|Auckland's first settlement at Cornwallis 1835 – 1860
From the rich store of New Zealand's 19th century colonial history comes this account of Cornwallis, uncovering the motives behind the “purchase” and attempted settlement of the area. This story is one of ambition, hope, greed, deceit, betrayal and death. More importantly it shows us the determination and courage of our earliest settlers to make a home and new life for themselves on Britain's most distant outpost, under conditions we find hard to imagine, viewed from our modern lives of comfort and relative security.
In 1835 Australian timber merchant Thomas Mitchell sailed into the Manukau Harbour past Huia to the Ngati Whatua occupied Karangahape Pa on the Puponga Peninsula. Mitchell (along with an ever growing number of enterprising Australians ) was looking for three things in New Zealand: Kauri to export to Australia, opportunities for trade, and land. 1 He saw the economic opportunities and assisted by the English Wesleyan Methodist missionary, William White, negotiated with tribal leaders Apihai Te Kawau, Rewiti Tamaki and others, successfully made an agreement to establish a timber milling operation and trading post purchasing 40,000 acres of the Auckland isthmus for just under a penny an acre plus 1000 pounds of tobacco, 100 dozen pipes, and six muskets ( White was later dismissed by the church for buying land and timber trading for personal gain ).2
At the time, the British government recognised the sovereignty of the Maori people, represented in the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand of October 1835. It was a method of counteracting the (rumored but never proven) intention of France to declare sovereignty of New Zealand. Most importantly opening the way for British interests.
In January 1836, Mitchell bought the 40,000 acres. Unfortunately the tobacco was mouldy and was left on the beach in disgust by Te Kawau. That year Mitchell became the first permanent settler of the Auckland region; 3 He built a home, brought his family over from Australia and established his timber milling operation and trading post at Karangahape. However, this brave venture was not to last. At the age of 27 years, and only months after he began trading and
shipping sawn Kauri planks to Australia, he drowned. His wife and fivechildren returned to Australia. 4
Some of the directors of the largely Scottish-owned Manukau and Waitemata Land Company (formed by ex New Zealand land company members) were British Members of Parliament, when they learned that the British Crown intended to claim sovereignty of New Zealand and subsequently all large land purchases would be done with the British government, decided to move quickly to buy as much land as possible as cheaply as possible from local Maori, much to the chagrin of Christian missionaries already living and working here, who saw this as the beginning of the end for Maori, as in other colonies land would be snatched for “mere baubles”, Maori culture and rights trampled 5.
Captain William Cornwallis Symonds (as an agent for the land company), was sent to New Zealand to report on the land around Auckland and to negotiate purchases. In his report he states “It is an immense district, fertile, with thousands of acres fit for the plough. Two harbors to export produce and plentiful supplies of fresh water, Mitchell's trading post is an ideal spot for a town.”. 6 He bought the land from the widow of Thomas Mitchell , paying 500 pounds for it, and naming it in honour of his uncle Lord Cornwallis (viceroy of India).
However, Te Kawau still considered Mitchell's original agreement broken, as the worthless tobacco had not been replaced or compensated for: a fact Symonds was aware of, but made no attempt to rectify.
Maori were also becoming aware of the difference between the price they had received and the price to be charged to the proposed settlers for the same land, which did not help either.
Traditionally, Maori ownership of land was communal; private, individual, ownership, as practiced by Europeans was an alien concept. A crisis was looming and time was of the essence for the “land sharks”.
Despite the shaky nature of the purchase, the Land Company pushed on as quickly as possible, launching a publicity campaign designed to attract working class settlers.
The Scottish public were informed that New Zealand was another Eden: “In all the most picturesque walks of nature it is impossible to imagine a sight more sublime and majestic than a New Zealand forest”. Grassy plains, fertile soils, willing native workers, excellent harbors, warm climate, better health, longer life and free passage beckoned invitingly. Economic prospects were portrayed as unlimited; almost every form of agriculture, manufacturing and commerce was possible - and promised big returns7.
The primary trade at the beginning of the Cornwallis settlement would be timber, and each able-bodied settler would be able to make “very high” wages, guaranteed for the first year.
Potential settlers were encouraged to grab the opportunity to break free from the restrictions of the British working class system, especially the low wages, and very little hope of improvement. They could make something for themselves from this golden land of opportunity. The difficulties of pioneering, were ignored, and distressing reports from New Zealand, suppressed. Maori , when mentioned, were pictured eager for the white man's ways and merchandise. Heady stuff to the poor of Scotland
British sovereignty was declared late in 1840. Maori believed that the Treaty of Waitangi’s Second Article was their safeguard from exploitation: “This treaty confirms and guarantees full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties for as long as they wish to retain ownership”. Unfortunately, they had no idea at the time that the British government was eventually to ignore this clause and claim all lands not being lived on including forests, hunting grounds and sacred sites.
