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Captain Arthur Wakefield (19 November 179917 June 1843) was the second brother of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, founder of the New Zealand Company.

Royal Navy

Arthur Wakefield was born in Essex near London, and joined the Royal Navy at age eleven. He saw action in the Dutch East Indiesmarker, and was part of the force that captured and burnt Washington, D.C.marker during the War of 1812. He took part in the Battle of Algiers, one of the bloodiest battles fought by the British Navy in this era. In the post-Napoleonic period he was stationed off South America, involved in diplomatic duties during the various wars of independence. He then spent several years off the coast of West Africa as part of the flotilla engaged in the suppression of the slave trade. He also saw duty in the North Atlantic, the West Indiesmarker and the Mediterraneanmarker. He was eventually given command of his own ship, the steam frigate Rhadamanthus. However, in 1837 he was passed over for promotion, so, recognizing that his career was going nowhere, he resigned from the Navy in 1841.

New Zealand Company

He was immediately recruited by his brother to join the New Zealand Company and to lead the new settlement at Nelsonmarker. His task was to select a party of settlers, escort them to New Zealandmarker and to supervise the growth of the new town. They sailed on the Whitby and arrived in Nelson in February, 1842.

The settlement of Nelson got off to a good start with Captain Wakefield doing everything he could to promote the orderly development of the colony. Although he seems to have been rather paternal in his attitude to the settlers, he also seems to have been respected and admired.

However the new colony was soon in serious difficulties. The New Zealand Company and particularly his brother, Edward Gibbon, had made extravagant promises to the settlers about the availability of land, offering one acre (4,000 m²) of urban land, fifty acres (200,000 m²), of suburban land and 150 acres (600,000 m²) of rural land to each settler family. They had nothing like that amount of land available and the existing owners, the Māori, the native people of the country, were very reluctant to sell their land and not inclined to trust the New Zealand Company promises.

In 1839, a whaling ship, the Caroline under Capt John Blenkinsop, had visited Wairau and taken on board water and wood. He then sailed to Kapiti Islandmarker seeking out the chief, Te Rauparaha in order to pay for the wood. He got Te Rauparaha to sign a receipt for the sale and then left, hurriedly. Te Rauparaha showed the receipt to another trader who told him he had been defrauded, that the receipt was in fact a bill of sale for the whole of the Wairau Plain.

At the time this was a fairly pointless crime because Te Rauparaha was the law in the area, the only law that existed. Not even the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi a year later changed this situation. Blenklinsop was drowned at sea and his widow sold the Bill of Sale to Edward Wakefield who used it to claim that the New Zealand Company owned most of the bottom of the North Island and the top of the South Island. When they eventually arrived in New Zealand they soon discovered that their survival was dependent on the goodwill of the Māori who held all the power. Furthermore the new government of William Hobson in Aucklandmarker was not at all sympathetic to their problems.

One of the basic tenets of the Treaty was the understanding that the Crown would protect the Māori from attempts to defraud them of their land. Some of the New Zealand Company and many of the settlers on the other hand saw the Māori as ignorant savages who had no right to stand in the way of honest British colonists. This was a period when the growing British Empire was very aware of what it saw as its manifest destiny, to rule the native peoples of the world.

In the meantime, Arthur Wakefield found he had far more settlers than he had land for and they were not happy. They believed they were owed the land and the Māori occupants had no right to stand in their way. For once, Edward Gibbon Wakefield urged caution, but he was in Wellingtonmarker and his brother Arthur was the man on the spot.

The Chief Magistrate in Nelson, Henry Thompson, was a very hot-tempered, arrogant man who was not prepared to accept that the Nelson settlement did not own and control the Wairau Plains. Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata visited Nelson and made it very clear that they would not allow the settlers to occupy the Wairau Plain. Despite that, Wakefield and Thompson sent out surveyors. The Māori very firmly, but without violence, escorted tham off their land.

Thompson immediately issued a warrant for the arrest of the two chiefs. He and Wakefield then recruited a group of special constables and led them off to carry out the arrest. The result was the Wairau Massacre, in which Arthur Wakefield and 23 of the party were killed by the Māori.

It is difficult to apportion the blame for this disaster. Henry Thompson appears to have been the driving force behind the attempt to arrest Te Rauparaha and he already had a reputation for headstrong, irrational impulses. But Wakefield was supposed to be in command of the settlement. His brother had told him that the claim to land was invalid. It seems that he yielded to the pressures and expectations of the people around him and particularly to Thompson. If he had been a stronger man, if he had listened to his conscience rather than expediency, he would not have died at Wairau. And yet he could hardly have been a weak man, having been an officer in the British Navy for many years and had risen to command his own ship with apparent success. He had seen a great deal of active service and he should have recognized the folly of accosting Te Rauparaha and his warriors at Wairau.

The subsequent government inquiry found the whole expedition had been illegal and exonerated the Māori. This did not sit well with the colonists, who immediately began a political campaign against the Governor, Robert FitzRoy that contributed to his early dismissal.

The new settlement is now a thriving city, while a few kilometres away is the community of Wakefieldmarker.

References

Biography in the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand


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