About the Author

Avatar photo

Michael Coote

Governor William Hobson – New Zealand’s Forgotten Hero

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

Founder of New Zealand and the City of Auckland 1840-2

There can be no doubt that British Royal Navy captain William Hobson (26 September 1792 – 10 September 1842) is the founding father both of New Zealand as an independent sovereign nation and of Auckland as its greatest city.  No other person has so singularly influenced the course of modern New Zealand history.  Hobson stood for equal rights in law and public policy, including for the mid 19th century Maori inhabitants of New Zealand, as is demonstrated unequivocally in Clause 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi by the enlightened words, “the same rights and duties of citizenship as the people of England”.  Yet in the 21st century Hobson seems to have become ungratefully forgotten by the very country that owes him so much.  If he is remembered at all, it is as the British Crown representative at the first signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840.  Otherwise he has vanished into obscurity.  This shameful neglect not only does Hobson’s memory a grave disservice, but is a slight on our common heritage as New Zealanders.

Born an Anglican Anglo-Irishman, Hobson was the first and final Lieutenant Governor (30 January 1840 – 2 May 1841) of New Zealand when it was part of the British Crown colony of New South Wales.  Thereafter he served as the first Governor (3 May 1841 – 10 September 1842) of the newly segregated British Crown colony of New Zealand until his death from his second stroke in Auckland, 16 days short of his 50th birthday.  Due to the colonial governmental transition that occurred under Hobson’s authority, New Zealand avoided remaining a dependency or becoming a state of Australia.  Within less than three years until dying in office, Hobson so decisively established and entrenched the rule of British sovereignty and law all over New Zealand as a politically and administratively integrated territory that no other foreign power subsequently attempted to challenge this achievement.  What Hobson first created in a remote British Crown colony was to evolve slowly into the independent sovereign state we are privileged to live in today. 

One thing Hobson needed in his newly minted British Crown colony was a suitable capital from which to govern.  He first settled on Okiato in the Bay of Islands, which he renamed Russell after the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord John Russell (later on the name was transferred to Kororareka).  However, Hobson soon identified the Waitemata Harbour as a more attractive site for his nascent capital, having taken advice on the matter and travelled there himself in late February 1840 to collect more Maori chiefly signatures for the Treaty of Waitangi.  Between that time and his eventual permanent move into his second, successor capital on 14 March 1841, Hobson micromanaged the project, returning several times to issue instructions on the spot, including picking the exact site and deciding its initial layout. 

Hobson gave his rising city-in-the-making the name Auckland, after his Royal Navy patron George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland, who as First Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty had bailed him out of unwanted early retirement from active naval service in December 1834.  Auckland was first publicly although unofficially used as the name of the new capital on 18 September 1840 at the raucous celebration of the Crown’s new purchase agreement for 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of settlement land from local Ngati Whatua Maoris.  According to a diary note by witness Sarah Mathew, wife of Surveyor General Felton Mathew, the name “Auckland” was written, along with the date of the land purchase, on the makeshift flag pole raised that day for the Union Jack to fly at Point Britomart.  Hobson did not live long enough to see Queen Victoria’s official assent to the capital’s name being published in the New Zealand Gazette on 26 November 1842.

Hobson’s unsung first journey to New Zealand in 1837

Hobson set out by ship from Port Jackson (now Sydney) to arrive at the Bay of Islands on 29 January 1840 in order to discharge official duties that would lead to the establishment of New Zealand as a British Crown colony.  The anniversary of this landfall is nowadays celebrated as Auckland Day, although few recollect its connection with Hobson. Yet it is often overlooked that Hobson was returning back to New Zealand when he made that fateful journey, as he had already visited previously in 1837, when he had stayed and travelled around for just over a month.  Arguably the 1837 sojourn was at least as important in its implications as when Hobson served as New Zealand’s head of state.   

Up until the late 1830s, the British government was not much interested in taking sovereignty over New Zealand, regarding the archipelago as belonging in the too-hard basket, not least because of the hostile and aggressive reputation its Maori inhabitants had earned abroad.  As a sop the hapless James Busby was appointed British Resident at the Bay of Islands in 1833, but the British government provided him with no means to exercise any authority.  Busby was reduced to cajoling people living around his locality to comply voluntarily with British law, but did manage to contrive the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand in October 1835.  It was Hobson who came up with the plan that made the British government change its mind about the viability of colonisation of New Zealand, although the feckless Busby provided the pretext.

In early 1837 Busby alerted the New South Wales Governor Richard Bourke of brewing Maori intertribal warfare that could threaten British subjects.  Hobson happened to be in Australia at the time as the captain of HMS Rattlesnake, having been sent there in 1836 to perform naval duties for the colonial government (his services as a marine surveyor being commemorated by the name of Hobsons Bay in Port Philip, Victoria).  At Bourke’s orders, Hobson was despatched on the Rattlesnake to investigate Busby’s report.  Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands on May 26 1837 and, finding no trouble,  thereafter travelled to other parts of New Zealand, interviewing those he met along the way before returning to the Bay of Islands on 30 June, 1837. 

Hobson was inspired by what he had discovered.  He subsequently wrote an expert report proposing to the British government that it should annex New Zealand, implement a British Crown treaty with Maori tribes to secure land holdings, and establish thereon a New Zealand-based entity akin to the British East India Company.  Like the similarly chartered Hudson’s Bay Company of Canada, the British East India Company had started out as a private joint-stockholding capitalist venture managing monopolistic trading entrepots or “factories” that dealt commercially with natives and settlers.  Such an initial business foothold had proven adaptable to base and project British colonial power. 