Symonds offered his services to the newly-appointed governor, Captain Hobson, and proved instrumental in swaying Hobson to appoint Auckland (instead of Wellington) as the first capital of New Zealand.
Symonds bought an additional 3000 acres of the Waitemata area for the Crown, from Te Kawau. Cornwallis was then portrayed to potential settlers as a suburb of the new capital.
From the beginning of British organised settlement, ,opposition grew between private land companies and the colonial government on land policy, the Cornwallis negotiation being a prime example.
Symonds met two men who proved instrumental in helping further the company's goals. Theophilus Heale was well educated, a captain and part-owner of one of the first British emigrant ships to arrive in Wellington. Dudley Sinclair was the twenty-one-year-old son and heir of Sir George Sinclair. The elder Sinclair was a Scottish noble and director of the New Zealand Association (British colonizing and land company formed in 1837). Dudley was on a mission to remake the family fortune drained by his grandfather Sir John Sinclair, (primarily remembered for writing the first statistical survey of Scotland in 1792 - often called “Scotland’s Doomsday Book”- which provided a detailed economic, social and geographic view of Scotland but proved ruinously expensive to publish).8
Both men decided to join the Cornwallis venture, formed a partnership to establish a trading and shipping company, and planned to set up a steam sawmill. Consequently, Heale sailed to America with all possible speed to investigate the latest milling techniques, then continued on to England to buy the necessary machinery and arrange its transport to Cornwallis. Sinclair based himself comfortably in Auckland, and began to speculate on land.
Eighty sections (from a total of 220) sold in Scotland, the first settler ship The Brilliant left from Glasgow on New Year’s Eve, 1840. Whilst the ship was en-route to New Zealand, Symonds was summoned to appear before the Crown Land Commission - which was set up by the colonial government to examine the large number of private land deals done prior to the Treaty of Waitangi, and to decide their legitimacy . To justify the Land Company’s claim to Cornwallis, the purchase price was given but the trade goods not specified! The Commission required the trade goods information and the expense of shipping settlers. Whilst waiting, they cautiously granted the settlers a maximum two year occupancy until a decision was reached. For reasons similarly unspecified, they banned the cutting of trees over 20 inches in diameter, effectively crippling the potential of the planned timber industry.9
The settlers’ voyage proved to be incredibly arduous, taking a huge 10 months to finally arrive from Greenock in Scotland to the Manukau Harbour, one of the longest recorded journeys to New Zealand. The Scottish owned ship the “Brilliant” carried 31Scottish settlers which included four children – two,( James Bain and Annie Lawlor ) born during the voyage. Upon approaching Cornwallis, the exhausted settlers’ visions of a welcoming new life in paradise must have been brutally shattered. They saw no sign of a settlement, no buildings or facilities of any kind and dense bush stretching down to the shoreline. Many refused to disembark and their worry and confusion must have been heart wrenching. Upon further investigation they discovered that the town portrayed to them with its streets and squares was no more than initial surveyor's markings.
Maori from the Awhitu mission station close by took pity on the settlers , and soon two canoes arrived. Within 24 hours, 25 nikau whare had been built to house the dazed and distressed settlers. Symonds and local Maori continued to supply food, help and support over the next couple of months. This enabled the settlers to find their feet somewhat, however no land packages were delivered to the new owners. They had been shown the ruined tobacco still at the end of the beach by Te Kawau, so concerns and anger began to mount.
Unfortunately, in November 1841 Symonds drowned in a sudden squall, whilst sailing supplies to a sick missionary’s wife living across the Manukau Harbour. This left the settlers to fend for themselves.10
Leadership of the fledgling community was assumed by Scotsman Lachlan McLachlan, who had scant information about the Company’s settlement plan, or any mandate from them - so could only act as the settlers’ representative.
In May of 1842 the much-awaited steam sawmill arrived at Cornwallis, along with another 12 settlers. They were followed a fortnight later by another two dozen settlers. Both ships carried a total of 20,000 pounds stirling worth of trade goods, and optimism was renewed.11
West Auckland's first hotel, “The Bird in the Hand” opened its doors at Cornwallis that July, to service the fledgling milling, shipping and trading industries.
However, Auckland timber merchants found that they could purchase timber from Waiheke Island and the more accessible Waitemata Harbour more cheaply than from Cornwallis,and that -combined with the harsh government restrictions on the size of timber allowed to be felled - meant business did not take off as anticipated.
