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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


BUSBY, James


British Resident and early settler.

A new biography of Busby, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Busby was the second son of John Busby, a surveying engineer of Northumbrian extraction resident in Edinburgh, and his wife Sarah, née Kennedy. In 1824 the family migrated to New South Wales. John Busby gained fame by salvaging the brig Henrietta Elizabeth, wrecked at Ruapuke Island, and prospered as a coal-mining surveyor and constructor of Sydney's water supply.

James Busby, always a man of ideas, had studied grape-growing in France, and published a book on the subject in 1825. He bought land on the Hunter River where he planned to start wine making, and as farm superintendent at the Male Orphan School near Liverpool, New South Wales (1825–27), he instructed the boys in viticulture. He subsequently acted as collector of internal revenue and member of the Land Board, but when these appointments ceased (1829), he returned to England to seek preferment from the Colonial Office. “I could not,” he wrote, “have timed my visit better.” His patron, Earl Haddington, got him a favourable hearing at Whitehall, and he attracted notice by half-a-dozen memoirs on subjects ranging from secondary punishments and the jury system to grape growing and the state of New Zealand. This last topic was already engaging the attention of the Government. Fears were entertained of French intervention, and 13 Maori chiefs were petitioning for protection. Governor Darling suggested appointing a political agent to curb the conduct of visiting ships' crews and round up runaway convicts. Lord Goderich, Secretary of State, adopted Darling's idea but passed over his nominee, Captain Sturt, and offered the job to Busby, on conditions. The office was experimental; acceptance would carry no claim to pension or future employment. Nevertheless Busby accepted it optimistically. Before leaving Europe, he made another tour of France and Spain collecting vine cuttings, which he later distributed in New South Wales, South Australia, and New Zealand, thus establishing his claim to be the pioneer viticulturalist in the Southern Hemisphere. He returned to Sydney in 1832, and in the same year he married Miss Agnes Dow.

British intervention in New Zealand at this stage was of the most cautious, frugal sort, involving no assertion of sovereignty and no cost to the Treasury, for the expenses were charged on New South Wales. Lord Goderich had contemplated supporting Busby with a small body of troops, stationing a warship at New Zealand, and giving him magisterial powers, but none of these things was ever done. He was expected to exercise a moral influence over captains and crews, runaway convicts, beachcombers, settlers, traders, and cannibal Maoris, solely by virtue of his powers of personal persuasion and the dignity of his Vice-Consul's uniform. At Sydney, the new Governor, Sir Richard Bourke, had no faith in his mission; his Council made parsimony its watchword. Busby was supplied with a prefabricated small two-roomed cottage, but he had to pay the freight to New Zealand out of his own pocket and buy the covering and lining timber as well as the land on which to build it. He was even charged 30s. a day for his accommodation on HMS Imogene on passage to New Zealand.

He landed at the Bay of Islands on 10 May 1833, and six days later he met 22 leading chiefs at Paihia, read them King William IV's message, and announced that he had come to help them to become “a rich and wise people like the people of Great Britain”. But the Maoris showed little disposition to cease their tribal wars, and paid less heed to Busby than to the missionaries. Bourke refused him the money to form a native police force, so ships' captains continued to make their own arrangements with the chiefs for apprehending deserters. Settlers were disgusted that he had no legal authority to settle their disputes.

Busby bought land at Waitangi, a mile or so north of Paihia, built his miniature residency, and brought his young wife over to join him (August 1833). His first constructive political effort was to give the northern chiefs a flag (20 March 1834), so that New Zealand built ships might be registered and protected from seizure by customs officials abroad. He hoped that the flag would bring into existence a Maori federation with “an established government” capable of orderly judicial and political action. A month later (30 April), the residency was attacked, Busby slightly wounded, and his store ransacked. The settlers angrily demanded that the outrage be punished; the missionaries intervened, but no redress was forthcoming till December when HMS Alligator visited the bay. Then Titore and other chiefs produced a Maori called Rete as the culprit, banished him, and ceded a piece of land at Puketona to King William as compensation for the insult. Rete nevertheless continued to hang around and make a nuisance of himself. Busby complained that he was “the least protected of any individual possessing property … in New Zealand”, and asked for £250 a year to engage two constables. Bourke refused, considering that Busby was a failure, and the Colonial Office contemplated his removal (1835). Instead, they appointed Lieutenant T. McDonnell, R.N., a Hokianga timber merchant, as additional Resident (unpaid). The two Residents promptly quarrelled over a proposal to ban the sale of spirits, Busby maintaining that regulations made by the settlers were ultra vires and could not be enforced without causing riots. Dual authority caused endless friction till McDonnell resigned (July 1836).

