Early European explorers
Cook Strait was named after the British navigator James Cook, who sailed past it during his first visit in 1770. Three years later, on his second voyage, Cook explored the northern side of the strait, completing a chart he had begun three years earlier. Only the coast between Capes Terawhiti and Palliser remained uncharted.
While following the shore, Cook found what looked like a large harbour. On 2 November 1773 he anchored at the entrance, to wait for slack water before sailing into the narrow, rocky channel. However, a southerly blew up, and he sailed away.
By the 1820s, more Europeans were arriving at Port Nicholson (as it came to be known, after John Nicholson, the Sydney harbourmaster). Among them were the French, rivals of the British – both were expanding their empires. In 1824 and 1827 the French naval officer Dumont d’Urville visited Cook Strait. Like Cook, he did not enter the harbour.
The New Zealand Company: planning a colony
In 1825 the London-based New Zealand Company was founded to foster immigration from Britain. It sent the barque Rosanna and the cutter Lambton, under the command of Captain James Herd, to find a suitable settlement site. After surveying places in the South Island, Herd entered Wellington Harbour in May 1826. The inner section of the bay was named Lambton Harbour, after one of the company’s promoters.
The visitors found few Māori living there. Most had fled six years earlier after an attack by a party of northern tribes, including the chief Te Rauparaha. With 40 immigrants on board, a settlement could have been started – one passenger noted that the land near the harbour was a perfect site. But because they were unsure of the Māori response, the two ships sailed away with the passengers still aboard. They got off at Sydney, and the New Zealand Company went into abeyance.
Mana and Kapiti: whalers, traders and Ngāti Toa
During the 1820s and 1830s most European interest in the region centred on Mana and Kapiti islands. Kapiti was the hub of the local whaling industry. There was also whaling at Mana, and from the early 1830s Europeans were farming there.
The islands were the heart of Ngāti Toa territory. Te Rauparaha lived on Kapiti, and another chief, Te Rangihaeata, lived on Mana. Both did much trade with Europeans, exchanging shiploads of flax fibre for muskets, liquor, tobacco and other goods.
Keeping the peace
In 1838, Lieutenant Chetwode arrived at Mana Island on HMS Pelorus. He was immediately asked to look into the murder of a whaling skipper. Then at Kapiti Island, he found that a whaling captain had drowned himself after his crew deserted. One deserter, an Australian Aborigine, was murdered by local Māori. Chetwode then called into Cloudy Bay, just in time to prevent a gun battle between whaling gangs.
Need for law and order
The Cook Strait region was the meeting place of two very different cultures – Māori and Pākehā – whose encounters were without restraint of law or regulation. Violence was common. Before the 1830s, few warships visited, but by the end of the decade British naval vessels came more regularly. Their captains were often drawn into local affairs, and they urged British authorities to bring order to the region.
The race for land
British missionary groups also pressured their government to intervene, especially to protect Māori from European land speculators. In London a revamped New Zealand Company, for example, aimed to start a settlement in the region.
By early 1839 it seemed likely the British would annex New Zealand. This would mean that only the British government (the Crown) could buy Māori land. Aware that this would reduce the profitability of the planned colony, the New Zealand Company sent an advance party on the Tory to buy as much land as possible before the Crown banned sales.
In August the Tory arrived in Port Nicholson. On board, the leader of the group, Colonel William Wakefield, and his interpreter, Dicky Barrett, cheaply acquired vast tracts of land around the harbour from chiefs Te Puni and Wharepōuri. Te Rauparaha protested that the land was not theirs to sell to settlers. Wakefield ignored his complaints. With shiploads of immigrants already on their way, he was determined to gain as much land as possible.
More land sales
After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Māori and the British Crown, on 6 February 1840, the New Zealand Company was barred from negotiating further land sales. Still, the transfer of land from Māori to European had begun. While Māori recognised Europeans’ desire for land, few understood the scale of settlement planned by the New Zealand Company.