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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.



1840-55 Early Problems

New Zealand's history as a British colony opens with five inglorious years, characterised by weak administration, bitter internal divisions, and insufficiently flexible policy. The first two Governors, Hobson, who died in 1842 after a lengthy illness, and Robert FitzRoy, well-intentioned but unstable, were surrounded by officials whose wisdom (and honesty in some cases) was not above question. Further, they were plagued by the importunities and unscrupulousness of the New Zealand Company in London and its settlers in Wellington, Nelson, New Plymouth, and Wanganui, districts which were all founded in the early 1840s. These governors, following their instructions, attempted to rule in the interests of the native race, and they had every reason to believe that settlement, as it was managed by the Company, would not be conducive to native well-being. Nevertheless, the Company settlements were a growing fact, and so demanded official attention other than mere hostility. All the early Governors, in fact, were faced by a dilemma: how to balance Maori with settler welfare. FitzRoy's infinitely abler successor, George Grey, found no lasting answer to a problem which was probably insoluble. Maori and settler could not but clash.

But while Hobson and FitzRoy were reviled by settlers, they did not enjoy any notable success with the Crown's new Maori subjects – it is unlikely, indeed, that many Maoris before 1846 would have acknowledged their subjection to the Queen. It is hard to say what the Maoris understood by the Treaty of Waitangi; it is unlikely that they realised that their independence was in any way infringed. From 1840 to 1845 few tribes took any notice of the government, and the government was without means to alter their disposition. For all the idealism of the Treaty, British rule depended upon armed force; governors who lacked it were powerless; the one who possessed it, Grey, enjoyed spectacular success. That, in addition, Hobson was ill and FitzRoy foolish, while Grey was both energetic and resourceful, merely heightened the contrast between the years before and after 1845.

The colony's troubles came to a head during FitzRoy's governorship. From Hobson's death in September 1842 until FitzRoy's arrival in December 1843, the colony was administered by the inept Willoughby Shortland; FitzRoy ruled for nearly two years, until his abrupt replacement by Grey in November 1845. Shortland's and FitzRoy's problems would have set back much abler men; to settler animosity and Maori independence was added economic depression. Revenue depended upon customs duties and land sales; depression made both dwindle to the point where the government faced bankruptcy and could not pay its own servants. FitzRoy tried to stimulate the economy by issuing debentures and making them legal tender, by freeing trade and replacing customs with direct taxation, and by stimulating land sales and settlement through a limited waiver of the Crown's right of pre-emption. These measures produced no relief – only the antipathy of settlers and the condemnation of the British Government.

At the same time native unrest became explosive close to centres of settlement, the Bay of Islands and the Cook Strait region. In June 1843, a clash occurred in the Wairau district between settlers from Nelson and the chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. Title to the land in question was disputed between the Company and the chiefs; the settlers' attempt to dislodge the Maoris showed that for the moment the tribes had the superior force. Twenty-two settlers, including Arthur Wakefield, were killed in a fight of their own making. The effect was considerable; in England the news of violence countered the Company's immigration propaganda; in Wellington and Nelson the settlers talked wildly, and unrealistically, of revenge. FitzRoy, in any case pro-Maori, condemned the settlers for their aggression and refused to take counter-measures. This was merely realistic, for he had no force at his disposal. But the manner of his refusal was impolitic; the settlers were further outraged, and the Maoris contemptuous alike of FitzRoy's weakness and his idealism.

Later in 1844 FitzRoy averted an outbreak in Taranaki by reversing an official award which would have given a large block of disputed land to the Company. But war was unavoidable in the far North, where two chiefs, Hone Heke and Kawiti, headed an uprising which brought the destruction of Kororareka in March 1845. Though economic causes played their part, the rising arose from fears for the security of tribal land and anger at the increasing numbers and arrogance of the settlers. The Governor was powerless; the fact that the rising did not become general in the north was due to the continued loyalty of rival chiefs, notably Waka Nene.

In the midst of these disasters, and stimulated by a flood of petitions from settlers and a debate in the House of Commons initiated by two “colonial reformers”, Joseph Somes and Charles Buller, the Colonial Office replaced FitzRoy with George Grey, fresh from his accomplishments in South Australia. The plight of the colony was indeed grave. The authority of the Crown was hardly acknowledged among Maoris, and among settlers the colonial government was subjected to calumny and obstruction. None of the bright dreams with which the Company had set about the colonisation of New Zealand had been realised; in the place of the envisaged stable society of squires, professional men, and labourers based upon agriculture, industry, and commerce, guided by an organisation exercising the powers of the Crown, there existed a handful of impoverished settlements, lacking any significant economic enterprise, in no way resembling the “epitome” of English society planned by Wakefield, hemmed in by hostile tribes, and short of land due alike to government limitations and Company cupidity, and at serious odds with the Colonial Office in London and the government at Auckland.