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Bad Company: Wakefield and the Wairau War

NZ's Infamous Founding History (Part V)

In August 1838, the New Zealand Association reformed as the second New Zealand Colonisation Company. It required massive capital to start up, but there was still interest following the first New Zealand Company which had been propelled by positive reports from Captain Cook’s surveys, and the misguided belief that the company could have had exclusive trade with this new colony, which had been playing second fiddle to the settlement of Australia.

Once again, the Association was largely run from London, but British sovereignty in New Zealand was immediately threatened by the company’s fundraising of £400,000 in shares sold. Immigration schemes now replaced timber and flax as the main money maker. Colonel William Wakefield, one of the Wakefield brothers who led the company, took the flagship Tory to New Zealand and at once began negotiations with Maori for the purchase of Port Nicholson, and before long, Wellington was formed. However, the company's 20 million acres of land claims were jeopardised as soon as Maori and the Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

Ingratiating itself with Lord Russell, the incorporated company managed to receive land title in 1841 and commenced selling as much of New Zealand as it could. Some investors desperately wanted to escape England; others had to be cajoled into leaving.


Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the eldest of the Wakefield brothers, had married into privilege, living off a handsome dowry for five years. Although he already had a wife, in 1826 Wakefield took a 15 year old to Scotland and forced her into a mystical wedding ceremony, earning him three years in prison. Historian Ged Martin says that Wakefield lived in “an egocentric world of fantasy… and both the abduction of Ellen Turner and his subsequent colonisation theories were the products of a powerful and dangerous imagination.”

By 1829, Wakefield had become obsessed with colonising the antipodes, and wrote ‘A Letter From Sydney’ in which he argued that colonial land must be sold to finance immigration and labour schemes for the colonies. He started issuing crazy pamphlets following his release from prison, followed by botched colonisation missions in South and Western Australia. Later, it emerged that this 'letter' had been written without Wakefield even having visited Sydney.

The notorious Wakefield was regarded by contemporaries as “a clever scoundrel,” a “swindler”, a “scamp” and a “cacodemon.” Wakefield’s bad reputation followed him from Canada to New Zealand, where critics mocked his association with the “Swindling Rooms” of England’s Canterbury Association. Newgate Prison, where the rapist spent his time fantasising about the colonies, may have driven him insane. Contemporaries said that he was “incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.”


By 1843, the New Zealand Company was being unscrupulously run by William, Edward and their brother Arthur. William was simultaneously reinforcing Britain’s world dominance and undermining its authority over New Zealand. Historian Patricia Burns says that the Wakefields tested New Zealand’s fragile post-treaty land deals so much that “a clash between the races was inevitable.” Edward Wakefield, enjoying his dowry in England, had no idea that Maori were proud of their land and very possessive of it.

When he reached Port Nicholson, William Wakefield’s time became taken up with bribing resident Ngāti Toa and keeping Commissioner Spain off his case while he eyed up Marlborough's Wairau Valley. Spain was heading the commission which investigated all land purchases in New Zealand prior to British annexation, and he was no fan of the New Zealand Company. After all, a New Zealand Company agent had been undermining the prosecution of a settler for the murder of a Maori woman. Te Rauparaha – Ngāti Toa’s fearsome leader – wasn’t impressed, but he did his best to respect colonial law. Although Te Rauparaha and fellow chief Te Rangihaeata were disrupting the work of illegal land surveyors, Maori “were waiting with pleasure the decision of Spain as to the Wairau Valley, and they would quietly have abided by that decision whatever it may have been.”

In 1842, 44 landowners – as well as some police and government – signed a protest against the New Zealand Company because of inflated land prices, misleading land sales, and imbalances in the labour economy caused by Wakefield’s mismanagement. Nelson, meanwhile, was being set up but the planned city was too crowded, and jutted up against hills, so the Wairau Valley in neighbouring Marlborough was targeted instead.

However, Arthur Wakefield’s bribes of food weren’t satisfying Ngāti Toa. At first he bragged that “a very small present for the natives gets over at once what might become a knotty problem hereafter,” but his mates in the Nelson administration were on thin ice and knew it. They could not arrest Te Rangihaeata for hindering a survey on land which remained Maori until the Land Commission ruled otherwise.


Pig-headedly, Arthur Wakefield forged ahead, ignoring Ngāti Toa. The New Zealand Company suddenly suspended land sales in February 1843, avoiding responsibility for its illegal sales and blaming resident agents and labourers. Arthur then had the cheek to cut labourers’ wages, to control the imbalanced labour market. It was all a recipe for disaster.

