Tuia - Encounters 250: Cook’s place names around New Zealand - Tolaga Bay

Photo of Tolaga Bay by Sally Faisandier
Photo Credit: Sally Faisandier, Land Information New Zealand

Tolaga Bay is one of the great linguistic mysteries of New Zealand’s place names.

When the HMB Endeavour arrived in the bay in 1769, Cook, naturalist Joseph Banks and others on board noted down the name as 'Tolaga' or 'Tollago'. This is clearly not correct, but how it came about is debated.

Historian Anne Salmond states in her book Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans, 1642-1772:

  • According to local traditions, when the Europeans asked for the name of the place the people thought they were asking about the wind, for Taaraki was the wind off the land, which made sea conditions dangerous for canoes or ships.

Another theory is shown here by a 1934 letter from translator Hare Hongi (Henry Matthew Stowell):

  • When properly analysed the term for which Tolaga is a substitute stands plainly revealed. There is no l in Maori, and it is well known that that letter is frequently substituted for Maori r. There is no such combination in Maori as "aga"; and it is equally well known that that form is commonly substituted for the true "ranga”; from the time of Cook to the present day. Clearly then, the "laga" of Cook is substituted for the true "ranga". The "To" of Cook ought to be regarded as "Too"; and so pronounced. All of which now gives us a misspelt but perfectly pronounced Too-ranga.

He goes on to argue that it should be ‘Turanga-iti’. (It should be noted, however, that Hongi was from Ngāpuhi and not an East Coast local). 

The local Māori name for the bay is Ūawa, after the river that runs through the bay. The former local county was also called Uawa.

Currently there are three associated Tolaga names: Tolaga Bay for the township, Tolaga Bay for the adjacent water feature, and Tolaga Knoll for an undersea feature.


  • NZ Gazetteer - Tolaga Bay
  • Anne Salmond, Two Worlds, Viking, Auckland 1991, p. 169
  • Hare Hongi, ‘Maori Place Names’, Evening Post,  15 May 1934, p 4
Last Updated: 5 February 2019