History of Mana Island

Compiled by Jason Christensen



Mana Island is one of Wellington’s oldest preserved marine terraces. Formed during an interglacial period 200,000 years ago, it now sits 398 feet above sea level at its higher northern end and 291 feet at the southern end.

Mana Island has seen many changes in its colourful history, beginning with Kupe’s visit, early Maori settlement, European visits and later whalers, to John Bell’s first farming efforts, John Wright and the Vella family’s long association with farming the island, the Gault family, and then being a research and quarantine station.  

With the guiding hand of the Department of Conservation and the help of the Friends of Mana Island, the island is now reverting to how it was prior to human settlement.

The island provides shelter to many special insects, reptiles, birds and plants. Its surrounding waters have an abundant sea life. The island’s giant weta, deinacrida rugosa, is believed to be the world’s heaviest insect. The MacGregor Skink can be found in the shingle on the beaches, and the gold stripe gecko can be found in the flaxes in the wetland. There are 39 bird species on the island, which have the added chance of survival due to their rodent-free domain. The endangered Cooks scurvy grass, ngaio, taupata, manuka and kanuka all contribute to Mana’s floral diversity. 

back to top

Early History 700-1839AD

700-900 Kupe visits Mana Island and names it, “Te Mana o Kupe ki Aotearoa”.  Kupe and his party were probably the first to set foot on the island. They ascended the higher northern plateau naming it “Matakitaki”, because of its wide views. In English, Kupe’s name for Mana Island means “The Ability of Kupe to cross the ocean to Aotearoa”.

900-1100 Tini-Maruiwi, Waitaha and the Ngati-Mamoe tribes from Old Polynesia are all in the greater Wellington area hunting moa and other birds, and fishing.

1100-1300 Mana becomes part of the occupied area of the Ngati-Tara and Ngati-Ira tribes.

1300-1823 Wellington to Manawatu is the territory of the Rangitane tribe.

17?? Captain James Cook, on board the Endeavour, views Mana and names it, “Table Island”, for obvious reasons.

1800-1820 Whalers in the Cook Strait consider Mana a favourite island resort, stopping for shelter, trading, and using Mana’s vantage points to spot whale spouts for hunting. They have names for the island too – “Manno, Manna and Marna”.

Whalers set up on Mana and use the foreshore area to boil down their whale blubber. There is no shortage of driftwood for a fire.

The Ngati-Toa tribe, led by Te Rauparaha, migrate south from their ancestral grounds around Kawhia Harbour. This movement was known as the Heke Tahu-Tahu-Ahi.

1822-23 The tribes from Raglan and Kawhia conquer the Rangitane lands. Te Rauparaha’s nephew, Te RangIaeatea, settles on Mana Island which is owned by these Ngati-Toa chiefs and the tohunga of the tribe, Wataruihi Nohorua.

Te Rangihaeata's meeting house. by G.F. Angas, 1844

Te Rangihaeata’s meeting house. by G.F. Angas, 1844

Captain Dundas, in command of the HM Warspite, visits Cook Strait and names the island after his vessel, “Warspite Island”.

A whaler, William Cooper, visits Mana Island and moves to the southern end of Porirua. He starts a boat building business. Many of his boats are used in the sea between the island and the mainland.

Three Sydney merchants – John Bell, Archibald Moissman, and Alexander Davidson, master of the whaling brig “William Stoveld” – buy Mana Island from Ngati-Toa. They send an American, George Ross, to take possession. In exchange for the island the chiefs are given, one six-pound carronade, two swivel guns, two kegs of gunpowder and two chests. In the next two years, George Ross establishes a whaling station north of Te Rangiliaeata Island pa, “kai-tangata” or, in English, “eat man”.

John Bell has 103 merino sheep, 10 cattle, and 2’/2ton of hay, seed, fruit trees and tobacco delivered to Mana Island, aboard the “Martha”. Farming begins on the island. The cattle are used to supply milk and beef to the whaling trade, which by this time has become a fairly large industry. Te Rauparaha sends a tohunga to make the stock and certain areas tapu. In return for placing this prohibition on land and stock, Bell assures the Maori of their ancient right to take fish and shellfish from the waters around the island. This also includes the taking of up to 300 mutton birds from their breeding grounds on the northern parts about the cliffs.

A small amount of wool is exported to Sydney. This is the second wool export from New Zealand, after a smaller amount two months earlier by Captain Clendon on board the “Fortitude”. Captain Clendon’s load most likely came from the mission in the Bay of Islands. John Bell’s wool was carried aboard the brig “Children”, and fetched 21/4 pence per pound, more than Australian wool, which testifies to its quality.

A successful whaler from Marlborough, Joseph Toms, sets up a whaling station at Porirua Point where Ngati-Toa domain is today.

