Story: Self-government and independence

Page 1. Crown colony

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Slow move to independence

New Zealand achieved self-government and independence from Britain through a series of small steps rather than a single large stride. New Zealand was a colony in the British Empire from 1840 to 1907 and a dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations from 1907 to 1945, and became a separate monarchical realm of the Commonwealth in 1953. Ties with the British Parliament were not severed finally until 1986, and connection with British courts continued until 2003.

Independence versus self-government

At the San Francisco conference that set up the United Nations in 1945, New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser said, ‘it is very difficult to distinguish between self-government and independence, for to the self-governing sovereign States of the British Commonwealth, self-government is independence and independence is self-government’.1

Yet, for all but the first six years after 1840, when it was a Crown colony (ruled personally by a governor), the country has had various forms of self-government. These progressively led to independence of action, even if the formal constitutional arrangements suggested otherwise. As historian J. C. Beaglehole noted in 1954, New Zealand ‘managed to act as an independent nation without being independent. It managed to act independently ... while deploring independence’.2 New Zealand has no Independence Day to celebrate, but rather had a subtle process of peaceful adoption, and in some cases pioneering, of institutions of democratic self-rule and sovereignty.

Legislative waste

Prominent Wellingtonian Charles Clifford was appointed to the Legislative Council to represent the southern settlements. He and the other non-official members protested the high administrative salaries which colonists had to fund, but were outvoted by the official members. In 1844 he concluded the meetings were an idle and useless formality and resigned.

Crown colony, 1840–1846

New Zealand’s early government was derived from British models. The Charter of 1840 vested the power of the British government in a governor. The governor was advised by the Executive Council, which comprised the colony’s leading officials: the colonial secretary, treasurer, attorney general and a senior military officer. There was also a Legislative Council which made laws, in line with British law, for ‘Peace, Order and good government’.3 It consisted of the governor, the executive council, and three justices of the peace. These latter three non-official members were selected by the governor and can be seen as the first representatives of the colonists. The councils met infrequently and the system was short-lived because of growing calls from settlers for self-government.

1846 constitution

In Britain an idealistic secretary of state for the colonies, Henry George Grey (Earl Grey), heard the calls. In 1846 he instructed New Zealand’s governor, George Grey (not a relative), to gradually implement a three-tiered – municipal, provincial and national – system of self-government in New Zealand.

  • At the lowest tier, the colony would be divided into boroughs with elected municipal (town) councils.
  • The provincial assemblies would comprise provincial governors, legislative councils and houses of representatives whose members would be elected by the municipal councils.
  • Nationally, there would be the General Assembly, which would be made up of the governor-in-chief, a Legislative Council which would set law, and a House of Representatives made up of representatives chosen from the provincial assemblies.

The new charter also authorised partition of the country into provincial and aboriginal districts, the latter to be ‘governed by such methods as are in use among native New Zealanders’.4

Self-government deferred

While Earl Grey commended the advantages of colonial self-government, he warned that it should not be used to suppress indigenous peoples. For his part, Governor George Grey was all too aware of such a possibility from his earlier experiences in Australia. Governing a colonial population of little more than 13,000 living amid some 100,000 Māori, Grey regarded the 1846 constitution as impractical. He had detected growing nationalist sentiment among northern Māori and believed implementing the scheme would exacerbate this feeling. He also believed it would allow Pākehā to exercise undue power over Māori. Grey said of Māori: ‘no people that I am acquainted with are less likely to sit down quietly under what they may regard as an injustice.’ While he did not think Māori were ‘ready to take a share in representative government’, he also thought it would not be long before they were ‘more fitted to do so.’5 He therefore secured a postponement of self-government for five years in 1848.

In the meantime, Grey divided the colony into two provinces: New Ulster and New Munster. These were headed by two lieutenant governors – Robert Wynyard and Edward Eyre respectively – and each province had an appointed executive and a nominated legislative council. However, before either government had made much headway, the British government passed the Constitution Act 1852, providing for a new system of government in New Zealand.

  1. New Zealand foreign policy: statements and documents 1943–1957. Wellington: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1972, p. 93. Back
  2. J. C. Beaglehole, ‘The development of New Zealand nationality.’ Journal of World History 2, no. 1 (1954), p. 107. Back
  3. W. David McIntyre, and W. J. Gardner, eds, Speeches and documents on New Zealand History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 56. Back
  4. Speeches and documents on New Zealand History, p. 62. Back
  5. Speeches and documents on New Zealand History, pp. 63–65. Back
How to cite this page:

W. David McIntyre, 'Self-government and independence - Crown colony', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by W. David McIntyre, published 20 Jun 2012