Political relationships

Before 1840, the British government had no legal power to protect its citizens while they were in New Zealand – nor could it make unscrupulous ones obey British laws. This was a problem. Māori, British traders, and missionaries all expressed their dissatisfaction.

Ehara i te toka tū ake, he toka hāpai nō whenua kē.
It is not a native rock, but one from another land.

Not their business

The British government wanted to keep out of this country’s affairs as much as possible. It knew that asserting British sovereignty would be costly and lead to rapid settlement. Experience in other British colonies showed that native peoples suffered as a consequence.

James Ingram McDonald, James Busby, British Resident, after an earlier 1830 drawing, 1903, gouache, monochrome. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (A-044-008)

A no-win situation

In 1830 there was an especially violent incident involving both Māori and Pākehā. The British government agreed to send James Busby to New Zealand as ‘British Resident’ in 1832. He was to prevent Pākehā mistreating Māori, protect law-abiding Pākehā, and catch escaped convicts.

However, New Zealand was an independent territory, outside British law. Busby had no legal powers and no military force. At best he was a mediator.

New Zealand Company / United Tribes flag, 1839, maker unknown, wool and linen. Gift of Andrew Haggerty Richard Gillespie, 1967. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH002925)

A flag to fly

The British government also instructed Busby to work with Māori leaders towards a ‘settled form of government’. In March 1834, he held a meeting of local rangatira and they chose a flag for New Zealand-built ships to fly. The flag still has symbolic importance today.

Declaration of independence

Busby called together local rangatira late in 1835. Thirty-four Māori leaders – calling themselves the Confederation of United Tribes – signed ‘A Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand’. This asked the British Crown to recognise the country’s independence and protect it. The British government acknowledged the Declaration.

No further steps were taken towards a united Māori government, but Busby continued to collect signatures on the Declaration until August 1839 – when the total was 52.

Getting desperate

In 1837, intertribal fighting that also involved Pākehā broke out in the Bay of Islands. Busby asked the British government to help. They sent a naval captain, William Hobson, to investigate.

Hobson knew his government didn’t want to intervene. He reported back, advising a scheme that would make just a few areas British. It would make a limited intrusion on Māori independence.

Busby suggested a British protectorate over the whole country.

Hobson’s choice

Hobson admitted to his wife after his 1837 visit that he really believed New Zealand should be taken as a British colony, because the country had valuable resources. He commented: ‘the Aboriginal race are rapidly diminishing in numbers, the day is not far distant when that country will be wholly occupied by white people’.

James Ingram McDonald, Captain William Hobson, first Governor of New Zealand, 1913. oil painting. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (G-826-1)

Making their move

In 1839 a British group called the New Zealand Company firmed up plans to buy land here and send hundreds of settlers. Now, the British Government decided it had to take responsibility.

Hobson was commissioned to return, this time to negotiate a treaty with Māori, allowing the British government to assert sovereignty over all or part of New Zealand.

Charles Heaphy, The “Cuba” at anchor, in a N.W. breeze, at Port Nicholson heads, 1840, 1840, pencil, watercolour, and Chinese white on brown paper. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (A-144-003)


This content was originally written for the Treaty2U website in partnership with National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa and Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o Te Kāwanatanga in 2008, and reviewed in 2020.