Story: Colonial and provincial government

Page 1. The crown colony, 1840 to 1852

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In 1840, when New Zealand became a British colony, colonial government was already an established practice for the British Empire. Colonies were British territories ruled by a governor, appointed by the Colonial Office in London. In 1840 there were 40 colonies – four in British North America, three in Australia, the Cape Colony and Natal in South Africa, and numerous islands and parts of islands in the West Indies and elsewhere.

New South Wales and New Zealand

At first, in 1839, Britain included New Zealand in the colony of New South Wales and from 16 June 1840 New South Wales laws were deemed to operate in New Zealand. However, this was a transitional arrangement and in November 1840 New Zealand became a separate colony.

The governor ruled with the aid of an executive and a legislative council (the former the forerunner of cabinet, the latter of Parliament). The principal government officials sat on the executive council, and officials plus some prominent men of affairs sat on the legislative council. Early governors were British military or naval officers.

Debate over colonies

To many Britons colonies were an unnecessary cost, although some argued their value for defence and as ‘outdoor prisons’ – the role of the Australian settlements.

From the 1820s colonial reformers, amongst them Edward Gibbon Wakefield, argued that colonies could be an asset to, not a drain on, the empire, provided their political economies were reorganised. For these reformers South Australia (which became a colony in 1836) and New Zealand were to be the models for ‘systematic colonisation’. The New Zealand Company was formed in London for that purpose.

Conflicts in New Zealand

The government was expected to protect Māori from outsiders as much as to govern British settlers. The colonial office was influenced by missionaries who feared the impact of untrammelled colonisation on Māori.

Colonial reformers, the New Zealand Company and settlers in New Zealand did not agree – they wanted colonisation to advance rapidly, and clashed with the Colonial Office and the administration in New Zealand.

The clash was exacerbated because the capital of the colony was in the upper North Island (at Auckland), close to the largest Māori populations, whereas the New Zealand Company settlements were in the middle of the country at Port Nicholson (Wellington) and Tasman Bay (Nelson).

Colonial government, settlers and Māori

The colonial government was expected to finance itself from local revenues, but these were modest. It could only enforce laws in and near the European settlements.

In June 1843, 22 Nelson settlers were killed in an altercation with Māori at Tuamarina, near present-day Blenheim. New Zealand Company settlers became enraged now not by the oppression of colonial government but by its absence, and in particular by the reluctance of Governor Robert FitzRoy to pursue those whom they considered to be the perpetrators.

FitzRoy was recalled by the Colonial Office, which then gave more money and soldiers to the new governor, George Grey. Grey rapidly established his authority around Cook Strait, while leaving other unruly areas, for instance, Northland, to one side.

Why ‘provinces’?

The choice of ‘province’ emphasised that these entities were not thought of as self-contained or self-governing entities, but as part of a larger whole. The term had earlier been used to describe French Quebec, annexed by Britain in 1763. ‘Province’ was also used of some conquered territories in India and described the four principal divisions of Ireland – Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. These precedents may have prompted the use of the term in New Zealand.

Constitutional change

The crown-colony regime – where New Zealand was ruled by a non-elected governor – was intended to be transitional. The New Zealand Constitution Act 1846 replaced the governor and unelected executive and legislative councils with a colonial assembly, two provinces that each had an assembly, and town councils. However, Governor Grey convinced the Colonial Office in London to delay establishment of the assemblies for five years to give the government an opportunity to assimilate Māori – the majority of the population – to the colonial order.

The establishment of the two provinces – New Munster (Wellington and the South Island) and New Ulster (the rest of the North Island) – did go ahead, with their own lieutenant governors and executive and legislative councils for the settler population. However, the legislative council for New Ulster never met and New Munster’s met only once, in 1849. The settlers were not happy and constitutional associations demanding self-government thrived in the New Zealand Company settlements.

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 established the Legislative Council, an upper house to which members were appointed; the House of Representatives, a lower house with elected representatives; and six provinces. With the act’s implementation in 1853–54 the crown colony came to an end.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Colonial and provincial government - The crown colony, 1840 to 1852', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/colonial-and-provincial-government/page-1 (accessed 26 July 2017)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 20 Jun 2012