Nelson Anniversary

Today marks the 178th Nelson/Marlborough Anniversary.

This day commemorates the arrival of the first New Zealand Company settlers in what is now Nelson, on board the ship Fifeshire. The first colonists in the area had come as whalers to Port Underwood about a decade earlier, and the first white men to visit Marlborough were Abel Tasman’s crew.


A lesser-known but significant part of the Nelson/Marlborough area’s history is its German influence. On the 14th of June 1843, Captain Schacht’s ship Sankt Pauli arrived in Nelson, and it and other ships’ passengers would go on to settle the area that was known at the time as Schachtstal (Schacht’s Valley).

Their villages were Sankt Paulidorf, named after the first ship the German settlers arrived on, Ranzau (now Hope) named after Count Kuno zu Rantzau-Brietenburg, who had financed the expedition, Sarau (now Upper Moutere), Rosental (now Rosedale), Neudorf, Neu-Hannover and Schönbach.

The last of these names were changed during the First World War, but to this day, many of the streets and roads in the area retain German names, and many of the regions people are descended from the German pioneers.

Only three days after the arrival of the first German settlers in Nelson, a massacre of twenty-three white settlers took place in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley.

The Maori chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata had previously encouraged white settlement. Now they treacherously interfered with the surveyors sent to map the lands that they had sold to the New Zealand Company.

The Nelson city flag. The blue and white waves are the seas and Cook Strait, the mitre represents the city’s place as centre of the Bishopric of Nelson, and  the cross is taken from the coat of arms of Admiral Horatio Nelson, the  martyr of Trafalgar, after whom the city is named.

The Nelson city flag. The blue and white waves are the seas and Cook Strait, the mitre represents the city’s place as centre of the Bishopric of Nelson, and the cross is taken from the coat of arms of Admiral Horatio Nelson, the martyr of Trafalgar, after whom the city is named.

The Wakefield family were the main force behind the New Zealand Company and its settlement of New Zealand. Many Wakefields settled in New Zealand, and most lived to become prominent citizens of this young country.

But one of them didn’t get to enjoy that prosperity.

Arthur Wakefield

Arthur Wakefield

Arthur Wakefield set out with a posse of police constables, armed citizens and unarmed surveyors to the Wairau Plains, in order to arrest the trouble-making chiefs and carry out their business in peace.

They found the chiefs, and while the party was crossing a river, an accidental shot was fired by one party or the other (we will never know for sure who fired it), and the massacre began. Was this an ambush by the Maori, or a tragic mistake?

Either way, the violence came quick and heavy, and the group of Englishmen were on the defensive. Half of them were still on the opposite bank, or crossing the river, and many were unarmed.

A Yorkshireman named William Bennet Patchet was shot in the side as he crossed the stream. As he lay dying, a comrade, Richardson, came to his aid, but all Patchet said to him was “I am mortally wounded, you can do me no good. Make your escape.”

A deputised citizen, Thomas Tyrrell, was one of those who immediately responded to Captain Wakefield’s cry of “Englishmen forward!”, but a shot from a Maori warrior killed him outright. Two other men, Isaac Smith and William Northam, were then shot dead as well, in nearly the same spot, as they advanced.

Mr. Thompson gave orders to return fire. The natives, many of them sniping from the bushes, had the advantage, and several men were seriously wounded.

Captain Wakefield ordered his men to retire from the field, but the Maori followed them, shooting men down as they went. Finally, the Captain, Gunner James Howard, and a surveyor named Sylvanus Cotterell attempted to negotiate for a truce.

Before they even reached the group of Maori, Cotterell recognised a native he knew, and the Maori refused to shoot him. Sadly, two other warriors had no such hesitation, dragging poor Cotterell into some bushes and hacking him to death with tomahawks.

Captain Wakefield’s shout of “Kati!” (stop!) was accepted, and the chiefs Te Rauparaha and Rangihaeata approached and greeted their new prisoners. They shook hands and the Maori allowed the men to treat their wounded. Captain England, formerly of the 12th Regiment, even treated a minor injury of Rangihaeata’s.

The Englishmen probably thought the bloodshed was over. But suddenly the attitude of the Maori changed. Several of the men had their watches taken and their clothing stripped off, but the white men allowed it, fearing further violence.

Only one of those men would escape with his life. George Bampton managed to run to the bushes when his captors weren’t looking, and hid there until the massacre that was about to take place had finished.

Mr. Bampton later reported having heard one of the white men shout “For God’s sake, if we are to die, let us die together!”, followed by a number of gunshots and the sounds of beating and chopping with clubs and tomahawks.

Captain Arthur Wakefield, Police Magistrate Henry Thompson, Crown Prosecutor George Richardson, Captain Richard England, Gunner James Howard, Constables John Coster and William Gardiner and the civilians John Brooks, Eli Cropper and Henry Bumforth were all murdered after their surrender.

James McGregor, Thomas Pay, William Clanzey, John Burton and Thomas Radcliffe were also killed, either in the initial skirmish or the massacre.

A few of the special constables, and a number of the unarmed surveyors and boatmen had escaped beforehand, but two of the men, Thomas Maling and Edward Stokes would never be found, alive or dead:

The bodies of Captain Wakefield, Mr. Thompson, Captain England, Mr. Richardson, Mr. Howard, Bumforth, Cropper, Gardiner and Coster were found near the spot where the last of those who escaped left them alive; lying within twenty yards of each other, in their clothes as they fell.

Captain Wakefield's coat and waistcoat alone had been stripped off. Under his head, in savage derision, the murderers had placed a piece of bread, and a pistol across his throat. The skulls of all had been cleft with tomahawks, and generally disfigured with repeated blows, struck with such ferocity that every one must have been more than sufficient to have produced instantaneous death…

Macgregor's body lay a little to the right, lower down; Pay's about a hundred yards up the hill; and near it Brook's, dreadfully mangled; Mr Cotterell's in a manuka bush lower down, where he had surrendered himself. All these were placed side by side in one grave.

Tyrrell's and Northam's were brought across the stream, and laid with Smith's in a second; and Clanzie's and Ratcliffe's, found in the water, in a third, near the last. Mr Patchett's was buried alone where he fell. The body of Burton, found since, has been buried by Mr. Ironside.

Those of Maling, the chief constable, who was known to be severely wounded, and of Stokes, have never been found. It is most probable that they crept into the bush, and there expired.”

Their memory has not yet been extinguished, no matter how much our people’s enemies try to rewrite the story of that day as an “Incident” or “Affray” rather than a massacre. We are told that this is a tale of greedy Englishmen trying to steal land, rather than one of betrayal and murder on the part of the chiefs.

The New Zealand Company, the German colonists, and the Wairau Massacre are just part of the Nelson region’s proud and storied history.