Who says New Zealand doesn’t have history?

Some Stories just need to be told

Part One: Who says New Zealand doesn’t have history?

On State Highway 1, just ten minutes north of Blenheim (heading north toward Picton), there is a small sign advising motorists or passer-by’s that this was the spot of the Wairau Affray (previously known as the Wairau Massacre).

How often do we pass these signs giving no mind to the importance of such sites; how often do we simply drive on by, too busy to stop, too deeply involved with the song playing on the radio, our thoughts  meandering through loosely framed thoughts? All the time I suspect!

800px-Tuamarina IMG_0308[1]

Now I’m the first to admit I’m a history buff. Not history for history’s sake, I love to explore and examine how events from the past influence us today, how they have shaped laws, attitudes and behaviours. To me, history is not dead words, or dry crusty chapters in a musty old book. No history is alive, it breathes and its effects are with us every day.

I never studied history at University but I do have a keen mind and am an avid student of New Zealand history. Therefore the views expressed below are simply my own, they have not been formed or shaped by academia. So, please don’t rely on my interpretation of the facts, they are just how I see them.


To stop and stand in the same spot where 22 Englishmen and 4 or 5 Maori (actual number unknown) were killed was too good an opportunity to miss. It’s a big call I know, but to me, the Wairau Affray was one of the key moments in New Zealand’s history. It brought simmering tensions between Maori and English Settlers to the boil, it created morbid fear within the settlers, and it was the first time that the Treaty of Waitangi would be put to the test. It also brought into play some of the most influential people, most influential families in New Zealand into conflict.

The protagonists and antagonists are a script writers dream, complex and flawed, righteous and strong. The background, the setting, the plot are all so divine that they could never had been dreamed up by even the most creative and talented of writers. Let me explain:

Representing the Maori we had.

Te Rauparaha (chief of the mighty and fearsome Ngati Toa)

Te Raupraha

and his general Te Rangihaeta (who was also his nephew and a real firebrand).

te rangi

The Ngati Toa had been embroiled in tribal wars for many years and after being beaten up by other tribes allied with each other, the Ngati Toa migrated from their ancestral lands in search of other land far away from their enemies. They settled in and around the Nelson and Wellington areas. This brought them into contact with other migrants – the English!

Te Rauparaha has long been a personal favourite of mine – I believe he was probably NZ’s greatest general ever (despite my own great great uncle being a Brigadier General in the 2nd world war). Traditionally Te Rauparaha has been portrayed as a vicious land grabbing war lord. I have never read any account of his diplomatic skills and willingness to adapt to the new rules imposed by English settlement. I think this is doing him a great disservice. My interpretation and belief is that he indeed was a great diplomat and in nearly every interaction with the English he sought first a diplomatic or political solution.

While some of you may never have heard of him – I am sure most will be familiar with a Haka he composed. It is NZ’s national Haka – Ka Mate Ka Mate. How and why he composed it is another fantastic story – but that can wait for another time.


a mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!

Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!

Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru

Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā

Ā, upane! ka upane!

Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!

’Tis death! ‘tis death! (or: I may die) ’Tis life! ‘tis life! (or: I may live)

’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!

This is the hairy man

Who brought the sun and caused it to shine

A step upward, another step upward!

A step upward, another… the Sun shines!

Representing the English settlers we had: (ergh actually they more represented self-interest, the New Zealand Company and its wealthy share- holders in England)

  • Edward Gibbon Wakefield
  • His brother Col William Wakefield,
  • and younger brother Captain Arthur Wakefield

Now what a bunch of unscrupulous chancers and crooks you could ever hope to meet! Seriously, let’s have a look at their wrap Sheets:


Edward: Imprisoned in England for 3 years for kidnapping and forcibly marrying a 15 year old wealthy heiress. He had previously married another teenage girl for her money – they were given 7,000 pounds as a wedding gift! Unfortunately she died within 2 years of being married.

Before being associated with NZ, Edward was involved in colonisation schemes for Canada, South Africa and Australia. Essentially Edward was a property developer – and the qualities of property developers in the 19th century were essentially the same as they are today. Bluster, swagger, a degree of dishonesty and bullishness.

Edward became the Director of the NZ Company and starting selling NZ land sight unseen to wealthy British Investors.


Colonel William Wakefield

William Wakefield was a few years younger than Edward, and it appears as though Edward was a bad influence on him. William was caught up in his brothers plan to kidnap and marry the wealthy heiress, and like his brother he received a 3 year sentence for his crime. Although while on bail waiting for his trial he absconded to France and impregnated a 15 year old girl. This girl died in child birth leaving William with a baby girl Emily.

William did eventually serve his sentence and after his release he travelled and became a mercenary. He went to Portugal, and although having no military service enlisted as a Captain in the Service of Dom Pedro the Emperor of Brazil. Surviving the siege of Oporto he distinguished himself in the fighting and was made a Knight of the Order of the Tower and Sword. After the Portuguese Campaign he enlisted in the British Auxiliary Legion fighting for the infant Queen Isabella the second of Spain in the first Carlist War. He emerged from the campaign as a major, re-enlisted and was promoted to Colonel with Queen Isabella making him a Knight in the Order of San Fernando.