Mr and Mrs Bell arrive with 9-year-old Johnny Knochs, an Australian boy of German descent, on board the whaling barque “Caroline”. The Bells are known to be alcoholics and are hoping to dry out and get a new start on the island. They have shifted from Sydney to manage and develop the farm on Mana Island which John set up two years earlier. Johnny’s parents are both dead and, at the time, he was the only Pakeha child in the area between Mana and Kapiti Islands. Among their cargo are two large horses which are the first to run on the island. The Bells have a thatched-roof house built on the southern most side of the island, not far from the pa. They fill their house with furniture and other household fittings. John has also brought many farming items, tools, ducks, geese, poultry and two farm servants.

A Maori chief is killed by a lance during a scuffle over trading, while aboard the whaling barque “Caroline”. This is probably what triggered the years of tension between Maori and Pakeha in the area. The “Minerva” captained by Leslie, lands at Sydney with four bales of excellent quality wool from Mana.

Captain Samuel Cherry is killed at Mana. Some say in retaliation for the death of the Chief the year before.

John Bell dies suddenly. No planks can be found for a coffin, so an old friend from Dundee, “Scotch Jock” Nicol and Johnny Knochs bury him in a rum barrel on the island.

The Fraser brothers, Alex and Thomas, from Sydney, are sent by their boss, Frederick Paterson to manage the whaling station and farm, after buying out Bell, Mossman and Co. Mrs Bell never overcame her grief at her husband’s death. It is said she became one of Te Rangihaeata’s wives and was taken to live at one of his mainland pa. There she is treated as a slave. Johnny Knochs moves to Tokamapuna Island with Captain Tommy Evans, the renowned whaler. In October, Waitohi, the eldest sister of Te Rauparaha and mother of Te Rangihaeata died. Her tangi is held on Mana. The last inter-tribe battle takes place at Waikanae afterwards as Ngati-Raukawa attack Ngati-Awa en route home. It is witnessed by Johnny Knochs and others from Tokamapuna from boats off the beach. Colonel Wakefield sails past Mana that same day on route to Kapiti. On behalf of the New Zealand Company, he meets with the prominent chiefs and, after lengthy talks, they sign his land sales agreement. Both Mana and Kapiti Islands are with the “Tory” and travels the length of the North Island acting as an interpreter, witnessing negotiation with Maori chiefs and William Wakefield. The HMS Calliope shelters at Mana while in the Cook Strait area.

1837 The lighthouse is extinguished after confusion over this light and one  On the South coast of Wellington. It is replaced by another light on “The Brothers” Rocks on the Western side of Cook Strait.

1881 The lighthouse is dismantled and winched down the cliff to a waiting ship and shipped to Cape Egmont in Taranaki.

back to top

Settler History 1840-1950AD

1840 Mrs Bell is taken back to the Pa at Mana Major Bunbury, aboard the HMS Herald stops at Mana, hoping to settle a dispute with the Whalers and Maori.

During May, Thomas Bell, (father of John Bell), and Frederick Paterson transfered their interest in the Island to Henry Moreing. Whaler Jock Niccol married Kahe Te Rauoterangi, a daughter of the Ngati-Toa Chief, Te Mataha. Kahe is known to the Whalers as, “Betty”.  The identical Fraser twins build a schooner and name her, “Mana”.  They also stock their other North & South Island sheep runs with  Merino’s from the Island.

Te Rangihaeata leaves Mana and never returns. He takes a prominent part in the Wairau affray on June 17th, sets up Matai-Taua at the head of the Pauatahanui Inlet. When finally routed from there he retreated to Porotawhao and his hapu, the Ngati-Huia.

The Whalers are still operating two boats from their Mana station.

The early Scottish whaler, jock Niccol, and his wife, Kahe Te Rauoterangi, leave Mana and establish an inn at Pukerua Bay (Pukerua Bush).

The Wellington Militia fight with Te RangIaeata in the Horokiwi Valley. He retreats further up the valley.

The Paremata barracks are completed next to Tom’s Whaling station at Porirua Point.

A large earthquake rocks the entire Wellington area.

The first train is heard and later in the year, seen from Mana as the tracks head north through Paremata, Plimmerton and Pukerua Bay. Another large earthquake rocks Wellington.

In keeping with the British Governments policy to investigate all New Zealand land sales made prior to the Treaty to Waitangi (1840). Mana Island ownership soon came under crown scrutiny. The original purchase, if it ever was a purchase, from Te Rangihaeata, was claimed to have been made in 1839 by the Fraser Brothers. A man named Moreing claimed to have brought the Island in 1841 from a conglomerate of inheritors and purchasers after Bells death. The court decided in favour of Moreing and officially purchased the Island from him. Because of the Ngati-Toa conquest in 1823 the crown considered one way or another that they were the rightful owners so payment was to be arranged.

