The Treaty of Waitangi of 6 February 1840 was the climax to a long series of events which finally led the British Government with “extreme reluctance” to establish the sovereignty of the Crown over the islands of New Zealand. In his first voyage to New Zealand in 1769–70, Cook had taken possession of the country in the name of King George III, but nothing further came of it. By the end of the eighteenth century, when the first sealers and whalers were active in New Zealand waters and European settlement was already taking shape, the authorities at New South Wales kept an eye on the situation and endeavoured to impose some sort of authority over a country which, if not a British possession, could at least be regarded as a British protectorate of sorts. But the Colonial Office had no desire to intervene in New Zealand affairs and was anxious to leave it as a field for missionary enterprise free from the problems of large-scale white settlement. Indeed, the Colonial Office went so far as to adopt the subterfuge of treating New Zealand as a substantive State, joined to Great Britain by ties of “friendship and alliance”, even though the Maoris had not even the rudiments of a national government and were certainly without a supreme authority capable of negotiating with foreign powers. Meanwhile the unauthorised settlement of the country by Europeans continued in a most haphazard and unsatisfactory manner, with the result that, despite British repudiation of any claims to sovereignty, the Government decided to appoint James Busby as British Resident at the Bay of Islands. He arrived there in 1833. The appointment was a diplomatic farce, for Busby had not the slightest means at his disposal to curb internal anarchy and impose his authority over the growing white communities which by the late thirties were scattered throughout both islands. Confronted with a most serious internal situation, the powerful missionary societies changed their ground and now began to press for official intervention, especially as Edward Gibbon Wakefield'sNew Zealand Company was busy planning the systematic colonisation of the country. There was the further fear that a French colonising company might also be in the field. Hence, in December 1838 the long period of official inertia ended with the decision to appoint an officer to New Zealand “invested with the character and powers of British Consul”. The choice fell on Captain William Hobson who had visited the Bay of Islands in 1837 in HMS Rattlesnake. According to his instructions, Hobson was to negotiate with the chiefs as if they themselves constituted an independent government. In effect, if sovereignty were to be extended over part, or the whole of New Zealand, the British Government held that it must come from a treaty based on the free will and consent of the Maori people, and not from any right of discovery, occupation, or conquest.
But before Hobson could set out, some decision had to be reached as to the manner whereby the territory, if ceded, might be administered. In May 1839 the Law Officers of the Crown ruled that it would be lawful for the Crown to annex to the Colony of New South Wales any territory so ceded; furthermore, that the legislative authority of the Governor and Council of New South Wales could be extended to the settlements of New Zealand as soon as they were ceded. Thereupon the Commission to Governor Sir George Gipps was altered and enlarged, and he was reconstituted and reappointed Governor in Chief over the Colony of New South Wales, including any territory which might be acquired by the Crown in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the drafting of Hobson's instructions was under way. He was solemnly warned against asserting the sovereignty of Great Britain unless “the free and intelligent consent of the natives, expressed according to their established usages”, had been obtained. Equally important was the injunction, directed against “land sharking” and the grandiose schemes of the New Zealand Company, that no lands should be ceded except to the Crown. Furthermore, any lands ceded to the Crown for purposes of settlement were to be restricted to such areas as the natives could alienate, “without distress or serious inconvenience to themselves”.
On 25 August 1839 Hobson sailed from England in HMS Druid. He reached Sydney on 24 December and at once began discussions with Gipps on the all-important question of New Zealand sovereignty, and the problems arising from the irregular land purchases made by Sydney speculators, which had gone on in a fantastic manner. Accordingly, on 19 January 1840, the day following Hobson's departure for New Zealand in HMS Herald, Gipps issued three proclamations dated 14 January. The first extended his jurisdiction to such territory in New Zealand as might be acquired in sovereignty. The second declared that the oaths of office had been administered to Hobson as Lieutenant-Governor of whatever territory might be ceded. The third stated that no title to land purchased henceforth would be recognised unless derived from the Crown, and that commissioners would be appointed to investigate past purchases.
Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands on the morning of 29 January. On the following afternoon he landed at Kororareka and read the Queen's commissions. He next read two proclamations which made it clear to the European community that a settled form of government would be established and that land titles would be investigated. Meanwhile, the northern chiefs had been summoned to Waitangi for the purpose of negotiating a treaty, the draft of which followed the general principles laid down in Hobson's instructions. On the morning of 5 February, when Hobson explained the terms of the treaty and its necessity, he began a debate which lasted throughout the day. Next morning the text of the treaty, which had been “translated” into Maori, was read again with much explanation and counter-discussion. In the end 45 chiefs signed the treaty by drawing their moko, the tattooed design on each face, upon the parchment. By this acceptance of the terms of the treaty, Hobson felt justified in concluding that such action “must be deemed a full and clear recognition of the sovereign-rights of Her Majesty over the northern parts of this land ….” This explains why he signed the treaty as “Consul and Lieutenant Governor” since the cession concerned the northern territory only. Thus the treaty signed on 6 February 1840 was but one of many steps in the “progressive acquisition of sovereignty”, for the cession of the whole of New Zealand, as Hobson realised, had to be won by instalments. With this in mind, Hobson was at the Waitemata on 21 February, but sudden illness ruined his plans. He therefore provided certain officials and missionaries with signed copies of the text of the treaty, and commissioned them to secure the signatures of the chiefs in districts hitherto uncanvassed. When, moreover, Major Thomas Bunbury arrived at the Bay of Islands from New South Wales in April 1840, he was sent as far south as Stewart Island in quest of signatures. But before Bunbury had time to return, Hobson forced the issue by proclaiming on 21 May 1840 that, by virtue of the rights and powers ceded to the Crown by the Treaty of Waitangi, the sovereignty of the Queen was established over the whole of the North Island. At the same time he proclaimed the authority of the Queen over the South Island and Stewart Island, on the grounds of discovery. These actions were subsequently approved by the British Government. When Hobson's dispatch of 25 May 1840, with its enclosures, reached London, the proclamations were published in the London Gazette of 2 October. The British title to sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand was then beyond legal question; it was an accomplished fact.