RUSSELL, New Zealand – An elderly survivor, a 33-foot whaleboat, is cradled in the yard of the local museum, and Russell does have the look and air of a small, unrushed New England whaling town. Old, well-risen-and-wide-reaching trees guard the handsome white frame houses that stand behind whitewashed picket fences lining the quiet waterfront.

But Russell, originally known by the Maori name Kororarake, has been in plenty of action. Countless willful seafaring men have seen to that as they made names along the Karikari Peninsula, an upraised finger from the fist that is New Zealand’s North Island. Whalers, adventurers, naval commanders, missionaries, traders.

But could any have been as magnetic as the visiting English whaling captain William Darby Brind? As the object of too much affection – perhaps the whalebone of contention? – Captain Brind was the cause of the “Girls’ War” of 1830. Because each of two native maidens, from different Maori tribes, were convinced that she was the heart’s desire of the captain, their people fought it out in the neighborhood for the girls’ honor.

Nobody won Captain Brind, or the war, which was settled by the wise chief of chiefs, one Titore, who separated the tribes by an arbitrary border. Brind may have found whales easier to deal with than romance.

Captain James Cook, that restless roamer of the Pacific who would claim Australia for Britain in 1770, sailed into these parts a year earlier and named the waters the Bay of Isles – “a most noble anchorage.” Missionaries arrived in the area in 1814, and urged the inhabitants to change their diet from devouring each other to something more acceptable to Christians.

Russell, so friendly and placid today, was considered a “hell hole” of the Pacific by those striving Christians, who in 1835 erected New Zealand’s first house of their kind of worship, Christ Church, a couple of blocks from the harbor. The town’s three R’s in that time were “rum, rascality, and rapacity,” according to one preacher.

“Sorry,” says a smiling Allan Nicklin, “but you won’t find any of them here.” He and wife, Marilyn, operate the Ounuwhao, an exemplary bed-and-breakfast where at least her cuisine might be considered intoxicating by any rascal or straight-arrow. “There were a lot of grog shops in the old times, the most notorious run by a highly qualified rascal, John Johnson, and called the Duke of Marlborough.”

The duke remains today (minus Johnson, of course) a respectable harborside inn whose terrace offers good grub, as well as grog, and a fine view of sailing traffic.

By the 20th century, the rascals worrying the citizenry were the smooth kind who might turn the heads of female schoolteachers. In 1915, the rules for such educators included these prohibitions: “No loitering in ice cream parlours. Do not ride in a carriage or automobile with a man unless he is your brother or father.”

War came to town again in 1845 – British settlers against the Maoris, whose fierce patriotic chief, Hone Heke, started it by chopping down the flagpole from which the new rulers’ Union Jack fluttered, and burning much of the village. Before it was over, with the usual result, a British warship, HMS Hazard, had bombarded much of Russell occupied by the Maoris. Outgunned, they had to make peace, losers in their own land.

Bullet and cannonball damage can be seen in the white planking of quaint, tidy, one-room Christ Church. In the churchyard are graves of British marines killed in the fighting. Also those of Hannah Lethbridge, in 1816 the first foreign woman born in New Zealand, and whaler Henri Turner of Nantucket, skipper of the Mohawk at his death in 1862.

Across the bay by ferry is a livelier town, Paihia, and the Waitangi National Reserve where the British signed a treaty with the Maoris in 1840. It conceded governorship to the outsiders [ New Zealand became independent in 1947] but guaranteed citizenship and land rights to the natives. Like US treaties with the Indians, it has been often broken, and is still hotly debated.

Whatever, the Whare Runanga, the wooden Maori meetinghouse, one large room, is a mystical treasure distinguished by its carvings, particularly the imaginatively fearsome eyes and tongues. Splendid carving, notably sea monsters, also dominates the impressive war canoe nearby. Longer even than its long-preserved name, Ngatokimatawhaorua, it’s a 120-foot replica of the vessel in which Kupe, the Maoris’ great ancestor from Polynesia, is said to have discovered New Zealand at the end of the first century.

Kupe-power was furnished by 80 muscular paddlers, but I would suggest that an easier, more practical means of wandering the gorgeous Bay of Isles is sailpower. A day’s passage out of Russell on a 56-foot ketch called A Place In The Sun has been booked, and Pip Campbell, the one-woman crew, casts off. Her husband, Oliver Campbell, is at the eight-spoked wheel.

“My city-girl dream was to marry a man with a boat,” she says, laughing, “but I didn’t know I’d be doing most of the work. Oh, he helps with the sails, and this has been going on – still a dream – for 20 years. Barefoot, briny, and barnacled we are.”

The seascape is dreamy. Isle after isle, each a different size and conformation. Oliver says, “There are about 350 of them, 50 inhabited.” Some jutting rock assemblages lead my friend, Aurelio, to dub them “an aquatic Stonehenge.” Along the way, we encounter a gang of penguins, diving for lunch, and Pip brings out ours, sandwiches. Lonely black rocky platforms are trimmed in white by homesteading gulls or green by lichen.

Oliver takes a chance, giving us turns at the wheel, saying, “Oh, the boat can steer itself. It knows the way by now. I usually drink and drive.” And he does – though his poison is Coca-Cola, not rum.

At the wheel I feel like Captain William Darby Brind. But Aurelio says, “I don’t think there’s any danger of you starting another ‘Girls’ War’.”

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