Then came Baron de Thierry's startling announcement that he was coming to New Zealand with ships, arms, property, and hundreds of followers to set up his own government and rescue the country from degradation. To this paper bombshell Busby responded valiantly. Within 36 hours he called a meeting of 35 chiefs at Waitangi (28 October 1835), and persuaded them to repudiate de Thierry's land claims and sign a Declaration of Independence in the name of the Confederation of Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand. Hopefully, he envisaged the creation, under British protection, of an effective native government exercising exclusive legislative powers, and he proposed erecting a wooden Parliament building at Waitangi to accommodate the legislators. By treaty, Great Britain might obtain trade concessions and the right to levy shipping duties, appoint magistrates, maintain troops, and exercise all other powers necessary to protect and regulate the European settlers. Bourke ridiculed the whole idea, called it premature and imprudent to vest legislative powers in the chiefs, and snubbed Busby by commanding him to recognise McDonnell's regulations concerning ardent spirits.

Poor Busby was nonplussed. When Lord Glenelg suggested that he should travel about the country more, he replied that he could not leave Waitangi without exposing his family to danger. When settlers complained of his inaction, he answered that his moral authority should not be put to the test of every petty squabble—“its strength, in a degree, consists in its non-exertion”. Even the missionaries who had helped him in the early days became estranged, and for a time he was not on speaking terms with Henry Williams, though he attended his church at Paihia. He complained sadly, but with some justification, that the Government did nothing for him—“The Governor's policy … has been concentrated upon one object … to get rid of me.” Matters grew worse in 1836. Disputes about land sales caused war between two powerful divisions of the northern Maoris. Busby's efforts at mediation were as fruitless as his appeals for armed assistance. In despair, he wrote that his office was “in fact in abeyance” and asked leave to go to England to put the case to the Colonial Office, but this was refused. Another native war broke out at Tauranga, and Maketu was pillaged; the schooner Industry was plundered at Hokianga (December 1836); Titore and Pomare fought each other at the Bay of Islands (April 1837). Busby could do nothing about such things. “What is wanted,” he reported (June 1837), “is a paramount authority supported by a force adequate to secure the efficiency of its measures,” and he renewed his proposals for the recognition of an independent federal Maori state in treaty with Great Britain as protective power. “They cannot, I think,” he wrote to his brother, “adopt my plan without leaving me to conduct it.”

He was deluding himself. Sir Geo. Gipps, who replaced Bourke (December 1837), had a poor opinion of Busby, and Busby (who called Gipps “a one-eyed Whig”) knew it. “We shall get no favours from Gipps,” he told his family, “or from any Whig. They have an instinctive hatred of honest men – as much so as their father the devil.” Party politics apart, Busby had little claim to promotion. His record of accomplishment in five years was unimpressive – only a file of plaintive dispatches, a broken set of shipping returns, and one or two isolated cases of active intervention. He once sent a housebreaker, Doyle, to Sydney for trial; and he had presided over a mixed tribunal which condemned a Maori slave, Kite, to death for the murder of Henry Biddle (May 1838), an episode on which Gipps drily commented, “Justice independently of law is a rather dangerous principle.” The means of doing more had been denied him, but now that the British Government was contemplating a more decisive policy, Busby was passed over without thanks.

