For some decades before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, British officials regarded New Zealand as an informal part of the British Empire. Official interventions were limited to preserving order so that British trade and industry could develop. Māori also wished to take advantage of the new skills, goods and opportunities offered by visiting whalers, traders and missionaries. Outbreaks of violence between the races threatened these trading relations and were regretted by both sides.
The first flag
One of the first actions by British Resident James Busby towards his objective of Māori self-government was to provide the chiefs with a national flag. In 1834 a group of northern chiefs selected the design of a red cross on a white background with four stars in the corner. New Zealand’s flag until 1840, it came to be known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, and enabled Māori to sail to other countries without risking arrest as pirates.
James Busby, British Resident
In 1832 the British Colonial Office acted to protect its trade interests in New Zealand by appointing a British Resident, James Busby. He was instructed to establish a settled government of Māori, by Māori, similar to the kingdom founded with British encouragement in Tonga.
On Busby’s arrival in May 1833, Māori chiefs welcomed him as a kaiwhakarite – an intermediary between the races. Some chiefs had already travelled to Australia and elsewhere and were concerned that Māori should avoid the fate of indigenous people in other Pacific countries. They adopted a constitution proposing a government and judicial system giving equal authority to Māori and non-Māori. However, Busby had no powers to enforce such a system, and increasing numbers of immigrants rejected it.
In the late 1830s British colonial authorities decided to acquire New Zealand as a colony. In 1839 Captain William Hobson sailed to New Zealand to take possession of the country on behalf of the British Crown. His instructions, issued by Lord Normanby, Britain’s secretary of state for the colonies, provide a guide to British attitudes towards the Māori people at the time.
The main purpose of Hobson’s mission, said Normanby, was to establish ‘a settled form of civil Government’, with the full agreement of Māori. This would protect the Māori people from lawless Europeans and other harmful effects of unorganised European settlement. The government would then buy ‘waste lands’ from Māori, and re-sell this land to settlers. Only land not needed by Māori for their own purposes would be bought by the Crown, and they would receive a ‘fair and equal’ price. Schools would be provided for Māori, and many of their traditional customs would be protected. An official would be appointed ‘to watch over the interests of the aborigines [Māori] as their protector’.1
Treaty of Waitangi
Hobson and his advisers drew up the Treaty of Waitangi to obtain the voluntary transfer of sovereignty by Māori. The treaty was first signed on 6 February 1840. Its Māori-language version promised Māori some degree of control over their resources and customs. However, the English-language version indicated that the Crown’s sovereignty would not be shared with indigenous people. These differing understandings eventually led to warfare and a long process of re-interpretation and compensation.