War in Wellington

Page 2 – The Port Nicholson purchase

In September 1839 William Wakefield, the principal agent for the New Zealand Company, met Te Ātiawa chiefs Te Puni and Te Wharepōuri at Pito-one (Petone), on the northern shore of Port Nicholson (Wellington Harbour). After a deed for the purchase of Port Nicholson was signed, the goods forming the basis of the sale were divided into six lots and distributed by Te Puni to the main pā around the harbour. Te Puni’s understanding was that Te Ātiawa’s prominence in the area had been acknowledged.

For its part, the company believed it now possessed all the land between the south coast and the Tararua Range, as well as the islands in the harbour and part of inland Porirua. But when Wakefield crossed Cook Strait to secure more land, he was informed by Ngāti Toa at Cloudy Bay that Te Ātiawa had had no right to negotiate with him. Ngāti Toa, led by Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, saw themselves as the real power in this region; any deals had to be done with them. An agreement with Te Rauparaha for the purchase of a huge area of central New Zealand was reached on 18 October 1839 at Kāpiti Island. Following the signing of a similar agreement with Te Ātiawa in Queen Charlotte Sound in November, Wakefield was confident that the New Zealand Company had secured its position in the region.

This confidence was misplaced. Important chiefs from the south-western side of the harbour (Te Aro, Pipitea and Kumutoto) had taken little part in the original discussions. Some Māori had accepted the goods distributed by Te Puni simply because they did not want to miss out; others regarded them as no more than gifts. Exactly what the company had purchased remained unclear.

To make matters worse, when the first immigrants arrived in January 1840 they found that the survey of the land for the new settlement had not been completed. The original site for the town of Britannia proved unsuitable when in early March floodwaters from the swollen Hutt (Heretaunga) River swept through the makeshift community.

A decision was made to move the settlement across the harbour to Thorndon and Te Aro. But the Māori living there maintained that no deal had been made with them and refused to part with their land. When company surveyors began to mark out town acres, Māori pulled up survey pegs. Wakefield, believing that the problem was the unequal distribution of goods from the original purchase, sent 20 blankets in an attempt to settle the matter. Māori interpreted this as a payment to stop pulling up the survey pegs. Tension and frustration grew in the settler population, several of whom made additional payments in a bid to settle the dispute. Māori were increasingly seen as meddlesome and a hindrance to European settlement.

Eventually Europeans overwhelmed Māori in Port Nicholson. By 1841 there were 2500 Europeans living around the harbour; by 1843 there were 4000. One local chief commented that had he known the ‘whole tribe’ intended to come here, he would never have agreed to any deal.

How to cite this page

'The Port Nicholson purchase', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/wellington-war/port-nicholson-purchase, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Oct-2021