Captain Hobson visited New Zealand in 1837 and recommended establishing British authority by treaty and governing the European settlements on a “factory” system adapted from the East India Company's scheme. Busby criticised this proposal and pointed out the impossibility of collecting all the “pig and potato merchants”, sawyers, flax gatherers, whalers, and farmers into “factories”. Captain FitzRoy's evidence on the state of New Zealand, deposed about the same time, he denounced as “lies”. Despite his representations, he was coldly informed that his services would cease on the arrival of Hobson as prospective Lieutenant-Governor. Though disappointed, Busby loyally assisted Hobson in drafting the Treaty of Waitangi and securing its acceptance, and Hobson handsomely recognised his cooperativeness.

To provide for his growing family, Busby had acquired more land and embarked upon farming and trading. By 1838, he had imported several hundred sheep and two bullocks, and was growing grapes and making wine at Waitangi, besides having extensive vegetable gardens, potato fields, and a nursery of forest trees. In 1839–40 he made further land purchases at Te Puke (near Waitangi), Waimate, Ngunguru, and Whangarei, meaning to increase his flocks of sheep, breed cattle, grow tobacco, and sell timber. He also laid out the township of Victoria at Waitangi, and offered lots to incoming settlers. In June 1839 he valued his property at £5,000; a year later, at £20,000. But his ventures were jeopardised by Hobson's proclamation that all land purchases made before January 1840 must be submitted to commissioners, and by Gipps's ordinance limiting awards to 2,560 acres, except in special cases. Busby went to Sydney to assert the validity of purchases made prior to the Treaty of Waitangi, but he had no case in law, and eventually, instead of some 10,000 acres which he claimed at the Bay of Islands, he was granted 2,090 acres.

His Whangarei and Ngunguru claims (about 90,000 acres) were disputed for 30 years. Busby held deeds of sale from the Maoris, but the Government withheld grants and tried to induce the Maoris to resell the land to the Crown. When Poukoura refused because the land was Busby's, Grey's agent Johnson induced a lesser chief to accept £200 for it. The older chiefs made him return the money, and the incident nearly led to a tribal war. Nevertheless, the Government persisted and eventually got Tirarau to sell the land to the Crown by telling him that Busby had been compensated, which was untrue. By this time, Busby's affairs were in a sorry state. His town planning at Victoria failed, the timber trade collapsed in the depression of the early forties, he had to mortgage his Waitangi lands to meet his debts, and only the fortunate sale of a cargo of kauri gum to America prevented the banks from distraining upon his effects.

Despite financial worries and increasing deafness, he took an active part in public affairs. He represented the Bay of Islands in the Auckland Provincial Council from 1853 to 1855, and again from 1857 till 1863. He denounced Governor Grey as a person who “did not know the truth”, and by speech and pamphlet defended the rights of the old land purchasers and the pre-emption claimants. In 1861 he became editor of the Aucklander, and was noted for his fearless attacks on the Government. He once called Governor Gore Browne “the embodiment of a negative”. But nothing he touched succeeded. His newspaper collapsed in 1863, and he was again bewildered by his debts. He continued to indulge in ruinous litigation over his Whangarei lands (1858, 1859, 1862), and on one occasion had the Governor, Sir George Grey, brought into court to produce a particular document. He went to England to plead his case in 1864, but the Colonial Office refused him audience. Eventually in 1868 he accepted arbitration, and to his astonishment was awarded £36,800 compensation in land scrip, plus the right to all of his Whangarei land that was still unsold. The Auckland Superintendent impeded this award and twice took it to appeal, leaving Busby in great distress. In 1870 he finally received £23,000 cash compensation, having spent nearly £14,000 in legal costs.

In 1871 he journeyed to England for an eye operation, but died of a chill (15 July). His wife survived him till 1889.

by James Rutherford, M.A.(DURHAM), PH.D.(MICH.) (1906–63), Historian, Auckland.

  • Historical Records of Australia, Series I, Vols. XV–XXI, (1922–24)
  • The Pre-emption Land Question, Busby, J. (1850)
  • Busby of Waitangi, Ramsden, E. (1942)
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958).


James Rutherford, M.A.(DURHAM), PH.D.(MICH.) (1906–63), Historian, Auckland.