John Sylvanus Cotterell 1819-1843


Surveyor, settler, explorer

If John Cotterell had not been killed, in the Wairau Affray,  at the tender age of 23, it is likely he would have become a person of some standing in early colonial society. Born in Bath, Cotterell was one of several influential Quakers involved in the establishment of Nelson.

Cotterell's house Alexander Turnbull Library, PUBL-0011-06-1Cotterell's house Alexander Turnbull Library, PUBL-0011-06-1. Permission of ATL must be sought prior to further use of this image
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While working as a surveyor in Bristol, he became interested in colonisation and the welfare of ‘aborigines'. He arrived in Nelson on the Fifeshire in February 1842, and soon after, advertised his services as a surveyor and land agent, as well as opening a store selling household goods. 

Between March and July, Cotterell completed surveys of the Waimea Plains and Waimea West. He described his new lifestyle to his mother: "You would smile at our independence, when on these excursions, only making a large fire, roasting pigeons or ducks....then rolling up in a blanket and lying on the bare ground or grass." 27 March, 1842. 

In March, Cotterell visited the Motueka Pā. "(I) was received with great attention by the chief and his wiena (wife) Mary; she is a very kind woman. The husband is a quiet old man, very lively in his conversation, and affectionate in his manner."1 

As Cotterell's knowledge of the Maori language increased, a mutual respect developed between himself and local Māori. In October, he again visited the Motueka Pā and met a chief known as Atopikiwara:  "He saw no good in being paid for the land...but the best way would be for the white people to pay whenever they cut down a tree, built a house, or made a garden thus establishing a perpetual rent. This will, I think, be found the general idea of the New Zealand chiefs, as regards utu (payment)."2 

Clip from Nelson Evening Mail (1963, 18 November) , p10. Clip from Nelson Evening Mail (1963, 18 November) , p10.
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Cotterell pioneered the Tophouse  route to the Wairau on 21 November, 1842. His sighting of more than 80,000 hectares of extensive grassy plain across the divide, altered the prospects and raised the spirits of the Nelson settlers. 

By March, he was surveying the Wairau for the New Zealand CompanyNgāti Toa disputed the Company's claim and tried to stop the surveys by non-violent means, burning the huts and evicting the survey parties.

Cotterell was part of the ill-fated party sent to the Wairau to deal with the well-prepared Ngāti Toa. An armed conflict ensued, although, as a Quaker, Cotterell refused to bear arms. Several of the men fled, but Wakefield dissuaded Cotterell from fleeing, saying he would surely be shot. Cotterell surrendered to a Māori he knew, but he was seized by another and killed. 

On 5 April 1843, Cotterell had written to his mother: "I am getting on with the native language and can talk to them a little of the feelings of the soul, of the love of God, and of the advantage of goodness. I am delighted with the deep thought and fervency of character of many of them.....But the intercourse with the English will spoil these fine traits of character, and make them worldly as themselves."3

After his death, the Quaker Journal in England wrote that during his sojourn in New Zealand, Cotterell had been on the best terms with Māori and that "the New Zealanders have slain one of their best friends."

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


 Updated April 24, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Cotterell, J.S.  Letters, 1842-43. Letter dated 25 March, 1842.  Held Nelson Provincial Museum.
  2. Cotterell, Letter dated 9 October 1842.
  3. Cotterell, Letter dated 5 April.

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Further sources - John Sylvanus Cotterell 1819-1843




 Held by Nelson Provincial Museum:

  • Cotterell, J.S. Diary of a journey to the Wairoo Pass 13.1.1843 -28.1.1843.  998.25.44
  • Cotterell, J.S. Letters. In Samuel Stephens, Journal. Typescript
  • Cotterell, J.S. Letters.: UMS 259
  • Rigg, T (1888-1972)  Papers concerning Quakers in Early Nelson (unpublished manuscript) qMS Rigg:

 Held by Alexander Turnbull Library

  •  Cotterell, J.S. Letters.: qMS -0560


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