By the middle of 1843 timber trade had fallen off to the extent that the “The Bird in the Hand” was forced to close.
Dudley Sinclair left on an emergency trading mission to Manilla and Canton. Upon his return in June, and learning of the extent of the problems at Cornwallis, Heale and Sinclair promptly sold the trade goods in Auckland and loaded their ship with a final 70,000 feet of native timber. With Theophilus Heale as sole passenger it sailed for Hobart, Tasmania. This marked the end of their business partnership.
Heale was appointed by the land company as its new representative but he remained overseas and returned to New Zealand only briefly during this period, and only to attend to his own business interests. The company had abandoned the Scottish settlers, many of whom were forced to abandon Cornwallis, having never received their land packages, and having none of the promised income opportunities..
Condemnation for the company’s blunders and its lack of support for the hapless settlers was loud and clear in newspaper reports, and the government was called on to help them. 12 Lachlan McLachlan the (now understandably irate) leader of the Cornwallis settlement challenged Dudley Sinclair to a duel. Sinclair wisely refused. but not to be thwarted, McLachlan confronted Sinclair at his home in Auckland and humiliatingly beat the young aristocrat with his own horsewhip. Outraged, Sinclair agreed to the duel but was hastily talked out of it by his friend (and lawyer).
Dudley Sinclair's honour and reputation were in ruins and he had failed to meet his family responsibilities. Humiliation, grief and guilt proved too strong a combination and just weeks after the incident he committed suicide at his home, apparently cutting his own throat ! His life has seemingly been removed from family history records.
By the end of 1844 the government partially came to the rescue of the settlers by granting them the equivalent of a quarter of the land originally paid to the land company, from Crown holdings elsewhere in Auckland.
In reparation, 1n 1860 the Crown reduced the size of the Manukau and Waitemata Land Company’s land holdings to a mere 1,927 acres of the Puponga Peninsula ( virtually worthless in financial terms, just as it was when sold to the unsuspecting settlers, due to the lack of development and industry .).
Ever the opportunist, Theophilus Heale managed to salvage the boiler from his steam mill, using it to good effect at the copper mine on Kawau Island and later in Thames.
Lachlan McLachlan's son John bought the land at Puponga and on his death in 1909 gifted it to Auckland as a public park.
A lonely monument can still be found on the old Pa site of Te Kawau to commemorate the brave but doomed settlement and the subsequent generous gift of the land.*
1)Once the Wilderness, John T Diamond second edition, 1966 pg 5
2) Mana at Mangungu – Biography of William White, MB Gittos 1982
3) Fire on the Clay, Dick Scott, 1979, pg 20
4) Ibid pg 21
5) Fatal Necessity – British Intervention in New Zealand 1830-1847, Peter Adams 1977 pg 95
6)Fire on the Clay, Dick Scott, 1979, pg 22
7)Ibid pg 28
8)Sir George Sinclair Baronet of Ulbster (Scotland) MP, author and committee member of the New Zealand Association 1837 -NZ Company 1839. Fatal Necessity - Peter Adams. pg 254
9) New Zealand Gazette, 28 October, 4 November, 1841
10) “Herald” newspaper Obituary November 1841
11) Fire on the Clay, Dick Scott, 1979, pg 34
12) “Southern Cross” Newspaper 25 November 1843
*Monument Track: 20 minutes return walk from parking area at the end of Cornwallis Road, the track leads through pines and regenerating bush up to McLachlan Monument.
John Wilson. 'Scots', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
Jock Phillips. 'History of immigration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
West Auckland Remembers: Volumes 1 and 2, West Auckland Historical Society (Inc.) 1992,
Fire on the Clay: The Pakeha comes to West Auckland. Dick Scott, 1979. Southern Cross Books
Fatal Necessity – British intervention in New Zealand 1830-1847: Peter Adams, Auckland University Press 1977.
The story of New Zealand, past , present-savage and civilized: Volumes 1 and 2 Arthur S Thomson, 1859. Capper Press 1974
Once the Wilderness: John T Diamond. Lodestar Press, 1977.The founding of New Zealand: The journals of Felton Mathew, first surveyor – general of New Zealand and his wife. 1840-1847. Published for the Auckland University College by Reed 1940Life in a young colony: selections from early New Zealand writing. Cherry A Hankin. Whitcoulls 1981.
Fatal Success: a history of the New Zealand Company. Patricia Burns. Heinemann Reed 1989 'Land Settlement': An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. Government Print 1966.