Trouble at Tuamarina - roadside stories

Today a sleepy settlement between Picton and Blenheim, Tuamarina was the site of bloody conflict in June 1843. The New Zealand Company believed they had bought the Wairau Plains – but Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha considered that the area had not been purchased. He evicted surveyors from the Wairau, and when a party of settlers arrived to arrest him, conflict broke out.


Narrator: Tuamarina is a small and peaceful settlement between Picton and Blenheim. But, in 1843, it was the explosive flashpoint of two colliding cultures.

In the late 1830s, much of the upper South Island belonged to the Ngāti Toa tribe. Two of its chiefs, Te Rauparaha and his nephew Te Rangihaeata, had forcibly acquired the land from other iwi during the 1830s in a series of armed raids.

One of the European settlers in the area was a whaling captain called John Blenkinsopp. He negotiated with Ngāti Toa to take wood and water from Cloudy Bay in return for a ship’s cannon. But the deed that Blenkinsopp drew up, and that the chiefs signed, sold 26,500 acres of the Wairau Plains to Blenkinsopp. This duplicitous document, which the chiefs didn’t understand, would soon cause great harm.

Though Ngāti Toa had sold large areas of land to the European settlers, especially in Wellington and Nelson, they had carefully retained other areas, including the Wairau Plains.  

Settlers were flooding into Nelson, and they were desperate for more land. The New Zealand Company’s Nelson agent, Arthur Wakefield, tried to invoke Blenkinsopp’s deed. The Company had purchased it in 1839 and believed it gave them ownership of the Wairau Plains. Wakefield sent a surveyor, J.W. Barnicoat, to survey the area. 

When Ngāti Toa heard of this, Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata asked the Native Land Commissioner in Wellington to intervene. But when he failed treat the matter with any urgency, the two chiefs and a large party travelled to the Wairau. There they evicted Barnicoat and his chainman and burnt down their crude hut.

This incensed Nelson’s settlers. So Arthur Wakefield and a local magistrate, H.A. Thompson, as well as a motley band of 50 settlers proceeded to the Wairau Plains; confident that a show of force would deter Ngāti Toa.

The two groups met at Tuamarina, on the edge of the plains. In a tense encounter, Thompson tried to arrest Te Rauparaha. At the same time, one of the nervous Nelson settlers fired a shot that killed Te Rongo, the wife of Te Rangihaeata. In the fight that followed, nine settlers and seven Māori were killed. Twenty-seven of the settlers managed to flee, but Thompson, Wakefield and 11 others surrendered.

Te Rauparaha was willing to spare the men but Te Rangihaeata claimed the right of utu, or revenge, for the death of his wife. All the Europeans were bludgeoned to death, mostly by Te Rangihaeata. The survivors made their way back to Nelson.

The European settlers in Wellington and Nelson became extremely nervous about what might follow, as a local newspaper noted.

Actor’s voice: We cannot but view with deep regret, the futile attempt made to arrest a powerful chief without a sufficient force. That a party of persons, unaccustomed to warfare, should suffer defeat, was no more than might be expected. But the effect will not end there. Blood has been shed on both sides, and we fear a spirit of hostility has been raised in the minds of the Natives which will be difficult to eradicate.

Narrator: The Ngāti Toa party returned home expecting reprisals, but [Acting] Governor Shortland made no effort to punish the tribe. While this infuriated many settlers, Shortland lacked sufficient troops to be confident of winning against Ngāti Toa.

Despite this setback, the settlers got the Wairau three years later in 1846. The new Governor, Grey, seized Te Rauparaha and held him for almost two years as a prisoner without trial. Then he pursued Te Rangihaeata, who was forced to retreat to the Manawatū. As a condition of Te Rauparaha’s release, Ngāti Toa had to sell the Wairau.

Today Blenkinsopp’s cannon sits in pride of place outside the Marlborough District Council office in Blenheim, and at Tuamarina, a monument to the surveyor Barnicoat commemorates the role of surveyors.

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Trouble at Tuamarina - roadside stories

What do you know?

Carole meredith

Posted: 08 Jan 2017

The cannon sits in pride of place and there's a monument to the surveyors.what monument is there for the Iwi who were swindled?