Joel Samuel Polack is said to have been born in London, England, on 28 March 1807, son of a successful Jewish painter and engraver, Solomon Polack, and his wife, Sarah. The family had migrated from Holland to Ireland and then to England, where they settled; their children included Abraham, Joel Samuel, Rebecca and Elizabeth. Art and letters were to play an important part in the life of J. S. Polack, but he began his career in the War Office (Commissariat and Ordnance), serving in South Africa and Mauritius. After four years he left to travel in America, and in 1830 joined his brother, Abraham, in business in New South Wales, Australia. In 1831 he came to New Zealand.
For some 12 months Polack resided at Hokianga. A pioneer traveller and trader, he explored the Hokianga–Kaipara area, Poverty Bay and the East Cape, negotiating with the local people and encouraging them to grow and harvest marketable crops. In 1832–33 he moved to the Bay of Islands, where he purchased several tracts of land from Māori chiefs and built a substantial house on a nine acre site at the northern end of the beach at Kororāreka (Russell), calling his estate Parramatta. Mercantile buildings followed, including the country's first brewery in 1835. Assiduous in business – trading in flax, timber and general produce – the young Polack prospered, and interested himself in public affairs. Critical of Busby's administration, or rather lack of it, he signed the petition of 1837 to William IV requesting that the British government assume responsibility for the protection and government of European settlers.
In 1837 Polack returned to England. There, in 1838, he advocated colonisation in evidence given before a House of Lords select committee of inquiry 'into the present state of the islands of New Zealand'. He also promoted New Zealand in two books based on his experiences – New Zealand, being a narrative of travels and adventures during a residence in that country between the years 1831 and 1837 (two volumes, 1838) and Manners and customs of the New Zealanders; with notes corroborative of their habits, usages, etc., and remarks to intending emigrants (two volumes, 1840). Polack saw unorganised European settlement as destructive of Māori society, and argued that only through systematic colonisation would the Māori survive. The Māori people would welcome colonisation by the British, he argued, and would benefit both in 'their Minds and their Bodies' through employment by 'civilized persons'.
Polack's books were well received in England. He wrote in a florid style but was conversant with historical, scientific and maritime works, which rendered his comments valuable. His observations on natural science included the first published reference to fossil remains of 'a species of the emu [moa]'. Generously illustrated, the books also showed his talents as an artist.
Before returning to New Zealand in 1842, Polack became a member of the Colonial Society of London, and further promoted settlement by holding an auction in London of small lots of his own land in New Zealand – perhaps the first subdivision into quarter acre lots in New Zealand history. The post-Treaty of Waitangi era in New Zealand, however, held disappointments for Polack. He found his land dealings were subject to scrutiny by land claims commissioners. Other settlers disputed and had even encroached on his boundaries, occasioning squabbles with neighbours. Polack admitted to a 'rascally bad' temper, and duelled with the settler Benjamin Turner.
Commercial progress came to a halt at the Bay of Islands with the war of 1845 and the destruction of Kororāreka. Polack's house, where the British ammunition had been stored, was destroyed. The extent of his losses can be seen from the plan of the premises and the seven page inventory he prepared when claiming compensation; the total estimated loss was £2,600. Not least of his losses were his personal writings and sketches, his collections of rare paintings, books and artefacts. Polack never accepted an injustice: he pursued tirelessly but unsuccessfully this and other claims with successive administrations.
Removing his business to the new capital, Auckland, in 1845, Polack operated a bonded warehouse near the Auckland waterfront, and extended into shipping, for trade with the Californian coast. One cargo with which he was involved was kauri gum. Between 1845 and 1848 he was also vice consul for the United States. He continued to speculate in land, negotiating for town allotments and purchasing large tracts for their economic potential – island groups including the Hen and Chickens, Poor Knights and Fanal (Mokohinau) for their possible mineral deposits; 800 acres at Lucas Creek for their timber; and an extensive area at Maraetai.
In 1850 Polack left on the Fanny for North America, looking, as always, for new commercial frontiers. Despite the usual assumption, Polack was not following the Californian goldrushes; the Fanny's cargo included 1,243 packages of timber, comprising 43 frame houses, 15,000 bricks and 8,000 shingles, which sheds light on his real intentions. Little is known of his years in California, however, although a land case regarding the island of Yerba Buena in San Francisco Bay bears his name. He retained his New Zealand interests for some years, and was a signatory to a petition of settlers to the House of Representatives in 1856, seeking compensation for losses suffered during the northern war of the 1840s. In San Francisco he married Mary, the widow of William Hart (both also formerly resident in New Zealand). Polack died in San Francisco on 17 April 1882, and is buried beside his wife in Cypress Lawn cemetery, Colma, having been moved there in 1946 from Laurel Hill cemetery.
No known likeness of Polack has survived, although daguerreotypes had been taken at his Auckland premises. In an amusing sketch by John Williams, dated 1845 and entitled 'Māoris bartering pigs and potatoes', Polack is shown in outline, a slightly built man, negotiating with a trio of spirited Māori vendors. As one of New Zealand's first Jewish settlers, he was isolated from the main religious bodies and, while this may have denied him close friendship with fellow Europeans, he saw it as an advantage in his dealings with the Māori people, who did not identify him with a particular group. He spoke their language and respected their intelligence and ability. They called him Porake (Polack) or Waewaeroa (Long-legs). At Hokianga he had lived for a time with a 'chief girl', but later repented his 'former indiscretion'. As an early land purchaser he had advocated the payment of annuities to Māori sellers, but it is not known to what extent he put his proposals into practice.
Today Polack is remembered chiefly for his books, which are quoted frequently; and he is regarded as an impartial authority on New Zealand in the 1830s. Eighteen years in New Zealand, however, saw the lively young narrator and opportunist become a persistent letter-writer to the authorities about past grievances. These letters lie in obscurity in the country's archives, but pieced together with the reports of his frequent litigations, and the numerous newspaper advertisements promoting his business ventures, they give a good first-hand picture of life in the Crown colony during its first 10 years.