The Waikato: A History of New Zealand's Greatest River

by Ann Beaglehole / 23 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - The Waikato History Paul Moon

From mountain to sea: the Waikato River. Photo/Getty Images

Paul Moon tells the history of the Waikato River as a source of mythology, conflict, commerce and hope.

At 425km, the Waikato is New Zealand’s longest river. Its starting point, writes Paul Moon, author of The Waikato: A History of New Zealand’s Greatest River, is “the thawing ice and snow on Mt Ruapehu at 2800m above sea level”. The end point is at Port Waikato, where, according to legend, someone in the Tainui waka, observing the river entering the Tasman Sea, coined the name “Waikato” (wai/water; kato/flow).

Moon is an Auckland University of Technology history professor and author of 26 books. His latest is a dispassionate survey of the trade-offs made between exploitation and caring for the environment, which is timely and relevant.

Critics of Moon’s previous work have argued that while his research is soundly based on Pākehā sources, he does not make as good use of Māori perspectives.

Is the book overly slanted towards the white colonist point of view? In my opinion, it is not.

Māori leaders, such as Ngāti Tūwharetoa paramount chief Te Heuheu Tūkino IV, jostle for attention with prominent Pākehā such as George Grey and Ferdinand von Hochstetter.

The Waikato is impressionistic, a historical scrapbook, touching on a great range of topics. But it is a neatly structured work, one that follows the river’s course and how its shape has changed as a result of earthquakes, volcanoes and human actions.

Numerous entries relate to harnessing the river and the region’s resources for the “good of the nation”, with little regard for the impact: swamp draining, milling, fishing, mining and farming feature prominently. The freezing works at Horotiu, “crucial to the local and national economy”, had, by 1960, a daily killing capacity of 40 cattle, and 12,000 sheep and lambs. By the early 1970s (apart from Hamilton), Horotiu freezing works was the biggest contributor to effluent being discharged into the river.

There is no shortage of statistics about water degradation and its main culprits, such as Fonterra and the Auckland Farmers’ Freezing Co-operative (Affco). As for coal mining, in 1902, about 10 trains a day, with 90,000 tons of coal, left Huntly’s coal mine.

The supply was seen as “simply inexhaustible”. The mine’s first owner was Anthony Ralph, who fought in the Waikato War and acquired the land as his allocation for militia men.

Rivers were dammed and power stations (hydroelectric and geothermal) built, despite protest about “acts of vandalism” on the landscape.

By 1943, Arapuni Power Station was producing more than half the electricity being used in the North Island. The Maraetai Power Station, started in 1947, went on to become the largest hydro power station on the Waikato River.

Today, many are proud of our energy from renewable sources; however, these developments were carried out with little consideration of adverse consequences and no attempt to involve Māori.

Several vignettes focus on the river’s sanctity for Māori. A rich source of mythology, the Waikato was the link that bound many hapū and iwi along its length. The Kīngitanga (Māori King movement), in collision with a Government determined to open up the Waikato to European settlement, occasionally appears. A poignant entry is on the battle at Rangiriri, the deadliest of the land wars.

After the Waikato War, 485,000ha of land was confiscated from Māori.

Even if you don’t have the energy to make the whole trek from mountain to sea in one go, The Waikato is well worth a dip into.


This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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