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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.


HOBSON, William


Second Governor of New Zealand.

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

William Hobson was born at Waterford, Ireland, on 26 September 1793, the son of Samuel Hobson (B.A., Dublin, 1772), assistant barrister for the County of Cork, and Martha, née Jones. They had five sons and three daughters, William being the third son. He evidently had a strict upbringing, for in later life he described his mother as “a harsh, proud woman, and very severe on her children”, though his father was “a pattern of benevolence”. He had little home life, however, and before he had reached the age of 10, was sent to sea in the frigate La Virginie, which he joined on 25 August 1803 with the rank of volunteer, second class. Hobson was on the North Sea station until August 1804; then, after a short period ashore, was in the West Indies in the frigate Dart. He passed as midshipman in April 1806 and had another period of service in the North Sea and Channel, gaining the rank of master's mate in November 1811. He was back on the West Indies and North America station until November 1813, and took part in varied actions and operations, mainly with small craft. In April 1812 when he was promoted to acting lieutenant, he had completed an arduous term at sea of 13 years without leave.

In November 1813 Hobson was appointed lieutenant to the sloop Peruvian, and for the next 10 years served in the America, Channel, Mediterranean, and West Indies stations. His reputation was such that, when Commodore Sir E. Owen handed over the Jamaica command to Sir Laurence Halsted in late 1823, he paid tribute to Hobson “as an officer who to the most persevering zeal unites discretion and sound judgment”. Hobson was promoted to commander on 18 March 1824, and in the following January was commissioned to the sloop Ferret. He again saw service in the West Indies, where he had several small vessels under his command in the arduous work of crushing piracy in Cuban waters. Yellow fever was an added hazard and Hobson himself suffered from three serious attacks during his many years on the station. At the beginning of 1826 he transferred to the Scylla, a large sloop, and was paid off in July 1828.

During this period Hobson made frequent visits to Nassau, where he met Eliza, only daughter of a Scottish West Indian merchant, Robert Wear Elliott. They were married at Nassau on 17 December 1827 and, following Hobson's temporary retirement, set up home at Plymouth. Eliza, their first daughter, was born there in March 1830.

It was not until 1834 that through the influence of Lord Auckland, First Lord of the Admiralty, Hobson was posted to the frigate Rattlesnake, under orders to join the flag of Admiral Sir T. Bladen Capel in the East Indies. Two years later he was detached from the command in order to serve under Sir Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales. The Rattlesnake arrived at Port Jackson on 23 August 1836 and a month later was at Port Phillip, Victoria, where a new colony was being established. Hobson and his officers carried out a survey of the harbour “in the most thorough manner” and they also assisted in laying out the town of Melbourne. The work at Port Phillip had scarcely been completed when Bourke received word from James Busby, the British Resident in New Zealand, that tribal warfare at the Bay of Islands was threatening the lives and possessions of British subjects living there. Bourke sent Hobson in the Rattlesnake to the scene under orders to protect British settlers and shipping. He was also to report on Maori-Pakeha relations. Hobson recommended the setting up of trading factories on the East India Company's model, with limited spheres of British jurisdiction. Bourke thought well of the suggestions and referred them to the Colonial Office, which was becoming involved, though reluctantly, in New Zealand affairs.

By late 1837 Hobson was back on the East Indies station and cruising in the Bay of Bengal. He was then ordered home and paid off, with few prospects ahead of him. But the trend of events in New Zealand forced the British Government to take positive action, with the result that in December 1838 it was decided to appoint an officer to that country “invested with the character and powers of British Consul”. The choice fell on Hobson who, however, was not anxious to commit himself and, until mid-February 1839, was hoping to obtain command of a flagship. Following his acceptance he was told that he would go to New Zealand as consul, with power to negotiate with the chiefs for a cession of sovereignty over part, or all, of their territory. Within such limits he would have the rank of Lieutenant-Governor, subject to the over-ruling authority of the Governor of New South Wales. He was solemnly warned that the Maori title to the soil and sovereignty of the country was indisputable and that, where cession had been granted, the Crown's right of pre-emption must be upheld. He would not be provided with a military force or be permitted to raise a militia. Essentially he would have to be guided by his own judgment, supported by what advice he might receive from Sir George Gipps, the Governor of New South Wales.

On 25 August 1839 Hobson sailed from England with his wife and family in HMS Druid. He reached Sydney on 24 December and at once began discussions with Gipps on the wisest course to follow. On 10 January 1840 Hobson was interviewed by a number of Sydney merchants and land speculators who were anxious to find out what policy the Government favoured. Although Hobson was cautious in reply, the impression grew that British sovereignty would be established over the whole of New Zealand. Five days later a congratulatory address was presented to “His Excellency Captain Hobson R.N., Lieutenant-Governor of the British Colony about to be established in New Zealand”. His talks with Gipps concluded, Hobson sailed in HMS Herald (Captain Joseph Nias) for the Bay of Islands. He arrived there on 29 January and, on the following afternoon, landed at Kororareka, where he read the Queen's commissions extending the boundaries of New South Wales and appointing him Lieutenant-Governor “in and over any territory which is or may be acquired in sovereignty”. With the assistance of Busby, Henry Williams, and other leading members of the Church Missionary Society, he summoned the northern chiefs to meet him at Waitangi for the purpose of negotiating a treaty. The discussions began on 5 February when Hobson explained the terms of the treaty and its necessity; next day, after further argument and explanation, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

Following this success Hobson intended to arrange similar meetings throughout the country, but on 1 March 1840 he collapsed from a paralytic stroke. As soon as Gipps learnt of this he ordered Major Thomas Bunbury to New Zealand with a detachment of 80 troops. Bunbury arrived on 16 April to find Hobson greatly improved in health. Bunbury therefore went south in the Herald as far as Stewart Island collecting signatures for the Treaty and formally proclaiming sovereignty over the country.

