The Naming of Tolaga Bay

The town of Tolaga Bay on the North Island’s eastern coast, north of Gisborne, is well-known as the home of a marvel of early 20th century engineering – its lengthy wharf.

Tolaga, as it is known to locals, is also unusual in another respect – its name.

Looking at a map of the East Coast, it is obvious that most settlements carry Maori names – Whangara, Anaura Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Waipiro Bay, Ruatoria, Tikitiki, Te Araroa. But the name Tolaga Bay stands out – it is neither Maori nor English.

The newspapers of the 19th century are little help in resolving this matter. During the 1870s, Gisborne newspapers referred to the settlement as Tolago Bay, but this had changed to Tologa Bay by about 1882 when Gisborne’s Resident Magistrates, licensing court, land court and other official institutions began holding regular meetings and sittings in the town.

The name underwent a further change later in the century, it seems, and by the early 1900s, the spelling of the town’s name had settled as Tolaga Bay and remains so today.

A local resident, Milton “Dwarfe” Brown, when speaking to Gary McCormick as part of the Heartland television series in 1993 thought the town’s name arose from Captain Cook’s attempt to understand a Maori word on his first visit to the area in 1769.

Brown, who worked on Tolaga Bay’s wharf from 1947 to 1967, understood that Cook asked what wind was blowing when he took the Endeavour into the bay on his arrival from Anaura Bay on the 29th of October 1769; and was told “teraki.”

Another view records that Cook asked the name of the place, and the natives, thinking he was referring to the wind replied “tarakaka.”

The origin of the name is still debated today, as neither of the two Maori words easily undergo a phonetic translation into Tolago, which Cook recorded.

The attempt to record the name of the place occurred only 20 days after Captain Cook’s first, and disastrous, contact with the indigenous race of the island and he was still grappling with understanding a new language and the rituals of greeting and challenge which he had earlier misunderstood.

The name of the place was, in fact, Uawa. It lives on in the name of the town’s river and is generally applied to the surrounding area. The area’s council carried the name as Uawa County Council for many years, but it was disestablished as part of local body reform in the latter part of last century.

No doubt debate over Tolago Bay’s name will continue, just as its marvelous, but dilapidated wharf continues as locals attempt a restoration of the 660 metre-long structure.

On the 16th of December 1982, the name Tolaga Bay was seen in Wellington’s Lambton Harbour, when the container vessel of that name arrived on its first visit. The 259 metre-long Tolaga Bay could carry 2436 containers and was a welcome sight for an east coast lad newly settled in the city. It became a regular visitor and the sight of the unusual name in big letters across the vessel’s stern, glimpsed from the shore or from the rail of the passing interisland ferry, was a cause for much musing.

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