The British explorer James Cook sailed along Wairarapa’s coast in February 1770, naming the large bay on the south coast after his friend and patron Sir Hugh Palliser. The first European to enter Wairarapa was William Deans, who walked along the coast from Wellington to Palliser Bay with a Māori guide in 1840. He thought the land was ideal for pastoralism, and considered squatting there until drawn to greener pastures in Canterbury.
Sheep in the surf
The first flock of sheep in Wairarapa was driven around the coast from Wellington to Palliser Bay by Charles Bidwill in 1844. At the Mukamuka rocks, every sheep had to be carried through the surf to the other side. Many sheep in later drives drowned, until the 1855 earthquake raised the land and created a beach.
In 1841, the New Zealand Company sent a party from Petone led by Robert Stokes, seeking an inland route to the Wairarapa. After negotiating the Hutt and Pākuratahi valleys, Stokes scaled the Remutakas and saw Lake Wairarapa in the distance: ‘An immense plain lay at our feet stretching to a distance of between thirty and forty miles from the head of the Lake.’ 1 Impressed, he returned to Wellington and confirmed the region’s potential for farming.
Colonising the land
In 1844, five Wellington entrepreneurs arranged pastoral leases with Wairarapa sub-tribes at £12 per year. Others soon followed. The runholders’ relations with their landlords were cordial. Māori sought Pākehā neighbours because it gave them mana (status), trading opportunities and protection from enemies. Pākehā depended on Māori for food, labour and transport.
As more colonists settled in the region, the value of leases increased. Runholders, worried that high rents would make Māori unwilling to sell their land, lobbied the government to buy and then freehold Māori land. The government agreed, negotiating land sales through a carrot-and-stick approach. It promised to set aside Māori reserves and provide schools and health care, while threatening to relocate runholders if owners refused to sell. The first purchase was made in 1853.
Money on the table
Some Māori did well out of land sales, as the Dominion newspaper reported in 1927:
[Mr L. Nix of Masterton] recalls an early incident … at the time the Taratahi block was sold by the Maoris, and for which Wi Kingi [Tu-tepakihi-rangi], the chief of the tribe, was paid in banknotes. After the transaction, he and a number of other Maoris came to Mr. Nix’s home to have dinner. Mr. Nix’s mother was laying the tablecloth. “I show you the table-cloth,” and producing his notes, laid them on the table so that not an inch was left uncovered. He was very proud of it. And off this kingly covering the company dined. 2
The Small Farms Association
Concerned that large runholders were stopping working people from accessing Wairarapa farmland, Joseph Masters formed the Small Farms Association in 1853. Masters lobbied for a 100-acre town on the Wairarapa plain whose citizens would each own a one-acre town section and a 40-acre dairy farm. By the end of the year, the government had approved two settlements. The association would buy and sell the town sections; farms would be bought directly from the Crown.
The first town, Greytown, was sited on the recently purchased Tauherenīkau Block. After negotiations with Ngāti Hamua leader Te Retimana Te Korou, land beside the Waipoua River was bought for the second town, Masterton. The first settlers arrived in both towns in 1854. When the association was dissolved in the early 1870s, the unsold town sections were put into land trusts to benefit each community.
In 1871 the government recruited Scandinavian and other settlers to build roads and railways in the heavily forested northern Wairarapa (Forty Mile Bush). In exchange for work, each male immigrant would be given 40 acres of farmland.
Land was bought from the Rangitāne tribe and the first settlers arrived at Kopuaranga in April 1872. Farms were allocated around the new towns of Mauriceville and Mellemskov (Eketāhuna). Much of this land was swampy and densely forested, and clearing the bush and sowing pasture was back-breaking work. Most farmers then ran dairy cattle.
Blood and sweat
The Scandinavians who cleared the Forty Mile Bush were admired for their strong work ethic. One visitor to Mellemskov (Eketāhuna) noted how residents lit fires so they could labour into the night. ‘They take their dinner standing up and in a quarter [of] an hour are at work again’. The Norwegians and Swedes were skilled at clearing forests, but the Danes were not. ‘Some could be seen working doggedly on with hands wrapped in blood-stained bandages.’ 3
There was no fighting in Wairarapa during the New Zealand wars. This was largely due to the strong ties between Pākehā and Māori communities. Even so, some Wairarapa Māori fought alongside Taranaki kinfolk, selling land to buy arms. Many supported Māori sovereignty and the Kīngitanga (Māori king) movement. By the end of the wars, most Māori land had been sold and few Māori had the resources to buy any back. Unable to return to their traditional lands and way of life, many Māori found work on settler farms.