The New Zealand Company had built a settlement around Nelson at the top of the South Island in 1840. They began to aggressively purchase land from the Maori without reference to the newly established colonial government. Furthermore, they were not always scrupulous about establishing the vendor's right to sell the land on offer. Naturally this led to tension and caused disputes. Generally these were settled by compromise and adjudication.
However some of the Nelson settlers ran out of patience with the legal and political processes. On 17 June 1843 a magistrate and fifty armed settlers tried to enforce their claim to some land at Wairau. Colonel Wakefield, one of the principal officer of the New Zealand Company had originally believed that this land was included in a large scale purchase he had made but later changed his mind and strongly opposed his brother, Captain Arthur Wakefield in his insistence on claiming the land. The pressure for land arose because the Company had sold the settlers more land than they had available.
However Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata came to Nelson and told Captain Wakefield that they owned the land, they hadn't sold it and they certainly hadn't been paid for it. They had no intention of selling the block except for " a very great cask of gold". Wakefield told them he intended to survey the land and that if they interfered he would have them arrested. Te Rangihaeta then spent several days around Nelson telling everyone who would listen that the only way they could get the land was by conquest, i.e. they had to kill him but he intended to kill them first. Te Rauparaha was more diplomatic but equally unyielding. They left the settlement intending to lay the whole matter before the Queen's Commissioner, in other words to follow the process of the law.
Soon after, the actual occupants of the land, three of Te Rauparaha's nephews, also turned up in Nelson claiming that they and only they could sell the land and they had not done so. First of all Captain Wakefield offered to buy it from them. Then he changed his story and said it was already sold. He showed them a deed of sale, underestimating the sophistication of the Maori who pointed out that Wairau Plain had been added to deed later and in a different script. These Maoris also withdrew asserting their ownership of the land.
Despite all the warnings Captain Wakefield proceeded on the assumption that he owned the land. Surveyors were sent out and began work. Te Rauparaha then arrived on the scene backed up by maybe one hundred warriors. They removed all the surveyors equipment, burnt the huts they had built and escorted the surveyors to a nearby Maori village.
The chief surveyor, Mr Tuckett, came out from Nelson to negotiate with Te Rauparaha who explained that he had indeed placed the whole question in the hands of the Governmemt Land Commissioner and he did not intend for anything to happen until the hearing had taken place. He also undertook that he, himself would not occupy the land either until then even though he was clear about his ownership of it.
All the surveyors were then invited to return to Nelson and offered boats to transport them there. Three days of gales delayed their departure and then on their journey they met the brig Victoria coming from Nelson. Aboard were the police magistrate, Mr. Thompson, Captain Wakefield, Mr Thompso who was the Crown prosecutor, the Chief Constable some settlers and twenty four labourers who had been sworn in as special constables. They intended to arrest Te Rauparaha and the occupying Maori. The chief surveyor was considerably disturbed by this news. He pointed out that their legal rights were very unclear and that Te Rauparaha had said he would abide by the legal rulings. He also told them that they would need ten times as many men to effect an arrest.
Captain Wakefield was prepared to return to Nelson but the Police magistrate and the Crown Prosecutor insisted that it was time to teach the Maori a lesson and insisted on proceeding. They proceeded to Cloudy Bay and landed. The Maori retreated inland and the settlers camped for the night. Mr. Tuckett tried several times to get them to abandon their plan or failing that, to approach Te Rauparaha in a peaceful manner. He continued the next day during the march inland but Mr Thompson was obdurate being convinced that the Maori would surrender as soon as they were approached by a force of well armed and determined Englishmen. In fact the British force was anything but that, the special constables were reluctant conscripts with little or no experience.
The next morning they approached the Maori camp. Te Rauparaha was surrounded by about ninety warriors but also numerous women and children. He allowed Mr Thompson and five other men to approach him, the rest of the British party had to remain on the other side of a small stream.
From the outset Mr Thompson took a very aggressive approach. He refused to shake hands with Te Rauparaha and said that he had come to arrest him not over the land issue but for arson, he had burnt the surveyors huts when he removed them from the land. Te Rauparaha pointed out that the huts had been made from rushes grown on his own land, what he had been burning was his own property. The surveyors supported him in this assertion. Despite this Mr Thompson insisted on arresting Te Rauparaha and produced a pair of handcuffs. To a Maori chief this was extremely insulting, to treat him like a slave with no mana or prestige, and he objected most strongly. The Magistrate then lost his temper completely and threatened to have his escort fire on the Maori. This was interpreted as an order to fire and the maori showed that they too were heavily armed.
It is not clear who fired the first shot, it may have been accidental. Both sides fired several volleys but it quickly became clear that the Maori were getting the best of it, many of them were experienced warriors who had been fighting for twenty years. The Europeans fled and some escaped but many were soon surrounded and captured. It seems that it was only now that Mr Thompson began to appreciate his folly. Te Rauparaha pointed out that he had tried to warn him of the consequences of the path he was following and only been abused.
Even at this stage they might have been saved but one of the Maori dead was a woman called Rongo, Rangihaeata's wife and Te Rauparaha's daughter. Utu, meaning both revenge and appropriate payment, is a strong Maori custom. It is sometimes waived but not in this case. All the captives were killed including Mr Thompson and Captain Wakefield, appropriately by the son of one of the Maori killed in the fight.
Altogether twenty two Europeans died in the incident, it could have been more if the Maori had seriously pursued the rest of the party but having made their point they allowed them to escape.
The Settlers demanded immediate war on the Maori but their anger quickly turned to the Government when it declined to take any further action over the affair. Sober thought soon showed that the whole affair had been unnecessary, that the Maori had done everything they could to avoid trouble but it had been forced upon them by the bellicose attitude of the Settlers. The whole expedition had been out with the law and the magistrate had had absolutely no legal authority to take the actions he attempted.
However, the Europeans did eventually did write the history of the incident which is why it became known by the pejorative title of the Wairau Massacre. Wairau Affair or Incident would be a more accurate title but the facts became lost in a welter of subsequent events and the need to justify the British position.