Story: History

Page 3. British sovereignty and settlement

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British intervention

In the 1830s the British government came under increasing pressure to curb lawlessness in New Zealand, to protect British traders, and to forestall the French, who also had imperial ambitions. The missionaries, for their part, wanted to protect Māori from the ill-effects of European settlement.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In 1833 James Busby was sent to the Bay of Islands as British Resident. At Busby’s instigation, northern chiefs adopted a flag in 1834 and signed a declaration of independence in 1835. Seven years after Busby’s arrival, at Waitangi on 6 February 1840, William Hobson, New Zealand’s first governor, invited assembled Māori chiefs to sign a treaty with the British Crown. The treaty was taken all round the country, as far south as Foveaux Strait, for signing by local chiefs, and eventually more than 500 signed.

Sovereignty and rights

Under the treaty, Māori ceded powers of government to Britain in return for the rights of British subjects and guaranteed possession of their lands and other ‘treasures’. In later years, differences of interpretation between the English and Māori texts complicated efforts to redress breaches of the treaty.

British sovereignty was proclaimed over New Zealand on the basis of Māori consent, though the South Island was initially claimed on the basis of discovery.

The ‘race’ for Akaroa

In the 19th century, the British and the French were rivals in the Pacific. The French had only minor interests in New Zealand, but the myth persists that the South Island only escaped being French because in the scramble to colonise Akaroa the British got there first. But by the time the French settlers and their naval escort reached New Zealand, the whole country was securely British. Lieutenant-Governor Hobson, learning the French were heading for Akaroa, did send Captain Stanley of the Britomart to demonstrate British sovereignty there. However, there was never any chance Cook Strait would become, like the English Channel, a sea passage separating English- and French-speaking regions.

European settlement begins

Even before the treaty had been signed, the New Zealand Company, inspired by the colonial promoter Edward Gibbon Wakefield, had despatched British settlers to Wellington. In the next two years, the company also founded Whanganui, Nelson and New Plymouth. Otago was founded in 1848 and Canterbury in 1850, both by New Zealand Company affiliates. Auckland, capital of the new Crown colony, grew independently.

European exploration

By the 1850s most of the interior of the North Island had been explored by Europeans, who were usually shown the way by Māori guides. New Zealand’s first Anglican bishop, George Selwyn, travelled widely. Much of the mountainous interior of the South Island was not explored until gold miners arrived in the 1860s.


When the British settlers sought self-government, the British Parliament passed the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852. This set up a central government with an elected House of Representatives, an appointed Legislative Council, and six (later 10) provincial governments. The settlers soon won the right to responsible government (by an executive supported by a majority in the elected assembly). But the governor, and through him the Colonial Office in London, retained control of ‘native’ and defence policy.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'History - British sovereignty and settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Apr 2020