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The Wairau incident

Page 2 – Ngāti Toa and the New Zealand Company

The Wairau incident had its origins in the migration of Ngāti Toa and their allies from Kāwhia to the Kāpiti coast in the southern North Island. Led by Te Rauparaha and armed with muskets, Ngāti Toa defeated three traditionally armed local tribes, Rangitāne, Ngāti Apa and Muaūpoko. After a decisive battle for Kāpiti Island in 1824, Ngāti Toa extended its sphere of influence to the South Island. Combining brute force with diplomacy, Te Rauparaha developed and fostered alliances with other tribes to maintain control of both sides of Te Moana o Raukawa (Cook Strait). Kāpiti became the hub of a lucrative maritime empire. Trade with Pākehā was nurtured and whalers and traders were encouraged to live among Ngāti Toa.

It was with these tribes that the New Zealand Company had to negotiate when it arrived in 1839. The company, through the operations of its chief negotiator, Colonel William Wakefield, eventually claimed to have purchased 1.2 million hectares in the Cook Strait region. On the basis of three dubious (and soon discredited) purchases, the company set about establishing its main settlement at Port Nicholson (Wellington), where the first shiploads of immigrants arrived in January 1840.

Port Nicholson struggled to establish itself. Flooding in Hutt Valley forced the company to abandon the original site. When they moved across the harbour to Te Aro and Thorndon, the settlers ran into more problems. The Māori occupants of these places denied the validity of the company’s claims to them. Reliance on Māori for survival did not sit well with the many company settlers who viewed them as an obstacle to European settlement.

The second of the company’s planned settlements in the Cook Strait region was at Nelson, where it claimed to have purchased land at Whakatū from Ngāti Toa in 1839. Captain Arthur Wakefield, William’s brother, subsequently negotiated with the resident Te Tau Ihu chiefs, who rejected Ngāti Toa’s claim to the area.

By the end of February 1842 there were 500 settlers in Nelson and another 1500 on the way. Nelson Māori initially profited by supplying the new settlers with food, but relations began to sour when the company and the Crown reneged on some of the purchase terms. When the company decided to push ahead with plans to survey the Wairau plains, matters took a turn for the worse.

How to cite this page

Ngāti Toa and the New Zealand Company, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated