Wairau Affray


The Wairau Affray, also known as the Wairau Massacre or the Wairau Incident, was the first significant armed conflict between Māori and British settlers after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. On 17 June, 1843, four Māori and 22 Europeans were killed at Tuamarina, 10km north of what is now Blenheim, when an armed party of New Zealand Company settlers clashed with Ngāti Toa over the purchase of land in the Wairau Valley. 

Scene of the Wairau MassacreGold, C. Scene of the Wairau Massacre, 1851. Alexander Turnbull Library, B-103-030
Click on image to enlarge. 

The Nelson Settlement, planned in England, was to consist of 221,100 acres of cultivable, arable land. Despite warnings of insufficient land of suitable quality in Tasman and Golden Bay, the settlement proceeded. When the New Zealand Company realised it was 70,000 acres short, surveyors were sent to the Wairau Plains in Marlborough.  They and senior Ngāti Toa chiefs, including Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, were adamant that the Wairau had not been sold. They believed that ownership of the Wairau should be decided by Land Commissioner Spain, who was coming to Nelson to hear the Company's claims to land in the region. The Company was unmoved, and ordered three survey parties to the Wairau to begin work. The Ngāti Toa chiefs petitioned Spain to hear their claim immediately, but he declined to interrupt his Wellington hearings.

Wairau April 1851Gold, C. Wairau April 1851, Alexander Turnbull Library, A-329-014
Click on image to enlarge

Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata and other senior Toa chiefs travelled to Nelson in early 1843 to convince the Company to withdraw from the Wairau. They escorted the survey parties from the Wairau to the Company's ship, offering no violence to the men or their equipment, although they burnt temporary shelters made from local materials, and destroyed survey pegs and ranging rods.

When the survey party returned to Nelson, Magistrate Thompson issued a warrant for the arrest of Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, on charges of arson. Thompson and Arthur Wakefield, the Company agent in Nelson, recruited forty-seven Special Constables (many labourers) and sailed to the Wairau to execute their warrant. Most recruits had no police or military training, and some had never handled a weapon. The weapons themselves were not in good condition.

On 17 June 1843 the Company party formed on one side of the Tuamarina Stream, with Te Rauparaha and his party, including women and children, opposite. Despite pleas for peace by the Christian chief, Rawiri Puaha, Wakefield and Thompson ordered their ragtag constabulary forward.

Wairau Massacre Memorial [Erected 1869,Tuamarina Cemetery].  The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts].  Click image to enlarge

There are differing accounts of what triggered the battle. Māori accounts say that Te Rongo, Te Rangihaeata's wife, was the first to die, perhaps from a stray shot. The ensuing skirmish saw several Special Constables killed and the remainder put to flight. Some who attempted to surrender were executed by Te Rangihaeata, as utu for the deaths of his wife and comrades, and as retribution for other perceived evils and insults. These included the failure to convict the whaler, Dick Cook, for the rape and murder of Te Rangihaeata's close relative, Rangiawa Kuika (sister of Rawiri Puaha, and wife of James Wynen) and her child.

Twenty-two Europeans, including both Wakefield and Thompson, and between four and nine Māori died at the Wairau. There were immediate impacts. Ngāti Toa vacated Marlborough to support their chiefs in the North Island, many Te Ātiawa in Queen Charlotte Sound returned to Taranaki, and Māori who stayed feared they would be attacked by Government forces. European settlers were shocked and frightened, a Public Safety Committee was formed, and Church Hill in Nelson was fortified.

Governor FitzRoy, who arrived in New Zealand in December 1843, investigated the Wairau Affray and exonerated Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. When Spain sat in Nelson in 1844 he declared that the Wairau had not been sold.


Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Allan, R (1965) Nelson: A History of Early Settlement. Wellington, N.Z. : A H & A W Reed, pp. 241-308.
  • Barnicoat, J W: Diary. [Barnicoat Papers]
  • Burns, P (1989) Fatal Success. Auckland, N.Z. : Heinemann Reed, pp. 224-240.
  • Burns, P (1983) Te Rauparaha. Auckland, N.Z. : Penguin Books, pp. 239-253.
  • Mitchell, H A & M J (2004; 2007) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough. Wellington, N.Z. : Huia Publishers in assoc. with the Wakatū Incorporation. Vol I pp320-330, 337; Vol II pp234-240.
  • Nelson Examiner (1843)
  • Saunders, A (1896) History of New Zealand. Christchurch , N.Z. : Whitcomb and Tombs, pp186-213.
  • Saxton, J W: Diary 1841-1851. Bett Collection qMS SAX typescript [Nelson Provincial Museum]

Want to find out more about the Wairau Affray ? View Further Sources here.

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  • Thanks for the excellent description of the affray. I am particularly interested in what happened to the settlers afterwards. Did The New Zealand Company refund them ? Were they in any way helped to find somewhere else? I can't imagine they were just dumped there. All I know is that I have a relative who was killed there and left a wife and two babies whose descendants ended up in Australia but I have no idea how they got there. Cheers, Neil.

    Posted by Neil Thompson, 13/08/2020 5:34am (4 years ago)

  • There are also artefacts from the affray in the Marlborough Museum and information on the affray and the Tua Marina Cemetery in the Marlborough Museum Archives

    Posted by Megan Ross, ()

  • thank you for the explanation it really helped me alot....thank you so much!!

    Posted by EteliniManoa, ()

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Further sources - Wairau Affray



  • Bowden, G.R, (1981) Wairau - a massacre? Journal of the New Zealand Federation of Historical Societies, 1(11), p.3-7
  • Davies, J. (1995) Kakapo Bay. Marlborough's Past & Present,3, p.8-9
  • Kidd, R (1988) Te Rangihaeata : a personal analysis. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2, n.2: p.26-29
  • Martin, T. (1991) What was the basis of Maori strategies in the inter-racial conflicts of the 1840s, and what was their significance for race relations? Selected Essays (Massey University. Department of History), pp.18-24
  • Mitchell. H.&J. (2022) Who was "the woman that was killed at the Wiaroi"? Nelson Historical Society Journal, 9(2), pp.37-46
  • Narrative of the Wairau massacre, and proceedings connected therewith (1843, December 23). Supplement to the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle.
  • Ogilvie, G (1995, Jan) An affray at the Wairau. New Zealand Historic Places, n.51: p.7-9 
  • Remarks on the Causes and consequences of the massacre (1843, December 23). Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle,2(94), 23, p.10
  • The Wairau affray (1971) New Zealand's heritage: the making of a nation, v.2.  Sydney: Hamlyn House, pp.449-454
  • Wairau Massacre (1844, June 22) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 3(12), p. 62.


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