New Zealand in 1800 was a Maori world. Maori society was based on hapu and iwi and was organised and maintained by a number of core beliefs. These pre-determined how Maori would interact with Europeans and also determined Maori expectations from contact. Any talk of ‘New Zealander’ in the first half of the century was in reference to Maori only.
Maori society was on the verge of massive change. The population in 1800 was estimated at anywhere between 100-120,000. The European population generally numbered in the hundreds. The inter-tribal Musket Wars of this period had a dramatic impact on the Maori population with as many as a fifth killed and many thousands captured by rival tribes. On the eve of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi the Maori population of between 70-90,000 still comfortably outnumbered the non-Maori population of 2000.
In December 1769 Captain Cook and the French explorer Jean-François-Marie de Surville unknowingly passed within a relatively short distance of each other during a storm off Cape Maria van Diemen, Northland. They were the first European visitors to New Zealand since Abel Tasman's brief encounter in 1642. New Zealand's isolation was at an end. By 1830 a thousand European ships would visit New Zealand shores.
Europe's ‘explosion outwards’ during the 18th and 19th centuries reached New Zealand in three distinct waves. Before 1840 Europeans arrived here in their hundreds, in the 1840s and 1850s in their thousands, and from the 1860s in their tens of thousands. Some argued that the non-European worlds crumpled ‘under the weight of expanding Europe’. Fatal-impact theorists spoke of the end of Maori civilisation as their population fell from perhaps 100,000 in 1840 to a little over 40,000 by the end of the century. Yet Maori and many other indigenous peoples survived in what historian James Belich has described as ‘the great survival story of modern times’.
Initial contact was largely confined to the Far North or isolated parts of the ‘Deep South’. The heavily populated interior largely had little or no contact with Europeans before 1840. Early contact was often ‘strained through Sydney first’. A number of Maori were also exposed to the wider world as crew on ships operating between Port Jackson (Sydney) and the Bay of Islands.
Maori responded to contact with Europe largely on their own terms. They were willing and able participants in the trade that quickly developed with the various sealers, whalers, traders and missionaries who arrived during the opening decades of the 19th century. Hapu and iwi often competed with each other in their access to trade items such as muskets and potatoes. Maori were also receptive to many of the new ideas that came with contact. Literacy introduced by the Christian missionaries became an increasingly important feature of Maori culture in the 1830s.
Intermediaries or kaiwhakarite - people from one culture who lived with the other culture - were important in bridging the cultural gap. They played an important role in establishing and maintaining trade networks. Maori women were often used as a means of keeping Pakeha in the community. Their presence offered Europeans a degree of protection although on occasion violence did occur. Generally speaking, though, violence was the exception to the rule as it was, quite simply, bad for business.
By the early 1830s the missionaries were increasingly calling on Britain to formally intervene in New Zealand affairs. If they were to ‘save Maori’ they needed official support. The major point of contact at Kororareka (Russell) had earned a reputation as a ‘Gomorrah, the scourge of the Pacific’. But Britain was initially reluctant to intervene. Colonisation was expensive and it was argued that as New Zealand did not exist as a sovereign state any formal arrangements were difficult.
In 1833 James Busby was appointed as the first official British Resident to New Zealand. He was given little official support and was provided with no means of enforcing his authority. Any help he might need was to be secured from the Governor of New South Wales (who was equally reluctant to spend any money or time on New Zealand). Maori nicknamed Busby 'Man-o-war without guns' due to his lack of real power. Undeterred, Busby set about taming what he believed to be the 'frontier chaos' that afflicted New Zealand. He helped established an official identity for New Zealand through the selection of New Zealand's first official flag in 1834 and the 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand. In this Declaration 34 northern chiefs called upon King William IV of Britain to become their 'father and protector'.
By 1837 the British Colonial Office was becoming sufficiently concerned about the impact of unregulated colonisation, especially land transactions that defrauded Maori. In mid-1839 William Hobson was appointed as consul to New Zealand. He was instructed to obtain sovereignty over all or part of New Zealand with the consent of a sufficient number of chiefs. New Zealand would come under the jurisdiction of the governor of New South Wales.
The British Crown was not alone in turning its attention to New Zealand. In May 1839 the New Zealand Company was preparing to send the Tory to New Zealand. The company had ambitious settlement plans. Company agents aboard the Tory were to buy land at Port Nicholson (Wellington). The first shiploads of company emigrants left for New Zealand in September 1839.