Captain Arthur Wakefield


Captain Arthur Wakefield (1799-1843)  was regarded as a fine naval officer and after retiring early from the Royal Navy, became resident agent of the new Nelson settlement. He was the brother of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the ‘architect' of the New Zealand Company, which brought 15,000 European settlers to New Zealand between 1840 and 1852.

Drawing of Arthur Wakefield Drawing of Arthur Wakefield in uniform, The Nelson Provincial Museum,  Tyree Studio Collection 114432/3
Click image to enlarge

Captain Arthur Wakefield was a key figure in the settlement of the Nelson region, until his death in the Wairau Affray.

Captain Arthur Wakefield arrived on October 1841 to seek a good harbour with areas of flat land for settlement and farming.

By 7 November 1841, Wakefield wrote to his brother William from Nelson Haven: "In having fixed so large a settlement where the harbour is not of sufficient size to admit the largest ships, I beg you will assure the Court of Directors that I have weighed carefully all the objections, and all the difficulties about the political and local, of finding a better place; and if it should turn out not quite to our expectations, the best has been done for the company, the settlers and the proprietors of land. I have no misgiving as to the agricultural success and I am inclined to think that the map of the country sections will be more valuable than the town."

Clearly the energetic and efficient Wakefield had found something to get his teeth into. Later that month, he wrote to his father: " All I can say is that I have realized all my hopes and have found the most pleasing occupation I could have invented for myself."

Although Wakefield realized there was not enough good land to meet the expectations of the settlers, he was soon busy erecting a barracks, monitoring ship movements and dealing with labourers and Maori landowners. Nelson historian Ruth Allan wrote that there was no question about Wakefield's leadership qualities, but: " If he had a fault, it was that he was a little too fond of manipulating people and a little too easily swayed by expediency."  

By the end of 1842, Wakefield's problems in Nelson had deepened. There was unemployment and a severe lack of capital. The discovery of nearly 200,000 acres of open grassland in the Wairau Valley seemed to be a solution to the demand for more pastoral land. 

In spite of warnings from Te Rauparaha  and active opposition by Ngati Toa, Wakefield believed the land had been purchased by his brother William. In June 1843, he accompanied Henry Thompson, the capricious local Police Magistrate, to arrest Te Rauparaha in the Wairau where he and Ngati Toa were disrupting the surveys.

Upon arrival in the Wairau, Wakefield saw they were in an invidious position with an inexperienced team of ‘policeman' and a well armed and prepared Maori opposition. He asked Thompson to turn back, but to no avail.

Eventually Wakefield, Thompson and several others surrendered and were executed in retribution for the death of Te Rongo, Te Rauparaha's daughter.

After his death, the surveyor Samuel Stephens wrote: "He was humane, amiable and kind to all alike, poor or rich, and always accessible to the humblest applicant.....Everything calculated to advance the interests of the Colony, he was sure to point out and urge it to the attention of the settlers.

This article is paraphrased from a series of columns written by Joy Stephens and published in the Nelson Mail in 2007.

Captain Wakefield's Nelson home

Arthur Wakefield set up camp and built a home on land overlooking Wakefield Quay, shortly after arriving in Nelson. The original house burned down at the start of the last Century, and a fine house was erected in its place - at 403 Wakefield Quay. Wakefield's camp was at the bottom of the property, but his wooden home was on the site of this existing house.1

Updated May 5, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Gee, S. (2016, October 1) Property where Captain Arthur Wakefield settled in Nelson up for sale. Nelson Mail on Stuff:

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  • A shady character? " The Shrigley abduction was an 1826 British case of a forced marriage by Edward Gibbon Wakefield to the 15-year-old heiress Ellen Turner of Pott Shrigley. The couple were married in Gretna Green, Scotland, and travelled to Calais, France, before Turner's father was able to notify the authorities and intervene. The marriage was annulled by Parliament, and Turner was legally married two years later, at the age of 17, to a wealthy neighbour of her class. Both Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his brother William, who had aided him, were convicted at trial and sentenced to three years in prison." see:

    Posted by AD, 11/06/2020 1:47am (4 years ago)

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Further sources - Captain Arthur Wakefield


  • Allan, R.M. (1965) Nelson: a history of early settlement. Wellington, N.Z. : A.H. & A.W. Reed
  • Burns, P. (1989) Fatal success: a history of the New Zealand Company. Auckland, N.Z. : Heinemann Reed, pp. 181-5; 225-6; 227-34.
  • Nelson Early Settlers' Memorial Association. (Ed.) (1941) Centennial commemoration : Including the dedication of the stone marking the spot where Captain Arthur Wakefield landed and the arrival of the first vessel to enter Nelson harbour, which marked the foundation of the Nelson settlement : also the breaking out of the national flag on Britannia heights [Nelson, N.Z.] : Nelson Early Settlers' Memorial Association.
  • Lash, M.D. Nelson Notables 1840-1940: a dictionary of regional biography 1840-1940. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson Historical Society, p.144
  • McAloon, J. (1997) Nelson: a regional history. Whatamango Bay, N.Z.: Cape Catley Ltd. in assoc with Nelson City Council
  • Mitchell, H. & Mitchell. J (2007) Te tau ihu o te waka: a history of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough: volume 2: Te ara hou: the new society. Wellington, N.Z.: Huia, 49-50, 84, 242-3
  • Palmer, L. R. (1929). Captain Arthur Wakefield, R.N. : An account of his life and work as a coloniser of New Zealand. Unpublished Masters  thesis, Canterbury University College, Christchurch, N.Z.



From Nelson Provincial Museum :

  • Wakefield, A. Journal. NPM: qMS 2095, Wakefield Diary Vol 3.
  • Wakefield, A. Diary. qMS NZ Co Papers 1841-1842. Bett Collection 

From Alexander Turnbull Library:

  • Wakefield, A. Correspondence, 1841-1843. ATL: Bett Papers. Micro-MS-508 Reel 3, Series 1
  • Wakefield, A. Letters to William Wakefield.  Wakefield Papers qMS-Copy-2099

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