MANTELL, Walter Baldock Durrant
Land Purchase Commissioner, scientist, and politician.
A new biography of Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
W. B. D. Mantell was born at Lewes, Sussex, on 11 March 1820, the son of Dr Gideon A. Mantell, the noted English geologist. After studying medicine for a brief period he decided to visit New Zealand and, in association with George Duppa, arrived in Wellington on the Oriental in 1840. He was appointed Postmaster and Clerk to the Bench of Magistrates in January 1841, which position he held for some three years. In 1844 his geological background and curiosity led him to investigate a fossil marine bed at the mouth of the Waingongoro in South Taranaki. In addition to moa bones and quantities of eggs were the bones of the fossil prototype of the notornis – Notornis Mantelli. Some years later Mantell also acquired and sent to England the first two specimens of the takahe, Notornis Hochstetter.
In 1845 he became an overseer on road construction in the Porirua sector of the North Road, where his knowledge and sympathy with the Maori brought him to Sir George Grey's notice. In August 1848 he was appointed Commissioner for “extinguishing native claims in the Middle Island”. His main duties were to reconcile the Ngai Tahu tribe to the purchases largely effected by H. Tacy Kemp and to set aside Maori reserves.
In August and September 1848 he was engaged on these duties on Banks Peninsula and at Kaiapoi before making a journey south to Moeraki, Waikouaiti, and Purakanui, Otago. His notebooks and correspondence give the most understanding account of Maori life in Otago at the time. In January 1849 he returned to Wellington for consultations with Eyre before completing the negotiations leading to the purchase of the Port Cooper Block, which assured the port of Lyttelton to the Canterbury settlement, the Port Levy Block, and the demarcation of the Nanto-Bordelaise purchase at Akaroa. Mantell, from the outset, was deeply aware of European responsibility for the future of the Maori and made specific promises, on the authority of Eyre, of social services and other assistance to the Ngai Tahu.
Grey, in 1851, appointed Mantell Commissioner of Crown Lands for Otago and a Justice of the Peace. In Dunedin his light-hearted bantering cynicism and contempt for the more puritanical elements in the settlement caused much friction. Ever mindful of Maori claims he set aside the Princes Street Reserve in Dunedin and, during 1852–53, negotiated, on his own responsibility, to avoid illegal squatting, the purchase of the Murihiku Block, covering most of Southland.
In 1855 he obtained leave of absence and arrived in England in 1856, where he attempted to enlist the support of the British Government for dishonoured Ngai Tahu claims. Soon after his return to New Zealand in 1859 he entered politics, being elected for Wallace in March 1861. In July of the same year he was appointed Minister of Native Affairs, resigning five months later. For a fortnight in August 1862 he was Postmaster-General in the Domett Government. His ministerial career ended with a further term as Native Minister in the Weld Ministry from December 1864 until July 1865. The following year he was appointed to the Legislative Council, in which he served until his death. Strongly, almost idiosyncratically independent, with an epigrammatic, caustic manner, he appeared to take a detached enjoyment in the political spectacle and was reluctant to commit himself to work towards a common policy.
Throughout his life he maintained a lively correspondence with noted English writers and scholars. He was a founder and the first secretary of the New Zealand Society and a supporter for the establishment of a New Zealand Institute. He married, first, in 1863, Mary Sarah Prince, who died in 1873; and, secondly, Jane Hardwick, in 1876. Mantell died at Sydney Street, Wellington, on 7 September 1895. His extensive library and collection of family papers were donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library by his daughter-in-law, Mrs W. G. Mantell, in 1927.
by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.
- Mantell Papers (MSS), Turnbull Library
- History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- Evening Post, 9 Sep 1895 (Obit).