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.
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.
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.
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 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’.
Polynesian people stepped onto these shores some 800–1,000 years ago. Over the following centuries, this country was a place of independent tribal groups who looked after their own territories and lived close to the land, physically and spiritually. Eventually every part of the country was overseen by a particular iwi or hapū, each led by their own rangatira.