Protecting Māori, regulating land transactions, controlling the activities of settlers and dealing with the influx of New Zealand Company migrants underpinned British policy in 1839. Other nations watched with interest. French and American whalers used New Zealand waters and ports. The United States had appointed the English trader James Clendon as its consul to New Zealand in 1839, and a shipload of French colonists was heading for New Zealand. The manner in which Britain annexed the country would be crucial to the kind of nation New Zealand became, and especially to the relationship between its British and Māori citizens.
British policy was to foster trade, encourage Māori to ‘amalgamate’ with settler society and continue their education under the missionaries, and have them prosper alongside the settlers. Britain also needed the legal authority to deal with British subjects. Without this it had little ability to control the activities of settlers, including land transactions. The British government intended to guarantee Māori land rights and was strongly influenced by the fashionable theories of systematic colonisation.
The protection of Māori interests was seen as vital. British officials thought it pointless to isolate Māori on reserves when their culture was already damaged, it was assumed, by guns and alcohol. If the Americas and Australia are any guide, reserves would have been swept away by the settlers. New Zealand was to be colonised in a different way, with Māori rights enshrined in a treaty.
The first New Zealand Company settlers arrived at Petone on 22 January 1840, a week before Hobson reached the Bay of Islands. The company had signed land purchase deeds with Māori at Port Nicholson, Kapiti Island and Queen Charlotte Sound. Its aim was to purchase a huge area of the North and South Islands before formal intervention by the British Crown could prevent this.
Hobson arrived on 29 January with no time to waste. He was lieutenant-governor of a colony with uncertain boundaries that did not yet exist. Though he was under instructions to gain the consent of Māori for whatever course of action he took, he had no draft treaty to guide him. He had consulted Governor George Gipps of New South Wales en route to New Zealand and now turned to James Freeman, his secretary, as well as several missionaries and James Busby.
Formal proclamations in English were prepared announcing that Hobson had succeeded Busby as consul – and lieutenant-governor. Existing land claims would need the approval of the new authorities and no further transactions would be recognised. Mission printer William Colenso was asked to prepare these proclamations and a circular letter in Māori to the chiefs of the United Tribes announcing that a ‘rangatira’ from the Queen of England had arrived ‘hei Kawana hoki mo tatou’ (to be a Governor for us). The chiefs were invited to meet Hobson on 5 February at Busby’s house at Waitangi.
Hobson and Freeman prepared notes for a treaty of cession to be signed by these chiefs. Busby thought these unsuitable and on 3 February he provided a draft treaty, together with a long and cumbersome explanation covering its main points. The chiefs would give up ‘sovereignty’; Britain would take over the purchasing of land; Māori would have the protection and all rights and privileges of British subjects, and would be guaranteed possession of their lands, forests, fisheries and other properties for as long as they wanted to keep them. These provisions were expressed in three clauses or articles, which Hobson retained while replacing the explanatory preamble.
Missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward translated the English draft into Māori overnight on 4 February. The following day about 500 Māori gathered at Waitangi to debate the merits of the document. On the 6th more than 40 chiefs, led by Ngāpuhi’s Hōne Heke Pokai, signed the Treaty of Waitangi, as it has become known.
Hobson decided to proclaim British sovereignty over the whole country as soon as possible. This would leave the New Zealand Company settlers in no doubt that they were bound by British government policy and were not entitled to regard themselves as forming an independent colony. Hobson took this step while copies of the Treaty were being taken around the country for signing.
By September 1840, another 500 Māori had signed copies of the treaty. On 21 May 1840 Hobson proclaimed British sovereignty over the North Island by right of cession and over the South Island by right of discovery. In June 1840 Thomas Bunbury, unaware of Hobson’s actions, also proclaimed British sovereignty over the South Island by right of cession. In 1841 New Zealand was established as a Crown colony in its own right, reporting to London rather than Sydney. The Chatham Islands were inadvertently left outside the official boundaries of New Zealand until 1842.