In all, 22 white men and, it is believed, four Maoris lost their lives and others were badly wounded in the Wairau “massacre” of 17 June 1843. The Pakeha victims included Captain Arthur Wakefield Police Magistrate Thompson, and other members of a party of some 50 men who had proceeded from Nelson as far as the Tuamarina Stream to deliver a warrant against the formidable chiefs, Rangihaeata and Te Rauparaha, on a charge of arson, arising from their opposition to New Zealand Company attempts to survey disputed land in the Wairau Valley.
Wakefield's party found about 90 Maoris at the Tuamarina, including perhaps 40 women and children. About half the Maori men were armed with muskets. The chiefs refused to submit and accompany the Police Magistrate on board the Government brig Victoria – they were prepared to accept adjudication of the land dispute but would not be treated like criminals. While Thompson and a few others were conferring with the Maoris, a gun was accidentally fired by one of the untrained labourers who had been added as reinforcements to the magisterial party. An outbreak of firing followed and some were killed on both sides. The settlers began a disorderly retreat, and to prevent further bloodshed Wakefield ordered his men to lay down their arms. Certain of them, however, continued the action as they retreated up the hill from the stream. A parley following the surrender was interrupted by Rangihaeata who demanded vengeance for the death of Te Ronga, his wife, apparently killed by a stray shot. It was the death sentence for Wakefield and those who had joined him in surrender and they were summarily tomahawked. News of the “massacre”, as it was called, gave a shock to the colonists, especially those settled at Nelson and Wellington. Despite the clamour for revenge, the Government refused to take action, though it might well have claimed the Wairau as compensation for the dead, in accordance with the Maori custom of utu. When the new Governor, Captain Robert FitzRoy, visited the Cook Strait settlements in early 1844, he went to Rauparaha's pa at Waikanae, near Kapiti, and gave judgment. To the intense indignation of the colonists, who never forgave him for his “cowardice”, FitzRoy upheld the Maori case and upbraided the Europeans for their imprudent behaviour.
by Judith Sidney Hornabrook, M.A., National Archives, Wellington.
- Marlborough – A Provincial History, McIntosh, A. D. (1940)
- Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
- Old Marlborough, Buick, T. L. (1900)
- Nelson Examiner (Supplement), 23 Dec 1843.