From ancient times, trade and commerce have centred on ports. As people and products gathered at waterfronts, communities formed around the activity-filled harbours.
The first early settlers arrived at the Manukau Harbour in 1835, purchasing land from native Maori and, in 1840 a fencible settlement was established. This force of retired soldiers was brought in to strengthen the defences of Auckland because many colonists felt in danger from hostile Maori.
The early settlement of Onehunga subsequently began to be established.
Onehunga was a frequent port of call for coastal vessels operating between other west coast New Zealand ports. Passenger traffic was also extremely popular in the late 1800s, with passenger steamers operating between many of the New Zealand west coast ports.
In 1913, responsibility for the Manukau Harbour and the Onehunga Port was transferred from the Marine Department and the Auckland Harbour Board.
During the 1950s, there was an increase in the tonnage of goods handled at Onehunga and this trend continued until the mid 1960s. In 1982, the Port also began handling containers.
The Manukau Harbour is one of the most extensive inlets on the west coast of New Zealand, with a water area of 394 square kilometres. However, navigation is restricted to several clearly defined channels due to a number of factors. A large part of the harbour consists of tidal sand bars, a curving sand bar is situated several miles offshore across the harbour entrance, and the harbour entrance is extremely narrow.
Painting depicting the wreck of the HMS Orpheus, Richard Brydges Beechey, 1863
The sinking of the HMS Orpheus on 7 February 1863 was the worst maritime disaster in New Zealand history and a dramatic event in this Port’s history, highlighting the limitations of the Port of Onehunga. The 1,700-tonne steam corvette hit the middle bank, the Manukau Bar, at 1.30pm. By 9pm the mast, where most of the crew had taken refuge, went down; only 70 of 250 passengers survived.
Today the Port is close to a large and growing industrial area in South Auckland. This proximity has assisted the Port in continuing to service a steady flow of coastal traders and the local fishing fleet.
A signal station, situated on South Head (the southern point of the harbour), is operated by Ports of Auckland to assist vessels entering and departing.