Meanwhile Hobson was grappling with administrative problems. Gipps had provided him with a number of officials who, though probably the best available, were not impressive by any standard. On their advice he bought from James R. Clendon some property at Okiato, Russell, as a temporary seat of Government. Though Hobson erred only in judgment, there was more than a hint of jobbery about the transaction and he was later sharply reprimanded by the Colonial Office for his part in the proceedings. He also erred in his handling of an unusual situation which had developed at the New Zealand Company's settlement at Port Nicholson (Wellington) where a “Council” had been established as a mode of government. When news of this experiment in self-government reached the Bay of Islands, Hobson acted impulsively and sent off a detachment of troops to suppress the “republic”, under the command of Willoughby Shorthand who proved to be a tactless deputy. To add to Hobson's unpopularity in the south he refused to move the seat of government to Cook Strait, where there was a rapidly growing European population, but chose rather to be guided by Henry Williams, who urged the claims of the Waitemata. In September 1840 the land was purchased and, in the following February, the Government moved its headquarters to the new capital, Auckland. A further source of irritation was the land question. The company was pressing for a new settlement, but when Nelson was at length selected, there was not enough agricultural land available. Even in the north there was trouble, for Gipps's Land Regulations had set a stringent limit on holdings, much to the disgust of a powerful group of pre-Waitangi settlers. Nor did the situation improve in May 1841, when Hobson was sworn in as Governor of New Zealand and head of his own Legislative Council. Although his shaky administration received valuable support in September when William Swainson and William Martin arrived on the scene as Attorney-General and Chief Justice respectively, the hostility of the southern settlements persisted, especially after the failure of the Municipal Corporations Ordinance.

As if Hobson, in his uncertain state of health, had not enough to worry about, the native problem was causing great concern. Many of the tribes had not accepted the Treaty of Waitangi and, of those that had, few appreciated what sovereignty meant. As Hobson had no military force to support his authority, his relationship with the Maori people rested on a basis of mutual good will. In 1842, for instance, when a Ngati Maru chief, Taraia, had killed and eaten the victims of his raid on Tauranga, Hobson, when he tried to interfere, was bluntly snubbed. “With the Governor is the settling of pakeha affairs”, he was told; “It is with us to adjust Maori matters”. Worse still, there was confusion in Hobson's own council on this issue, for Swainson and Martin held that, unless the Queen's authority were voluntarily acknowledged by the tribes, the Government had no right to attempt to impose upon them its legal code.

For the moment, however, finance was the stumbling block of the administration. Although Hobson had been strictly warned by the Colonial Office to keep a tight control over official expenditure, recurring bouts of illness compelled him to rely more and more upon his advisers who, in many instances, were broken reeds – or worse. Little was done to curb extravagance, the cost of “improvements” to Government House at Auckland being a case in point. The expenses of his civil establishment were also high, aggravated by injudicious land purchases. Meanwhile the revenue, which was derived mainly from customs duties and the sale of Crown lands, fell sharply away, the consequence being that from March 1842, and contrary to his instructions, Hobson drew unauthorised bills on Treasury in order to meet the current expenses of Government. It was a situation which would have taxed to the utmost a talented administrator. It was beyond Hobson's capacity and experience and he was now a spent force. The New Zealand Company seized the opportunity to attack the administration and, aided by its allies within and without the colony, pressed for Hobson's recall. Even at the Colonial Office there was a growing uneasiness which “the tone of anxiety and alarm” of Hobson's somewhat scrappy dispatches could not dispel, with the result that on 28 February 1843 it was decided that he be recalled. Hobson, however, was spared this ignominy, for he died at Auckland on 10 September 1842, survived by his wife (died 1876), one son, and four daughters.

As a Governor, Hobson never emerged from the shadows. His greatest moment was at the Treaty signing when the immediate future seemed full of promise for both races – and also for himself. Yet Hobson had many excellent qualities. Until illness gained the ascendancy, he was a man of sociable habits and a good host, with a faculty for making friends. He was deeply religious, had a high sense of duty and of justice, was honest in his dealings, and anxious to advance the interests of the Maori people. But the tragedy of his administration lies in the fact that New Zealand never saw the intrepid officer of the Napoleonic era. It seems strange that, after the first paralytic stroke which completed the work of destruction begun by yellow fever, Hobson should cling tenaciously to office, though it would appear he was encouraged in this course by some of his advisers who welcomed the opportunity to advance their own schemes. Hobson, in short, was not in command of the situation. For all that, he was jealous of his authority and resentful of opposition. He had spent the best years of his life at sea under a stern code of discipline; as a civil Governor he looked for an unquestioning obedience, even from members of his Legislative Council. And his nervous irritability was aggravated by the unfair attacks made on him by the New Zealand Company and by intemperate articles in the colonial press, all of which he ought properly to have ignored; instead, such criticism “kept him in perpetual fever”. Nevertheless, even if he had enjoyed good health it is doubtful whether his administration would have been successful. The policy evolved by the Colonial Office was impracticable and over-idealistic, and presupposed a state of affairs in New Zealand quite contrary to fact. It was Hobson's misfortune that the weakness of his administration obscured that of the Colonial Office. It was therefore left to his successor, the equally unfortunate Captain Robert FitzRoy, to demonstrate the folly of an unrealistic approach to the New Zealand problem.

by Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.

  • Captain William Hobson, R.N., Scholefield, G. H. (1934)
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958).


Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.