Te Rangihaeata dies at Otaki after suffering from the measles, although some say he died a somewhat lonely death caused by senile decay. He is buried at Porotawhao, which in English means, “The Thousand Dawns’. In December the 3 leading Ngati-Toa chiefs, Hohepa Tamahengia, Tamahina Te Rauparaha and Matene Te Whiwini signed a crown purchase agreement and were paid 300 pounds. The court ordered that this money be fairly shared out among the 81 members of the Ngati Toa tribe. In comparison between earlier New Zealand land sales and this sale, the money from the purchase of Mana Island was shared by the whole tribe. In most early land sales only the paramount chief received payment.

The light and tower, with all accessories, are shipped from Pimlico, London.

The lighthouse is erected on the northwest corner of the Island. This becomes the 2nd in the Wellington province. The overseeing is supervised by Richard AyIner, the Marine Boards lighthouse artificer. Mana is taken over by the provincial government and becomes crown land. Mana is offered up for leasehold at 1 pound per week for 21 years with rights to renewal.

The first official lease is issued to John Fortescue Evelyn Wright of Island Bay on the 21st January. The lease of the Island excludes the 5 acres where the lighthouse stands and the crown clearly stated that at any time the Island could be taken back for defence purposes. John Wright begins farming the Island again.
The Vella family commenced almost 70 years of farming the Island. An original 30 foot open whaling boat was still in use, a reminder of those early pioneers to the Island. Marino sets up in a small hut, which had been used by the shepherd of the out going tenant. Timber from the old lighthouse keepers cottage is used to construct a homestead on the south-east side.

Old woolshed

The Vellas construct the woolshed, which still stands today:

woolshed now

A Maori canoe is washed up on the island. Marino splits it to make fence posts.

Wharves are built at Paremata and the 1st ever on the Island. Until now all boats were run up to the beach and planks of wood laid between the boat and shore.

The Government declare the Island as a defence reserve.

Marino Vella marry’s Elizabeth Tarabochia in Trieste, now part of Italy. On their return, aboard the SS Wairarapa, the vessel wrecks on Great Barrier Island. This still stands as New Zealand’s worst shipping disaster, which claims 135 lives.

The manager, who Marino had left on the Island, was worried at the Vellas lateness so he headed for Paremata in the 30-foot whaleboat. He never reached the harbour and both boat & man lost forever.

Marino runs 1000 breeding ewes and 150 head of cattle on the Island.

With the increased stock, mainly due to the Island being heavily top dressed, shearer’s had to be brought over to the Island. The areas which had been, “Tapu-ed”, were known to the Maori among the shearers and musterers, who flatly refused to work on them, least they should violate the tapu restriction and thus incur the wrath of the long dead tohunga.

The Ketch, “Emma Sims”, is wrecked on the south-east end of the Island. No loss of lives, but the vessel will never sail again. Another tragedy that year was the death of Ida, the Vella’s eldest daughter.

The last whalers are seen coming around the Island.

1909 Bill and Andrew Vella are left to farm the Island for 6 years while the Rest of the Vella family visits Europe. Bill Vella sheared 300 sheep in one day, with the blades. This was, at the time, reputed to be a world record.

The Vella’s leave Europe as the news of large scale war reach’s them.  This war, World War I, never followed them back to Mana, but was felt, with the loss of some local lads, who never returned from the fields of Europe.

The influenza epidemic claims the life of Geovanni (Jack) Vella aged 22. He died at the Vella homestead. “Sockel”, at Plimmerton which they brought on their return from Europe.

The iron screw steamer, “The Queen of the South” which served Mana For many years is stranded On a reef near Cape Campbell lighthouse and is lost.

Marino transferred the Island lease to Andrew Vella and later that year, 5th September dies aged 74 years. Andrew continues to farm the Island and builds a house and yards at the north end of Titahi Bay, known as Vella Street.

back to top

Modern History 1951-1999

1951 On the 9th August Andrew Vella dies aged 67 Jacko Love with several helpers including Mahu Wineera continued to farm Mana.

Mana has a new lease owner, a Wellington Solicitor I M Gault, who brought out the lease for a perpetuity of 999 years. John Gault manages the farm. The Gaults paid 9500 pounds for the lease. John farmed 12-1300 sheep and 90-100 cattle.

1959 “Vella of Mana”, is documented by Elizabeth Vella, daughters Metty and Arintonia and son Marino, in an effort to recall the families long association with the Island.

John Gault marries Margaret Clark and during their time on the Island raise a family of three. Mana Cruising Club, who the Gault family are affiliated to, comes to Mana for annual picnics.

