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.
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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
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 Company. Ngāti 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
- Cotterell, J.S. Letters, 1842-43. Letter dated 25 March, 1842. Held Nelson Provincial Museum.
- Cotterell, Letter dated 9 October 1842.
- Cotterell, Letter dated 5 April.
- Rigg, T. (1957). John Sylvanus Cotterell.
- Cotterell memorial plaque unveiled at Tophouse Pass (1963, 18 November) Nelson Evening Mail, p10.
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Further sources - John Sylvanus Cotterell 1819-1843
- Allan, R.M. (1965) Nelson: a history of early settlement. Wellington, N.Z. : A.H. & A.W. Reed.
- Broad, L. (1892) Jubilee history of Nelson from 1842-1892 Nelson, N.Z.: Bond, Finney & Co.[ch.5].
- Lash, M.D. Nelson Notables 1840-1940: a dictionary of regional biography Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson Historical Society, p.43.
- 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, p. 51, 146-7,205,267,277.
- Rigg, T. (1957) John Sylvanus Cotterell.
- Cotterell, John Sylvanus.(1842, December, 17) Diary of an Excursion Overland from Nelson to the East Coast, 1842 Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 1(41), p.163.
- Brown, M. C. (1982, November) Some early journeys from Nelson to the Wairau. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1, 51-56.
- Orman, T.(2006, July 15) Early explorer. Marlborough Express, 22.
- Outrages by the Maories at the Wairoo (1843, June 17) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 2(67), p. 266
- Unveiling of the Cotterell memorial (1963, 18 November) Nelson Evening Mail, p.10.
- The Wairau. Proceedings between the Natives and the Surveyors. (1843, December 23) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle.,2(94),p.1.
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
- Cotterell, John Sylvanus. Waimea Plain. (1842). NZ Heritage Maps Platform. (Survey map)
- Quaker Faith and Practice Aotearoa/New Zealand (n.d.) Retrieved from Quakers in Aotearoa, 7 July 2009 from:
- Quakers in New Zealand (2008, August 5) Retrieved from The Friend: