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Kawau Island

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Kawau Island
Print: Kookaburras, John Gould, Birds of Australia, 1844.

Kawau Island, whose name stems from the many shag or cormorant colonies there, is approximately five miles long and three miles wide. The island is almost split in two by Bon Accord Harbour, which opens towards the mainland, so forming a natural anchorage. Much of the area of nearly 5,000 acres is clothed in native bush to which many exotic plants have been added.

Kawau Island was the site of one of New Zealand’s earliest mining ventures. Later it became the island home of Sir George Grey, one of New Zealand’s most influential and controversial political figures. In 1862 Sir George Grey purchased Kawau, and converted the copper mine manager’s house into the imposing Mansion House at considerable expense and made the surrounding land into a botanical and zoological park, importing many plants and animals.

The house has been restored and furnished in the period of Governor Grey and is now in public ownership in the Kawau Island Historic Reserve, administered by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The reserve is public land and covers 10% of the Island, and includes the old copper mine, believed to be the site of New Zealand's first underground metalliferous mining venture. The remainder of the island is privately owned with a small resident population.

The North Island weka is now critically endangered and numbers less that 7% of the number of North island brown kiwi. Between 75%and 84% of the remaining weka are on Kawau Island, which equates to between 3,000 and 4,200 birds.


Kawau is associated with the early ancestor Toi Te Huatahi from whom comes the island’s traditional name Te Kawau tumaro o Toi. The island is reputed to have been settled by descendants of Toi and later by descendants of the crews of the Arawa and Tainui canoes.

For three centuries the island was occupied by the people known as Ngati Tai who were later defeated by the Te Kawerau iwi, specifically Ngati Manuhiri.

During the 18th century there was continuing conflict between the resident Kawerau and the Marutuahu confederation of tribes from the Hauraki area over access to the shark fishing grounds.

Kawau Island was later abandoned after the musket war raids in the 1820s by Ngapuhi, and remained unoccupied until the 1830s. In this period the Ngati Manuhiri hapu of Te Kawerau and Ngatiwai returned to the island and the adjoining coastline where they remain to this day.

After protracted debate over ownership, Kawau was sold in the 1840s to W.T. Fairburn of the North British Australasian Loan and Investment Company.

(page last updated  29 August 2007)