At the Supreme Court in April 1843, the murder trial of a highly-born Maori woman, Kuika, had resulted in the acquittal of the murderer, leading Te Rangihaeata to “inescapably feel the demand for revenge. ”A delegation of Ngāti Toa arrived in Nelson to protest about the Company’s people surveying the disputed Wairau Valley, but Arthur responded by threatening to arrest Te Rauparaha with 300 constables. A menacing haka was then delivered to an intermediary, the Rev Samuel Ironside, with a simple message: White men must stay away from the Wairau Valley.

Nevertheless, three parties of surveyors departed for the Wairau Valley in April to stop the Maori from burning and smashing the surveyors' settlements. The plan was, Lowther Broad wrote at the time, “the Magistrates would go in… with a nondescript force of labourers armed with old muskets, and rusty bayonets and cutlasses, and the Chief Constable would carry the handcuffs, at which dread array Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata would yield quietly.”

No blood had yet been shed, but Maori had time and time again warned the New Zealand Company against its lust for land. While the local media portrayed settlers as having a right to land which “the native have let lie idle and unused for centuries, ” the New Zealand Company’s policy had always been to simply override the law, while redefining the law to suit its purpose.

Arthur Wakefield headed for Wairau Valley on June 16, 1843, with muskets which were intended to terrify Maori, but 40 Ngāti Toa took up a tactical position on the far side of the Tuamarina Stream. Police Magistrate Thompson was at this point leading the Europeans. Maori provided a waka to ferry the Europeans across the stream for negotiations, and Thompson informed Te Rangihaeata that he had come to arrest him in the name of the Queen for interfering with settlers’ tools and burning their houses. Attempting to take Te Rangihaeata by handcuffs, a skirmish broke out, and despite some Maori begging for Christian peace and clemency, Arthur ordered his men to cross the stream, shouting “Forward, men! Englishmen forward!”

Shooting from both sides was the immediate result, and the more experienced Ngāti Toa gained the upper hand immediately, with Te Rauparaha ordering his men to cross the stream in pursuit. The stiff clothes of the Europeans and their inexperience with muskets made them sitting ducks against the experienced guerrilla warriors, and Arthur and 17 others had to surrender, but Te Rangihaeata demanded utu for the wounding of his wife, as well as for the death of Kuika. He personally executed the prisoners of war with his own stone mere. Ngāti Toa then placed a piece of bread under Arthur’s head: a horrid insult in Maori culture, as well as a bitter reminder of Arthur’s policy of appeasing chiefs with food.

Four Maori had been killed, and 22 Europeans, and escapees on both sides brought first hand accounts of ‘the Wairau Affray’ back to their communities. Chaos was the result: land sales halted, a government inquiry immediately sided with Maori, and agricultural produce stopped arriving in Wellington from Maori farmers. The English community was consumed with desire for revenge, but Te Rauparaha warned government officials that he would slaughter anyone who attempted to arrest his troops.

It took Acting-Governor Willoughby Shortland as well as Lord Stanley, Secretary of State at the Colonial Office, to lay down the law: Maori would not be punished for the mistakes of the dodgy land dealers. “You will honourably and scrupulously fulfil the conditions of the Treaty of Waitangi” was Stanley’s firm direction to the New Zealand Company and those officials ordered to punish it.

And how did the Wicked Wakefields respond? They claimed that Europeans “cohabiting” with Maori women was the cause of the grievance, covering up the real reason for Te Rauparaha’s wrath. A warrant for the arrest of Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata was drawn up, but Shortland refused to accept it. Support was even lost from the local media, and with only a few grumpy settlers on its side, and Maori and government against it, the Wairau Affray was the death knell of Wakefield’s New Zealand Company.


Things didn’t go easily after that. The company was £60,000 in debt by 1845, and struggled to gain enough support in the House of Commons to be considered relevant in the foundation of New Zealand. Britain’s Constitution Act of 1846 established representative institutions in New Zealand, and the company briefly got its head above water in terms of finances and reputation, but dividends and salaries became all that motivated the directors – not cautious, sensible, chaste settlement for the common migrant.

It’s true that from 1839 to 1843, New Zealand Company brought over 8,600 immigrants in 57 ships. It had been a hard sell, and many of us wouldn’t be here today if the company hadn’t done its part. But if the price of this was the Snaky Wakefields selling the land out from under its original occupants and instigating a massacre, it wasn’t worth it.

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