic Board Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa goes ahead.

Public consultation started today on returning Russell to its pre-1842 name of Kororāreka, which translates literally as "sweet penguin".

The Geographic Board initially considered an outright name change from Russell to Kororāreka, the dual name Kororāreka/Russell, or adopting both names as alternatives - before settling on the first option.

However, the decision could be swayed by public feedback, and a government minister may have the final say.

The proposal was lodged by the Kororāreka Marae Society with chairwoman Deb Rewiri describing it as a name restoration rather than a change.

"We've talked about it for long enough. We've put up signs but we've never done anything officially. John Russell [a British politician after whom the town was named] never set foot in New Zealand, so why do we hang onto these colonial names?"

Rewiri said the name Kororāreka was widely used by Māori but also by an increasing number of Pākehā residents.

Russell was the only town of any size in the Far North that did not have its original Māori name, although a few, such as Kaikohe, had been shortened over the years.

Rewiri expected pushback but was "forever hopeful". She said some prominent residents supported the restoration and expected others would come around.

Public meetings would be held to discuss the proposal, at Kororāreka Marae, on the Russell waterfront, on 24 January at 9am, 1pm and 5pm. Everyone was welcome.

Christ Church in Russell, NZ's oldest active church.

Christ Church in Russell, built in 1835, is New Zealand's oldest surviving church. Photo: 123RF

Geographic Board secretary Wendy Shaw said any individual or group could propose a name change.

Many were the result of Treaty of Waitangi settlements, while others commemorated people or events, such as the recent renaming of a ridge on Aoraki/Mt Cook after Sir Edmund Hillary.

Shaw said the proposer had asked for an outright name change but board members had also considered a dual name and alternative names.

The advantage of alternative names was that they recognised the history of both names and allowed a transition so people could get used to the change.

Examples of alternative names included Mt Egmont or Mt Taranaki, and Whanganui or Wanganui.

In this case, however, the board felt Kororāreka was already well-recognised so a transition was not necessary.

It helped that Te Rūnanga-ā-Iwi o Ngāpuhi supported the change, as did the Far North District Council - albeit with reservations about potential costs and consultation with tourism operators.

Shaw said every submission would be read by the board, but its members were interested in the reasons behind people's views rather than just numbers.

"It may well be that people come back and say a dual name, or alternative names, will suit the community better."

While John Russell had never been to New Zealand, the long-term use of a name, and people's attachment to it, were factors the board took into account.

"These decisions are not taken lightly," she said.

Consultation would be open for three months with the board considering submissions mid-year.

If the proposal proved controversial, it could be referred to Land Information Minister Damien O'Connor for a final decision.

According to the proposal report, reasons for opting for an outright name change included the board's "responsibility to investigate and determine the priority of the discovery of a geographic feature, and to collect and encourage the use of original Māori names on official charts and maps".

Also, Kororāreka was already widely known, and dual and alternative names were discouraged in the Australia-New Zealand Addressing Standard.

Arguments put forward for the dual-name option included overcoming problems that could be caused by wholesale replacement such as loss of identity, and confusion among holiday-makers and tourists. Confusion while identifying the town in an emergency was another factor, though that risk was deemed to be low.

Submissions can be made until April 18 at https://www.linz.govt.nz/consultations/kororareka or by emailing nzgbsubmissions@linz.govt.nz.

* This story originally appeared in the Northern Advocate.

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