1971 The Gaults lease is cut short and the Island is administered jointly by the Lands and Survey Department and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Mr Barry Turner, Porirua Harbour Master, ferries personnel and equipment out to Mana, averaging 12 trips per week. The Ruakura research station controls the Island as a sheep) research and quarantine station. Officer in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries research project is Mr T G Harvey. His wife, 2 children, head technician D Wise and wife Pam, jack Howarth are all stationed on the Island.

1976 The Sheep population is 2500 and well behind this at lambing stage. The Island now also has 2 wind mills which are installed to pump water from 100 feet below the surface.

On 28th September was the first of the suspected Scrapie outbreak. This was kept quiet. The affected sheep were killed and burned with the help of 10 tons of coal 80 tyres 15 cord of pine, 58 bails of straw and 30 gal of diesel. This was the amount of fuel estimated to burn 280 sheep.

1977 The Porirua City Council closes the street reserve between the shoreline and the un surveyed reserve at the south-eastern side of the Island. The 20 metre wide strip was deemed legal road and had been vested as a public street in the city of Porirtia.

1978 Suspected Scrapie disease is found present in some of the exotic sheep. The Islands total flock is destroyed. Only once before, in New Zealand, Had an outbreak of the scrapie disease occurred that was reported. That was in Canterbury, June 1952 when 380 suffolk sheep were slaughtered. For five years strict quarantine regulations are placed by NZ Land & Survey Department. They established a temporary cattle farm and set up a land-use study of the Island. Minister of Lands, Mr Venn Young, suggested that total re-vegetation of the Island may be the answer. The Commissioner of Crown land for Wellington at this time is Mr Frank McMullan.

Jake Jacobs, managers the farm for Lands and Survey.

1985 Lance Payne is the Manager responsible for the removal of the cattle and the start of the fence removal.

1986 Lance Payne leaves Mana Island.   The proposal that Mana Island is revert-to bush & forest filled with bird life is submitted by Lands and Survey to the Ministry. Trevor Hook, Jann and Gerrard become the Island managers.

1987 Mana is named a scientific reserve and is under the wing of the new Department of Conservation, DoC. The first of the tree planting starts. Takahes are introduced.

1988 Phil Todd who begins his work on Mana as Assistant Manager, gives Mana Island a boost in its second year of re-vegetation. To date 41,000 Native trees have been planted. The first Takahe Chicks are born.

Over this three year period there was a major mouse eradication program in place.  There was 5500 bait stations spread across the island every 50 meters. The whole eradication program was done with the help from Conservation Core, Forest & Bird and DoC Staff. After the last mouse was caught the island was declared rodent free eighteen months latter. Mana was the Largest Island to be cleared of mice in the world at the time. Before the control started at the back door of one of the houses with a simple bucket trap they caught 204 mice in on night.

1992 Two Kakapo were released on Mana. One died soon after and the remaining one died two years latter. A Little spot/ brown Kiwi was released on Mana from Franz Josef.

1993 The planting program reaches a milestone with the planting of the 150,000 tree, which was followed by the cutting of a cake. Trevor & Jan Hook left Mana. Phil Todd was appointed to The Managers Role and his Partner Tina Wyatt joined him on Mana. The Mana Wharf is removed.
Gold strip Gecko is rediscovered on Mana. Boxthorn removal begins.

1994 Another Little spotted Kiwi was introduced to Mana as a mate for the Franz one. Jason Christensen started work as the new assistant manager.  Mana Island poster made. The Black Back Gull control starts on Mana to give other seabirds a chance to recover.

1995 North Island Robins arrive from Kapiti. Twenty-seven were released.
Record Number of trees planted with the Island Nursery in full swing with the help from Jason’s Nursery background. 27,200 trees were planted.

1996 Phil Todd & Tina Wyatt leave the Island. Jason Christensen was appointed to Field Centre supervisor. Grant Timlin starts as assistant Supervisor. The Concrete Gannet colony is set up.

1997 The new concrete Gannet site is set up. DoC Staff chase off a knife welding Paua Poacher. The first of a three-year transfer of Diving Petrel Chicks from the Brothers to Mana Island was started this year. This Year was the tenth anniversary of tree planting on Mana and to help celebrate it there was a ceremony with the planting of the 250,000 tree on the Island.

1998  Green Geko are released on Mana. Duvaucel Gecko are released.
Spotted Skink are released. A historic day was held on the island with lots of the old farmers and there families. This year saw heavy Machine return to Mana to create a wet land on the island to enhance the habitats for the water species to be introduced latter on. There was a D2 Bulldozer and a 7 Ton Digger and a Mack Truck here for six weeks.

1999 The Friends of Mana Island was formed. The last of the diving petrel transfers happened this year. It also saw the first chick being totally raised here on Mana for a Great number of years. This was the turning point in the petrel project as it now means that hopefully there will be a self-sustaining population again on Mana.

back to top