New Zealand's oldest cross-cultural friendship has been celebrated by descendants of the original missionaries and chiefs 200 years after they set New Zealand on the path to nationhood.

On December 22, 1814, the Rev Samuel Marsden and his missionaries established New Zealand's first European settlement in the Bay of Islands.

Sisters Brooke, 14, and Honey Howard, 16, of Tautoro perform Hareruia for Treaty Settlements Minister Chris Finlayson. Behind him is Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry.
Sisters Brooke, 14, and Honey Howard, 16, of Tautoro perform Hareruia for Treaty Settlements Minister Chris Finlayson. Behind him is Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry.

The bicentennial was marked on Sunday by the opening of Rangihoua Heritage Park, about 35km northeast of Kerikeri, by Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae.

The settlement was a result of the friendship between Marsden and the chiefs Te Pahi and Ruatara, who gave the fledgling settlement protection. Descendants of both sides of that historic pact took part in Sunday's celebrations.

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Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae cuts the ribbon to Rore Kahu (Soaring Eagle), the park's rammed earth and carbon fibre entranceway.
Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae cuts the ribbon to Rore Kahu (Soaring Eagle), the park's rammed earth and carbon fibre entranceway.

John King, a descendant of the missionary John King, said the accord between Marsden and Ruatara was the beginning of a special relationship between Maori and Pakeha. He also spoke of his own friendship with Ngati Torehina kaumatua Hugh Rihari, a continuation of the friendship between their two forebears.

It was unfortunate the story of Rangihoua was not well known because it was the place New Zealand's bicultural journey began, Mr King said.

Jonny Martin of Paihia checks out one of the new interpretation panels.
Jonny Martin of Paihia checks out one of the new interpretation panels.

Mr Rihari, who is related to Ruatara through the chief's third wife, Rahu, said he was proud so many people had travelled for the opening.

The missionaries' children, who grew up fluent in both languages, were the first genuinely bicultural New Zealanders, he said.

Among the many church dignitaries was the Rev Samuel Marsden, the great-great-great-grandson of the settlement's founder. Rev Marsden, who now lives in the the UK, said Sunday's celebration was more than a recollection of the past.

"For me, it's a spiritual experience and not just because it was my ancestor who brought the Christian gospel, but the way he was received by Te Pahi and Ruatara."

Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae said Rangihoua was "a noble experiment" that did not live up to expectations, but started the development of literacy, justice, Christianity and western agriculture in New Zealand.

Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry said the settlement was home to New Zealand's first school and was the place missionary Thomas Kendall created the first book in te reo. It paved the way for other mission stations and the Treaty of Waitangi 26 years later.

The former garden show presenter said she was looking forward to inspecting the lemon trees planted by the missionaries, another Rangihoua first.

Other speakers during the formal welcome included kaumatua Huri Rihari, who recited the hari (celebratory song) first sung by Ruatara as Marsden came ashore. Two hundred years later the same chant can still be heard at Ngapuhi marae.