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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Explorer, Magistrate, and Government Agent in the Waikato.

A new biography of Mackay, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Mackay was born in 1831 in Scotland, the eldest son of James Mackay (1804–75) who is, perhaps, best remembered for his “scene” with Sewell in the first New Zealand Parliament. He was a cousin of Alexander Mackay (1833–1909), the Commissioner for Native Reserves in the South Island and, later, of New Zealand. In 1845 he sailed with his parents in the Slains Castle for Nelson where his father had purchased land. Mackay worked on his father's farm at Wakapuaka until 1853 when he took up 1,500 acres on his own account in the Collingwood district. Two years later, because his holding was overstocked, Mackay determined to seek a large grassy plain which local Maoris said lay to the north-west of Takaka. Accordingly he explored the territory between the headwaters of the Aorere, Heaphy, Karamea, and Anatoki Rivers and furnished the Provincial Council with a map and report of his journey. In 1857 he travelled from Golden Bay to the mouth of the Buller and, from there, explored the district around Ahaura, Totara Flat, and Mawheraiti, on the Upper Grey, before returning to Nelson via the Grey's mouth. When gold was discovered at Collingwood, Mackay did a little mining, but, because he understood the Maori language and customs, he soon found that he had to mediate in disputes between the natives and the miners. Early in 1858 his father induced McLean to give him a regular appointment as Assistant Native Secretary and Warden of the Collingwood Goldfield. A year later he accompanied his cousin to Marlborough where they concluded the Kaikoura Purchase. Mackay was then sent to the West Coast and instructed to purchase the territory lying between Kahurangi Point and Milford Sound – about 7,500,000 acres in all. For part of the time he was accompanied by Rochfort, the Canterbury surveyor. The negotiations were protracted, particularly in the matter of native reserves, and Mackay was obliged to visit Auckland in order to consult Gore Browne. In February 1860 he returned to the West Coast and, before proceeding to Bruce Bay, met the Maori owners at Okarito. On 21 May 1860, at Mawhera (Greymouth), he purchased the land mentioned in his instructions – including the whole of Westland and the West Coast portion of Nelson Province – for £300. About this time the Nelson Government voted Mackay a bonus of £150 for defining the overland track through the Rotoiti district to the West Coast. Towards the end of 1860, with John Lockett, he explored the Tasman Range country and discovered Mount Peel and the Diamond Lakes. In 1862 Mackay, accompanied by the Knyvett brothers, blazed the saddle track from the upper Aorere to the mouth of the Heaphy. From there, where he left his companions, he walked to Westport in one day – a distance of 70 miles. This was Mackay's last exploring expedition on the West Coast.

On the outbreak of the Waikato War Mackay was transferred to Auckland. Almost immediately he was sent to Thames where he intervened, singlehanded, to disarm the Ngati Maru and prevent them from joining the rebels. During the latter part of the war he acted as interpreter with the Imperial forces and was placed under arrest by Colonel Greer when he insisted on explaining to Waikatos, who came to surrender, that their lands had been confiscated. Mackay was given the task of resettling those rebels who surrendered after Orakau. He also visited Wiremu Tamihana at Matamata to explain FitzGerald's view that it was neither Maori nor European custom to investigate the causes of a war after hostilities had ceased. In May 1864 Mackay was appointed Civil Commissioner for the Hauraki district. There he negotiated mining agreements with the various tribes, and despite strong opposition from the remnants of the Maori Land League, prepared the way for the proclamation of the Thames Goldfield. In June 1867 he was appointed Warden at Thames, and his capable administration enabled the field to be governed with less friction than was the case of earlier New Zealand goldfields.

In 1869 Mackay intended to contest the Auckland Superintendency with Gillies, but withdrew in favour of Williamson. He represented Thames in the Provincial Council from 1869 to 1873 when he accepted the position of Government Agent in the Waikato. After Timothy Sullivan's murder (April 1873), the native situation in this district became explosive and McLean sent Mackay into the King Country to negotiate with Tawhiao, Rewi, and Ngapora for the surrender of the murderers. He approached his task cautiously and, while he was not successful in obtaining the murderers, did much to ease the tension between the two races and prevent the situation from deteriorating into war. Mackay's efforts in this connection won wholehearted approval from the Government, settlers, and Maoris alike and he was very handsomely rewarded for his services.

In 1875 Mackay was urged to come forward as a candidate for one of the Auckland parliamentary constituencies, but was dissuaded by McLean. After the election, however, he filed a petition to unseat Sir George Grey, who had been returned by two constituencies. As a result of this Mackay had to wait until the Grey Ministry was defeated before he received another Government appointment. From 1879 until 1881 he was Warden and Resident Magistrate at Greymouth, when he retired to Auckland. In 1887 he contested the Coromandel seat unsuccessfully against Cadman. About 1896 Mackay moved to Paeroa, where he ran a small miners' and real estate agency until his death.

In 1863, at Nelson, Mackay married Eliza Sophia Braithwaite. He died at Paeroa, in rather straitened circumstances, on 10 October 1912, leaving one daughter.

Mackay, whose “huge frame and outstanding presence made him a prominent figure”, rendered important service as an explorer, administrator, and Government Agent. Sir Arthur Dobson considered him the “peer of the West Coast explorers”, while Haast also thought highly of him. As the first warden appointed to any New Zealand goldfield, Mackay used his experiences of the Collingwood rush to avoid similar difficulties at the Thames. It was in his relations with the Maoris, however, that he made his most valuable contribution. He understood Maoris and their language intimately and this, together with his impressive presence, his immense personal courage and unfailing diplomacy, served the Government well in many very difficult situations. It was because his personal star was so closely tied to McLean's that Mackay ceased to play an influential role after 1881.

In July 1942 James Thorn unveiled a Government memorial plaque to Mackay at Paeroa. Mackaytown, in the same district, commemorates his name.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • McLean Papers (MSS), Turnbull Library
  • Armed Settlers, Norris, H. C. M. (1956)
  • Nelson Evening Mail, 31 Dec 1955, 4, 7, 10 Jan 1956.


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.