After his fighting days were over, Edward appointed William as the  leader of the NZ Companies expedition to NZ, the NZ Company deciding their settlements should be in Wellington and Nelson. William’s job was to lead the settlers in Wellington and be the principal land agent – buying up large tracts of land off the local Maori.


Arthur Wakefield

Poor old Arthur – by all accounts he was the most likeable of all the Wakefields, he was the one who treated Maori and Englishmen as equals, always showing respect; treating all people with dignity.

Arthur had a fine Naval Career eventually commanding his own ship the HMSRadamanthus. Previously he had served in America, being present at the capture of Washington, D.C., and at Bladensburg. He was also present at the bombardment of Algiers. In 1814 he took part in the shore fighting in Java. In 1816, he accompanied Sir Thomas Hardy on a two-year diplomatic mission to the South American republics. Then in 1822 he spent six months as aide-de-camp to Earl St. Vincent. From 1823 to 1828 he served in Africa where he assisted the explorers Clapperton, Denham, and Park, and was also engaged in suppressing slavers. From 1828 to 1833 he was senior lieutenant in HMS Rose patrolling the St. Lawrence Gulf and Labrador fisheries.

Arthur was actually Edward’s first choice to be the leader of the NZ Companies expedition to NZ, and it is my belief that he would have done a far superior job than William. Unfortunately for all involved and especially Arthur, he just been commissioned as a Captain in the Royal Navy and decided to stay and serve for a few more years. When he retired from the Navy he became the New Zealand Company’s agent for the projected Nelson settlement. He arrived in Nelson in the Whitby, laid out Nelson town, and organised the government of the infant colony. William soon discovered that his greatest problem would be to secure sufficient land to satisfy the shiploads of settlers whom the company was sending out.

A fluent French and Spanish linguist, Captain Arthur Wakefield was a fine naval officer and a capable, energetic colonial administrator. He was just in all his dealings, treating Maori and Pakeha alike. The chain of events leading to the Wairau Affray was neither his fault nor of his choosing. He died a bachelor.


Felix  Wakefield

As an aside, there was actually another Wakefield brother who plays no part in this story, although arguably he has had more impact on NZ than his more famous brothers. Felix a near-do-well was the man who introduced Red Deer into NZ, and although our hunters still love this act today, our Native Forests and Mountain flora have been devastated by the deer and has never really recovered.



Now, we the have the two sides established and as you can see, two proud families, powerful men with powerful motivations. Head strong and driven, conflict was inevitable. However, in this conflict there were actually a couple of referees. Let have a look at them.

Representing the Government, justice and law were:

Robert Fitzroy, Governor of New Zealand and Land commissioner William Spain


Robert Fitzroy

NZ Historians do not do this man justice!

Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy was the Captain of the HMS Beagle – Darwin’s ship. Yep, on every journey Darwin and the Beagle embarked upon Fitzroy was at the helm. You could argue that he was either just a glorified taxi driver or an integral part of the development of the origin of species. From what I have read – I choose the later.

He was also a trained meteorologist and his lasting claim to fame is that he was the first to produce daily shipping forecasts, literally saving the lives of hundreds of fishermen and sailors.

In December 1843 Fitzroy was appointed Governor of NZ. His instructions were to maintain order and protect the Maori while satisfying the land hunger of the settlers pouring into the country. This brought him to direct conflict with the NZ Company and the Wakefields. The Wakefields had oversold, they needed land. The Wakefields also wanted the New Zealand’s Capital to be moved to Wellington, a move strongly resisted by Fitzroy. Maori who outnumbered the settlers by 10 to 1 – also needed to be appeased, as they were being cheated out of their land by unscrupulous land agents. There was no military option available to Fitzroy, he was given very few military resources. He had to tread a fine line to satisfy all parties and keep everyone safe.

Government revenue, mainly from customs duties, was woefully inadequate for his responsibilities.

Land sales were a continuing issue. The settlers were eager to buy land and some Māori were willing to sell, but under the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi, land sales required the Government to act as an intermediary, and therefore were extremely slow. So, Fitzroy changed the rules to allow settlers to purchase Māori land directly, subject to a duty of ten shillings per acre. Unfortunately sales proved slower than expected.

To meet the financial shortfall, Fitzroy raised customs duties, then replaced them with property and income taxes. All these expedients failed. Before long the Colony was faced with bankruptcy, and Fitzroy was forced to begin issuing promissory notes, paper money without backing. This was perfect fodder for the Wakefields who started to undermine Fitzroy both within NZ and back in the home country at every opportunity.

In my mind, Fitzroy was a great man, who was denied the resources required to govern a fledgling colony. Of all our Governors, I think it is he who most respected and understood the tenants of the Treaty of Waitangi. A most underrated person in NZ History.


William Spain

William Spain was a bureaucrat – a damn fine one at that! He was meticulous, efficient and tireless in his duty as a Land Commissioner. He was beyond political and commercial influences and undertook his duties with a passion for playing by the rules. He was one of 3 Land Commissioners appointed in New Zealand. Their role was to ensure all land sales were above board, fair and understood by all parties. William was the Land Commissioner responsible for overseeing the purchases made by the NZ Company.

Uh-oh, you can see where this is going can’t you!

So all the main characters are in play, the scene has been set and conflict is on the horizon, so stay tuned for Part Two of this blog (next week) where I will attempt to dramatize and bring to life the amazing story of the Wairau Affray. It should be fun.

Kia Ora


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