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William Martin

William Martin
William Martin

William Martin was called to the English bar in 1836. In January 1841 he was appointed New Zealand's first chief justice, and presided over the first sitting of the Supreme Court at Auckland in February 1842.

One of the first trials involved Maketū Wharetōtara, a Bay of Islands Māori charged with murdering the granddaughter of a leading Ngāpuhi chief, two European adults and a European child. The trial raised the question of how to apply British law in the new colony. Martin's statement that the law should apply to all the Queen’s subjects, whatever their race or local custom, was said to have had a profound effect on Māori. Maketu was convicted and hanged.

Martin advised the early governors on a wide range of laws. He also helped prepare several key rulings, including those that established a legal system in New Zealand. He had deep respect for Māori, and was involved in Māori education. He believed that the Treaty of Waitangi was a sacred compact which alone justified British sovereignty.

In 1860, Martin received a knighthood. That same year, he published a strong attack on the government's Taranaki policies. He later opposed the confiscation of Māori land. In his view the King Movement leaders were more sinned against than sinners. He left New Zealand in 1874, and died in England in 1880.

Adapted from the DNZB biography by G. P. Barton

How to cite this page

William Martin, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated