Land quickly became a tradable commodity when economic relations between Māori and Pākehā began in earnest in the early 19th century. By the 1830s concerns were growing about how Māori land was being acquired. In 1838 the House of Lords noted that land transactions could lead to serious confrontation and violence in New Zealand. Schemes for increased European settlement such as those of the New Zealand Company highlighted potential problems and meant that the British government could not let matters drift. Action was needed to protect Māori from the worst ravages of European contact.
Europeans obtained land in several ways. Missionary organisations negotiated with chiefs for the right to occupy the land they needed for their stations and farms. Whalers, timber millers and merchants also acquired small pieces of land, for commercial purposes or for the use of their part-Māori families. As British intervention became more likely in the late 1830s, New South Wales capitalists ‘bought’ large areas in the hope of converting them to secure titles later. In a class of its own was the controversial claim of the New Zealand Company to some 20 million acres (8.1 million ha) in central New Zealand, 30% of the country. Some missionaries, against orders from London, reserved tracts of land for tribes in order to prevent such sales.
There has been debate ever since about whether land transactions had the same meaning for European ‘purchasers’ and Māori ‘sellers’. Many historians, and the Waitangi Tribunal in some of its reports, consider that Māori saw the transactions as granting use rights to the particular Europeans who traded with and lived among them as part of a reciprocal relationship. Māori did not necessarily see trading in land as resulting in its permanent loss.
A New Zealand Association that took shape in 1837 became the New Zealand Colonisation Company in 1838. It is usually known as the New Zealand Company. The brainchild of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the company saw emigration as a cure for Britain’s social problems. Some of those involved in the company had established a colony in South Australia in 1836. They now made plans for British settlements in New Zealand.
The company’s programme of ‘systematic colonisation’ was designed to attract the optimal mix of migrants. It was based on the notion of transplanting a ‘vertical slice’ of British society to New Zealand. There would be both a landowning class and a good supply of carefully selected labourers to work the land. Central to this plan was the ability to buy land cheaply from Māori and then sell it at a ‘sufficient price’ to investors and new settlers. The labourers’ fares would be paid from the profits. The end result would be an idyllic English farming settlement in New Zealand. The company planned to give Māori 10% of the sections in its new settlements. These would not be reserves in the American or Australian sense, but investments that would grow in value and become the real payment for the land occupied by the settlers.
In late 1839, several hundred New Zealand Company settlers set sail for Port Nicholson without official approval. The humanitarians opposed colonisation on this scale and had done all they could to prevent Wakefield obtaining state support. The British government supported trade with New Zealand, but not its settlement. British imperial policy aimed to limit both military and financial costs. An empire of commerce based on free trade was preferable to an empire of settlement that was likely to be both expensive and troublesome.
While the British government conducted inconclusive negotiations with the New Zealand Company, it also considered options for the annexation of New Zealand. William Hobson, commander of HMS Rattlesnake, had visited New Zealand in 1837. He suggested that the Crown acquire ‘legal title to some few districts, especially at the Bay of Islands’. Small-scale commercial and trading settlements would allow British courts to be established and enable British authority to spread slowly over a wider area.
In May 1839, Lord Normanby, the secretary of state for the colonies, decided to annex at least some of New Zealand. In June, Queen Victoria signed Letters Patent (a type of proclamation) altering the boundaries of New South Wales to include ‘any territory which is or may be acquired in sovereignty by Her Majesty within that group of islands in the Pacific Ocean commonly called New Zealand’. When the Crown’s sovereignty over New Zealand was proclaimed in 1840, New Zealand initially became part of New South Wales.
Formal instructions were issued to Hobson, who had by now been appointed as consul to New Zealand, in August 1839. New Zealand would come under the authority of George Gipps, the governor of New South Wales, with Hobson as lieutenant-governor. With New Zealand Company ships already on their way to Cook Strait, Hobson was given a degree of discretion as to how to proceed. However, his instructions strongly suggested that cession of the whole country would be in the best interests of Māori. The British government had concluded that, given the intrusion of settlers who claimed to have bought vast areas of land, Māori sovereignty was now ‘little more than nominal’. The benefits of British protection ‘would far more than compensate for the sacrifice, by the natives, of a national independence, which they are no longer able to maintain’.