The Wairau incident

Page 3 – Violence erupts

The fertile plains of the Wairau valley, 70 km south-east of Nelson, were seen as the answer to the settlement’s lack of nearby flat land suitable for agriculture. New Zealand Company surveyors sent to the area in early 1843 met with immediate opposition from Ngāti Toa. Te Rauparaha was adamant that this land had not been included in the company’s 1839 ‘purchases’. Accompanied by his nephew Te Rangihaeata and another senior chief, Te Hiko, Te Rauparaha went to Nelson for talks with Arthur Wakefield. Ngāti Toa wanted the matter looked into as part of William Spain’s investigation of all land purchases made prior to Britain’s annexation of New Zealand.

When Ngāti Toa ordered a halt to the survey, William Wakefield told his brother Arthur to continue and a fresh survey party arrived in the Wairau valley in April 1843. The company hoped that once settlers occupied the land, the Crown would have little choice but to retrospectively recognise its claims.

In early June 1843, Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata evicted the company’s surveyors and burnt their temporary shelters, while taking care to protect their personal property and provisions.

Though the timber and bedding materials destroyed in the fire had been taken from land claimed by Ngāti Toa, Nelson settlers sensed an opportunity to put Te Rauparaha in his place. Some said that as Ngāti Toa had acquired the land through conquest, it was not theirs to sell. This argument was a thin one: how Te Rauparaha had acquired the land was irrelevant if he had not included it in the sale to the company. Nevertheless, a decision was made to arrest Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata on charges of arson.

An armed but militarily inexperienced posse of 49 Europeans, including Nelson’s Chief Constable Henry Thompson and Arthur Wakefield, arrived on the eastern side of the Tuamarina Stream on 17 June 1843. Nearly twice as many Māori, including Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata and a number of women and children, had gathered on the opposite bank.

After eight of the Europeans crossed the river on a makeshift bridge formed by a canoe, the excitable Thompson made two attempts to place handcuffs on Te Rauparaha – an insult to his mana. Meanwhile, Te Rangihaeata, who was also to be arrested, shouted that he was on his own land and that Māori did not go to England to take Pākehā land. As the tension rose, a musket shot rang out. It may have been accidentally fired by a European attempting to hastily return to the comparative safety of the eastern bank. In the confused fighting which followed, about nine of the posse were killed or fatally injured. So were two Māori – including Te Rongo, one of Te Rangihaeata’s wives. After a disorganised retreat during which four more Europeans were killed, most of the survivors were surrounded and forced to surrender.

Te Rauparaha seems to have been willing to spare the captives, but gave his consent when Te Rangihaeata insisted on obtaining utu for his wife. Nine European prisoners, including Arthur Wakefield and Henry Thompson, were killed on the spot, with Te Rangihaeata playing a leading role in the executions.

How to cite this page

'Violence erupts', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Oct-2021