Russell township, which could revert to its original name of Kororāreka. Photo / Getty Images
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 goes ahead.
Public consultation started yesterday on returning Russell to its
pre-1842 name of Kororāreka, which translates literally as ‘sweet penguin’.
The board initially considered three options — an outright name change from Russell to Kororāreka, the dual name Kororāreka/Russell, or adopting both names as alternatives.
Board members settled on the first option, but their decision is still subject to public feedback, and a Government minister may have the final say.
Former Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley, who now lives in Russell, said her personal preference was an outright change to Kororāreka, but she was looking forward to being part of the discussion and hearing other people’s views.
One reason for backing the proposal was the significance of Kororāreka as a settlement in pre-European times, with kaumātua describing it as “a gathering place of chiefs”.
“I think the only space for questions is whether it’s a full change or whether it should be a combination of the two names. I definitely think the change is well worth considering.”
Kororāreka was already widely used and understood, she said. It was emblazoned across the museum and on T-shirts and her grandchildren used the two names interchangeably.
A name change would not alter the town, but would allow more of its dual heritage to be told.
She understood the connection people had to the name Russell, though the original Russell was not where Russell is now — the place name had drifted north from Ōkiato and subsumed the town’s existing name.
Shipley recalled being prime minister during the debate over renaming Aoraki/Mt Cook.
“At the time people thought it would be difficult, but in the end the solution was a combined name… The question is who we are and who we want to be. I think New Zealand is capable of being unique and having that conversation.”
Far North Kahika [Mayor] Moko Tepania welcomed the move to bring back Russell’s original name.
“The restoration of traditional names across Aotearoa is something to be celebrated as we move forward as a nation,” he said.
Tepania congratulated local hapū on the progress they had made in Kororāreka, and said he was also looking forward to the Geographic Board’s programme to make place names official across the Far North this year “to ensure we include macronised spelling and capture historic and cultural meanings of our place names”.
Te Rūnanga-ā-Iwi o Ngāpuhi supported the change, as did Far North District Council — albeit with reservations about potential costs and consultation with tourism operators.
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. [Lord] John Russell [the British politician after whom the town was named] never set foot in New Zealand, so why do we hang on to these colonial names?”
Rewiri said the name Kororāreka was widely used by Māori, but also increasingly by Pākehā residents.
She expected pushback, but was “forever hopeful”. Some prominent residents supported restoration, and she expected others would come around.
Public meetings are be held to discuss the proposal at Kororāreka Marae on January 24 at 9am, 1pm and 5pm. Everyone is welcome.
Consultation will be open for three months, with the board considering submissions mid-year. If the proposal proves controversial, it may be referred to Land Information Minister Damien O’Connor for a final decision.
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 Lord 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.
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, dual and alternative names were discouraged in the Australia-New Zealand Addressing Standard.
Arguments for the dual-name option included overcoming problems caused by outright replacement, such as loss of identity and confusion among tourists. Confusion during emergency responses was another factor, though that risk was deemed to be low.
A dual name would also recognise long-term use and the “equal historical significance” of both names, while placing the Māori name first would recognise the area as having been first discovered by Māori.
Advantages of the alternative names option included that both names would not have to be used together on official documents.
That would address the council’s concerns about the costs of an outright name change, plus it would allow a gradual transition to the Māori name.
However, the New Zealand Geographic Board Act states there should be one name for one place, with alternative names assigned only in exceptional circumstances.
The proposal report said the council had asked the board to consult directly with tourism stakeholders because the town had a strong brand as a holiday destination.
The council also asked the board to consider the cost of, for example, replacing road signs, and how the Crown would pay.
However, the board said if the proposal went ahead as an outright change or a dual name, there should be no significant costs.
Updates to signs, promotional material, maps and websites could be done over time during routine maintenance.
If the alternative names option was chosen, nothing had to be changed.
If the name change went ahead, it would apply to the township only, and not the wider area or other features such as Russell Forest.
Northland place names that have been changed in the past include Karikari Peninsula’s Matai Bay to Maitai Bay in the 1990s and Whangārei’s Parahaki to Parihaka in the early 2000s.
The Parihaka name change spawned great controversy although another spelling fix around the same time — Grenville Point, north of Kaitāia, to Granville Point — caused not the slightest ripple.
More recently an application by a Whangārei hapū to change the city’s river from Hatea to Hoteo was rejected on the grounds that it could cause confusion during emergencies due to a double-up with the Hoteo River in Wellsford.
Instead a macron was added to make the waterway the Hātea River.
Russell’s proposed name change is part of a wider drive to reassert the town’s bicultural heritage.
Other moves to lift Māori visibility in the town include the recent installation of a carved pou and waharoa (gateway) at Russell wharf, plus new interpretation panels at Maiki/Flagstaff Hill.
■ Submissions can be made until April 18 at https://www.linz.govt.nz/consultations/kororareka or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A short history of Kororāreka v Russell
■ Date unknown: An ailing chief, on being given broth made from a penguin, declares: “How sweet is the penguin” (kororā = little blue penguin, reka = sweet). Kororāreka remains the name of the town, which becomes a busy whaling port, until the early 1840s.
■ 1840: Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson establishes the colony’s first capital at Ōkiato, which he names Russell after the leader of the British House of Commons, Lord John Russell. (Ōkiato, where the Ōpua-Russell car ferry docks, has since reverted to its original name.)
■ 1841: The capital is moved to Auckland.
■ 1842: The original Russell (Ōkiato) is destroyed by fire. The name Russell is transferred to the town then known as Kororāreka, about eight kilometres away.
■ 2022: The Geographic Board receives a proposal to restore Russell’s original Māori name.
■ 2023: The proposal goes out for public consultation.