In the years immediately prior to the establishment of British sovereignty in New Zealand, its European population, which was scattered along the coast in tiny settlements, had an unenviable reputation for lawlessness. As early as 1813 the authorities at New South Wales had made a vain effort to bring law and order to the country, and pioneer missionaries, such as Samuel Marsden, worked hard for the cause of peace. In 1833 the appointment of James Busby as British Resident at the Bay of Islands gave promise of better things, but he had no effective means of upholding his position. It was left to the initiative of the Europeans to take steps to enforce law and order. At Kororareka in 1838 they formed an association consisting of a president and committee of management. The thirteenth article of its code ordered each member to provide himself with a good musket, a bayonet, a brace of pistols, a cutlass, and some 60 rounds of ball cartridge.
This was the position when Captain William Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands in late January 1840 armed with the commission of British Consul and with authority to negotiate with the Maoris a treaty (Waitangi) for the cession of sovereignty to the Crown. Hobson had no military force to uphold his authority; all that Gipps, the Governor of New South Wales, could do was to provide him with a sergeant and four troopers of the mounted police. Before he left England, however, Hobson had been told that it might be advisable to raise a militia or constitute a police force. But Hobson had his hands full with other matters. Although from 1840 magistrates had exercised their powers to appoint selected citizens as policemen, it was not until 9 October 1846 that an ordinance for the establishment and maintenance of a constabulary force was passed. In it the police force was described as “a sufficient number of fit and able men who would serve as an ‘armed force’ for preserving the peace and preventing robberies and other felonies and apprehending offenders against the peace”.