by Roger Childs

“It was how rangatira (Maori leaders) told the world, back in 1835, that New Zealand was an independent Maori nation.” –He Tohu Exhibition at the National Library

No concept of a nation

The He Tohu statement is another example of officialdom’s approval of lying about our history. 

New Zealand in the 1830s had no government or political structure either indigenous or British. The native tribes were regularly at war with one another and there was no concept of a united indigenous nation. 

In 1835 British resident, James Busby -–not Maori leaders — did concoct a “Declaration of Independence”, mainly to head off the threat of Frenchman Baron De Thierry laying claim to New Zealand. But this attempt to impose nationhood was only signed by a small minority of chiefs — about 35 mainly from Northland, and never established a political system or a united country. 

Basically chiefs south of the Bombay Hills and some in in Northland were not prepared to  give up their authority as tribal leaders.

The Declaration was useful for the British government

The British government did accept the declaration, but with reservations. It was something to pay lip service to. Colonial Secretary, Lord Normanby, stated in his instructions to William Hobson in 1839 we acknowledge New Zealand as a sovereign and independent state, so far at least as it is possible to make that acknowledgement in favour of a people composed of numerous, dispersed and petty tribes who possess few political relations to each other… 

In theory the Governor of New South Wales kept an eye on the growing impact of Europeans in the country on behalf of the British Colonial Office. Crimes committed in New Zealand could be tried in Sydney, and this happened occasionally.  

However, essentially New Zealand before 1840 had no laws, judicial system or enforcement authorities. Inevitably there was “lawlessness” in some areas, especially in the north, and this was a major concern for the missionaries, and the powerless Busby who had no means to maintain order.

Applying pressure on the British government

As the 1830s wore on, some British interests, notably missionaries, tried to encourage the government in London to extend its authority over New Zealand. 

  • Some wanted protection for the increasing number of permanent white settlers while accepting native rights to their land and customs. 
  • Others sought complete annexation and incorporation of the country into the British Empire. 
  • Also some Northland chiefs like Tamati Waka Nene and Eruera Patuone were keen to see the British bring order to New Zealand.

However, the British government was extremely reluctant to commit to taking over “the country”. It would be expensive establishing a colonial government, with a judiciary and defence force to support it.

Nevertheless, the British and European influence in the country was rapidly increasing: there were more Protestant mission stations opening up and the French Catholics joined the Christian mix in 1838. 

Furthermore, trade across the Tasman, farming, forestry, whaling and the flax industry were expanding and some of the native population eagerly took advantage of these economic opportunities. All these activities, plus increased land purchases by settlers and speculators, lead to a growing white population, mainly British.

The British decide to act

Plans late in the 1830s by the New Zealand Company to buy large areas of land and formally settle areas around central New Zealand, lead to major discussions in the Houses of Commons and Lords on the future of the country. Who would govern any new British settlements and what effect would they have on the native peoples?

There were significant concerns about law and order and the lack of authority over the Europeans in New Zealand, and successive New South Wales governors expressed their dissatisfaction with the ineffective Busby. Consequently in May 1839 he was dismissed. Now without any British representation in New Zealand the government in London needed to act.

So the “Declaration of Independence” on 28 October 1835 with its grandiose title and lack of support, did serve a useful purpose on the road to the Treaty of Waitangi and the later official declaration of New Zealand becoming a colony of Britain.

See also this post on our Independence Day