The Wairau Incident

Last Modified: 21-2-2019 9:47

Faced with a shortage of land in the Nelson colony, The New Zealand Company under Arthur Wakefield, was keen to acquire additional land. The company's chief surveyor Frederick Tuckett, carried out exploratory expeditiions and reported that the Wairau Plain was the only available flat land between Cape Farewell, and Cape Campbell.

Word of the surveyor's activity reached Ngati Toa chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeta at Kapiti. They travelled to Nelson and made it plain to Wakefield that they retained title to the Wairau Plain, and did not intend to sell unless they were offered a generous price. The Europeans were warned not to continue their activity in the Wairau.

Wakefield insisted that he would continue as he saw fit, and that he would send constables to arrest Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeta if they interfered. Te Rauparaha suggested that the matter be referred to the Government Land Commissioner to investigate the claims of the New Zealand Company, but Arthur Wakefield claimed that the commissioner had no jurisdiction. The Ngati Toa chiefs left Nelson without resolving anything, and if anything in an inflamed state.

Subsequently, other tribal chiefs who were resident in the Wairau arrived in Nelson, and made it clear that they did not accept the right of Te Rauparaha to sell the land under any circumstances as they were the current occupiers, however indicated that they might be prepared to enter into negotiations at some stage in the future.

Wakefield tried to convince the Wairau chiefs to acknowledge his claim to the Wairau with the offer of a schooner and other goods, but he was refused. Wakefield then tried to justify his claim based on purchases made in 1839, and a deed bought from Blenkinsopp's widow. Both these claims were shown to lack validity, but Wakefield refused to change his position.

Under pressure from settlers who were demanding the land promised to them under their contracts with The New Zealand Company, in April 1843, Wakefield contracted surveyors to survey the Wairau plain, although he lacked any sound evidence of title. Well aware of tension with local Maori, a provision was made that the surveyors would be indemnified for any loss suffered.

On the first of June 1843, Te Rapauraha and his party arrived at Port Underwood, and communicated that he intended to burn the surveyors' camps. The next day, his threat was carried out, but no harm was done to any individual, and the surveyors were assisted to leave with their belongings.

Tuckett wrote to Wakefield detailing the events that had occurred.

After bad weather delayed their departure several days Tuckett and two companions left by boat, with the remainder of the survey party to be retrieved later with additional boats.

The following day, Tuckett and companions encountered the Government brig "Victoria", and discovered that Wakefield along with the Nelson police magistrate, chief constable and 24 special constables had come with the intent of arresting the Ngati Toa chiefs on charges of arson. Tuckett councelled against a show of force, and recommended Wakefield wait for the decision of the court which Te Rauparaha had indicated willingness to respect. He was over-ruled particularly by the police magistrate, Thompson , who was keen to 'teach the natives a lesson'.

On the night of the 16th of June 1843 the party led by Wakefield made camp near present day Grovetown. They encountered a group of local Maori led by Te Puaha, a convert to Christianity, who had previously argued against European title to the Wairau in Nelson. He offered strong arguments against taking an armed force into the presence of Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. Once again, any efforts to encourage moderation were over ruled.

On the morning of 17 June 1843 the European party of 40 armed men, undisciplined, and mostly untrained confronted the Maori camp of about 90 men and 35 women and children on the western side of the Tuamarina stream. Orders were not to fire until commanded.

The encounter commenced peaceably enough. The magistrate, Wakefield, Tuckett, and several other men crossed over unarmed to the side of the stream where the Maori party was encamped, and Te Puaha read passages from the Bible encouraging both parties to peace.

Te Rauparaha greeted the Europeans cordially enough, however Thomson, the magistrate, refused to accept his greeting, and suceeded in insulting Te Rauparaha. Thompson became increasingly enraged, and in an outburst threatened that the European party would fire on the Maori camp. A confused interpretation led to the Maori believing that an order to fire had been given, however even at this point some rapid diplomacy managed to avoid violence.

Wakefield returned across the stream to take command of his men on the other side, and when Thompson appeared to be threatened, ordered his men forward. Several men jumped into the canoe, and almost capsized it. In the resulting confusion, a shot was accidentally discharged. This resulted in the end of any restraint on both sides, and shots were exchanged wildly, although miraculously, the European party on the west side of the stream managed to escape back accross to the eastern bank.

The European party soon fell into disarray, and retreated up the hill. Wakefield attempted to surrender, however other members of the party continued to fire, increasing the hostility of the Maori. Tuckett and two other men departed from the main company and made their escape.

Finally, the remainder of the European party surrendered near the summit of the hill. At first they hoped they would escape with their lives in return for a ransom, however in the chaos of the fighting, Te Rongo, Rangihaeata's wife, had been killed by a stray bullet. According to Maori custom, it was normal to exact revenge or 'utu' and so the party moved a little way down the hill, where the Europeans were executed by tomahawk blows to the back of the head. Te Rauparaha did not allow the bodies to be mutilated, or robbed, and they were later given decent burials by the Reverend Samuel Ironside.

At subsquent hearings into the incident, it was determined that the fault lay entirely with the English party. Swainson, the Attorney-General at the time described their plan as, "illegal in its inception and in every step of its execution, unjustifiable in the magistrate and four constables, and criminal in the last degree on the part of the attacking party."

While legal opinion was clearly on the side of the Maori, there remained some condemnation of the execution of defenceless men, although it was accepted that the Maori had been provoked and acted in acordance with their customs, so could not be held guilty of any crime.

Popular sentiment amongst colonists was rather different, and for a time rebellion ensued, even to the point of attempting to enlist the assistence of a French frigate to go to war against the Maori, however their efforts were not met with success.


Buick, TL 1900 - Old Marlborough

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The Wairau Incident. (2019) Retrieved May, 29, 2024, from