Hawke Bay and Hawke’s Bay

Tuia - Encounters 250: Cook's place names around New Zealand - Hawke Bay and Hawke's Bay

Photo of Hawke Bay
Photo Credit: Christopher Stephens, New Zealand Geographic Board

When Māui fished up Te Ika-a-Māui [the North Island], he is said to have used a hook made from the jawbone of his grandmother, Murirangawhenua. The curve of this bay represents the hook or possibly refers to where the hook snagged, and is known as Te Matau-a-Māui (Māui’s fish hook).

When Cook sailed past on 15 October 1769, he applied another name: ‘Hawke’s Bay in honour of Sr Edward’.

Edward Hawke (1705-1781) was the First Lord of the Admiralty from 1766 to 1771, the organisation that controlled the British Navy and thus Cook’s voyages. While most people moved up the ranks of the Navy through political connections, Hawke had progressed through success in battle. He was known for his tactical prowess and for insisting that the captains under his command got within ‘pistol shot’ of enemy ships before they opened fire.

Hawke had inadvertently played a hand in Cook’s appointment as commander of the HMB Endeavour. Originally, the Royal Society (who had proposed the voyage of exploration to the Navy) had wanted Alexander Dalrymple to lead the voyage. Dalrymple, while an experienced geographer, was a civilian and Hawke did not want a civilian in charge of a naval vessel. Some accounts claim Hawke said he would cut off his own hand before signing such an order. Cook was then suggested for the position instead.

Nowadays the body of water is called Hawke Bay, while the region is called Hawke’s Bay. The difference stems from the authorities and histories behind the official names.

The name of the original Hawke’s Bay Province was gazetted on 1 November 1858, when it split from the Wellington Province. Other administrative areas such as Hawke’s Bay Land Registration District, established in 1871, followed suit. When the provincial system was abolished in 1876, Hawke’s Bay County again used the possessive ‘s’.

The naming of geographic and hydrographic features (like the bay) is the responsibility of the New Zealand Geographic Board (NZGB). The NZGB tries to standardise place names through rules such as removing possessive ‘s’ in place names. In rare cases ‘local usage’ is so strong that the ‘s’ is retained (like at ‘Arthur’s Pass’), but generally, official place names in New Zealand do not contain a possessive ‘s’.

In this case, in 1983 the NZGB assigned ‘Hawke Bay’ officially for the body of water and ‘Hawke’s Bay’ for the ‘County, Land District, and Province’ – confirming long standing use and helping make the distinction between the administrative areas and the water feature. The current local council governs ‘Hawke’s Bay Region’, the name gazetted with the ‘s’ in 1989 as part of the New Zealand-wide local government reorganisation.

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Last Updated: 15 February 2019