Taming the frontier

Page 2 – New South Wales and New Zealand

The establishment of a British penal colony at Port Jackson (Sydney) in 1788 ensured that New Zealand would eventually come into contact with the British state. Sealers and whalers started operating in New Zealand in the last years of the 18th century. Over the next 50 years New Zealand became an economic and cultural outpost of New South Wales. Sydney’s merchant and commercial community took an increasing interest in affairs across the Tasman Sea. New Zealand also became part of a Pacific-wide trade system. A number of Māori men were exposed to the wider world as crew on ships operating between Port Jackson and the Bay of Islands.

Christian missionaries also began to take an interest in New Zealand. Samuel Marsden (the Chaplain to New South Wales) made his first visit to the Bay of Islands in 1814. He was supported by the New South Wales government in his efforts to establish a Church Missionary Society (CMS) presence in New Zealand.

Initial contact was largely confined to the Far North and parts of the ‘Deep South’. Most Māori living in the interior had little or no contact with Europeans before 1840.

Growing concerns

The governors of New South Wales saw New Zealand as within their sphere of influence. The activities of British subjects in New Zealand caused concern from time to time. The Elizabeth incident in 1830 was one example. Captain Stewart allowed his ship to be used by Ngāti Toa to attack Ngāi Tahu, several hundred of whom were killed or enslaved. Stewart and his crew escaped punishment. This incident highlighted the legal difficulties in extending the jurisdiction of New South Wales courts to New Zealand. Some missionaries and chiefs in the Bay of Islands had been made Justices of the Peace, but the British government decided that this was extra-legal. The New South Wales government believed that a stronger official presence in New Zealand was needed.

The humanitarians

New Zealand now came to the attention of a wider humanitarian movement which had expressed concerns about the impact of colonisation on indigenous people. This sought to provide the benefits of Christian and European civilisation without the negative effects that often came with colonisation.

The Colonial Office

The growth and administration of the British Empire was the concern of the Colonial Office, which from 1801 provided the secretary of state for war with advice on colonial policy and administered British colonies. The Colonial Office was chronically understaffed and poorly funded. In 1833 it had only 25 permanent staff.

James Stephen, an evangelical Christian and CMS committee member, was appointed as under-secretary in the Colonial Office in 1836. He became closely involved in British policy towards New Zealand. For Stephen, one of the purposes of the Empire was to protect indigenous people.

Humanitarians favoured official control to ensure such protection. In 1831 the CMS had helped 13 northern Māori chiefs petition William IV for protection and recognition of their special trade and missionary contacts with Britain. Concerns outlined in the petition included fear of takeover by another nation and their need for protection from lawless Europeans living in or visiting New Zealand.

The CMS began using its contacts in the upper echelons of British society to persuade the British government to take a more active role in New Zealand affairs. The trade in toi moko (tattooed heads) was of particular concern. European traders found a ready market for these among collectors and museums in Europe. The CMS urged the government to intervene to protect Māori from unscrupulous traders.

The main European point of contact with New Zealand was Kororāreka in the Bay of Islands, where the recreational activities of visiting seamen horrified prudish observers. But even if formal intervention might be desirable, the British Colonial Office argued, no single authority spoke on behalf of Māori. Britain could only negotiate with a sovereign nation. Furthermore, involvement in New Zealand would cost money.

There was no enthusiasm at the Colonial Office for the idea that Britain’s colonies should be increased or that they should be anything much more than a source of trade and a depository for paupers, convicts – or missionaries. … [M]ost of the ministers who held the post saw it either as a stage to higher things or were well-intentioned nonentities. Few had a sure grasp of colonial theory or issues.
Philip Temple, A sort of conscience, p. 130

The Aborigines Protection Society, founded in 1836, aimed to improve the situation of indigenous peoples throughout the British Empire. An 1837 Report from the Select Parliamentary Committee on Aborigines (British settlements) told a dismal story about the British impact on indigenous peoples. Men like Stephen wanted to avoid a similar outcome in New Zealand.

An official British Resident

In 1832 the agitation of the humanitarians bore fruit when the British government appointed James Busby as the official British Resident to New Zealand, a position equivalent to a consular officer. Busby arrived in New Zealand in May 1833.

Busby’s role was really to watch over British interests. With virtually no budget and no real authority, this was an impossible task. He was expected to apprehend criminals and escaped convicts and return them to New South Wales. Yet he had no police or other resources apart from periodic visits by a warship from the Royal Navy squadron based in Sydney. He was expected to organise Māori society, which had its own systems of authority and regulation, into something more amenable to British law. Seeing his lack of genuine authority, Māori called him ‘Man-o-war without guns’.

Busby had a poor relationship with both his political masters and some of the local missionaries. Governor Bourke of New South Wales had little time for Busby and rarely consulted him when deciding to take action in New Zealand. The Colonial Office in London looked forward to replacing Busby with someone more able.

How to cite this page

'New South Wales and New Zealand', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/taming-the-frontier/british-intervention, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 25-Mar-2014