Hobson had hit upon a colonisation solution for New Zealand that the British government could recognise as having worked lucratively elsewhere with minimal risk and commitment upon its own part.  Moreover, he was Johnny-on-the-spot when a candidate was sought to lead the project.  Hobson was duly appointed British Consul to New Zealand and Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales over July/August 1839.   Correspondingly, in 1839 the successor Governor of New South Wales, George Gipps, was issued letters patent appointing him as Governor of New Zealand, making Hobson his subordinate.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Hobson’s personal connections to New Zealand

In the 1820s Hobson was assigned to active naval service combating piracy in the West Indies, where he caught yellow fever three times and was left with a propensity to suffer recurrent headaches.  When visiting Nassau in the Bahamas he met Eliza Elliott (born 1811), daughter of a Scots West Indian merchant, and they married in December 1827.   Hobson left with Eliza and her mother for England in mid 1828 when his active naval command in the West Indies ended.  He and his wife had a successful and happy marriage that produced four daughters and one son.  

Hobson’s family came over from Port Jackson to join him at the Bay of Islands on 16 April 1840.  At the time Hobson was at Waimate North recovering from his first stroke, which he had suffered at Waitemata Harbour on 1 March 1840 and had initially impaired his speech and right side movement. He was to remain in generally poor health until his death from a second stroke two and a half years later.  The family moved with Hobson to reside at the new official capital at Auckland on 14 March 1841.  After Hobson died in September 1842, his widow Eliza stayed on for another nine months until June 1843 before leaving Auckland to return with the children back to England, where she lived in Stoke, Devonshire, until her own death in 1876 at age 65.  Before she left New Zealand, a remembrance album of her time in the colony, with texts in English and Maori, was presented to her by appreciative friends.  Copies are still available published as Mrs Hobson’s Album.

Hobson lies buried in the Anglican section of Auckland’s Symonds Street Cemetery, where his grave can still be found in good order today.  The Maori population of Auckland gave Hobson much respect at his funeral.  The tradition of ceremonially marking his death anniversary continued at least until the mid 1960s, as is evidenced in Auckland City Council’s guide brochure “Symonds Street Cemetery – Hobson’s Walk”, wherein it shows a photograph entitled, “Ngati Whatua elder Te Hikoi Paora delivering a speech in 1965 at the annual commemoration of Hobson’s death.”  The tradition has been discontinued, but at least some aspects of it should be revived, even if informally, to give Hobson his due as founding father of Auckland and New Zealand.

Auckland’s original settlement land: gift or purchase?

A contentious issue concerning Hobson’s involvement in early Auckland is whether the land the capital was built on was gifted by local Ngati Whatua Maoris or bought from them.  When Hobson came to New Zealand in 1840 to establish British sovereignty, he was working under strict instructions, issued on 14 August 1839 by Lord Normanby, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to obtain land from Maoris under “fair and equal contracts” that he would then on-sell to settlers at a profit to fund colonial operations. He was also an honest and upright person who could not consider taking gifts of great value from Maoris such as land.  On 18 September 1840, as noted previously, a provisional agreement was reached for Ngati Whatua Maoris to sell 3,000 acres of what was then poor quality, undeveloped land to the British Crown for the establishment of Auckland.  On 20 October 1840 the deed of purchase, including the list of consideration items, was executed by Ngati Whatua Orakei chiefs with Hobson in attendance.  It seems indubitable that Auckland’s land was sold by the local Maoris and bought by the British Crown.

The notion that the original Auckland land was gifted stems from an embassy of Ngati Whatua chiefs from Orakei on the Waitemata Harbour arriving at the Bay of Islands in February 1840 shortly after the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed.  These chiefs already had their sights on Hobson setting up his capital in their tribal territory in order to gain British protection from the fearsome Northern Ngapuhi tribe, which had come down under ravenously cruel warlord Hongi Hika and killed and cannibalized their tribe almost to the point of extinction during the early phase of the Musket Wars in the 1820s.  In exchange for Hobson living among them, the Ngati Whatua were willing to gift land for his colony.  In any event, as described, Hobson did move his capital down south from Russell and onto Ngati Whatua tribal territory in order to establish Auckland, but he arranged for the land to be bought fair and square and for the title to be indefeasibly transferred on a willing buyer, willing seller basis, and the Maoris of the time he dealt with knew that.

Yet today, at several points of commemoration around inner Auckland city where the land transfer is mentioned (Hobson is usually omitted), including those funded by Auckland Council or its related entities, we find statements that Ngati Whatua Maoris gifted the land for Auckland to be built on, and even that Hobson and the British colonists were under their tribal protection.  It is regrettable that these palpable falsehoods are perpetrated in this dishonest way, and worse, at ratepayer expense.  It dishonours Hobson, and the shared history of Aucklanders and New Zealanders, including the forebears of today’s Ngati Whatua who dealt with Hobson, that this mendacity should be allowed to stand.

It is notable that the Ngati Whatua Orakei Claims Settlement Act 2012 only dares state the following:

(10) The Crown acknowledges that Ngati Whatua Orakei endeavoured to establish a relationship with the Crown from 1840 and sought to strengthen this relationship, in part, by transferring lands for settlement purposes. These lands have contributed to the development of New Zealand and Auckland in particular. The Crown also acknowledges that Ngati Whatua sought to strengthen the relationship by expressing loyalty to the Crown.”

The word “transferring” in the Act’s context is ambiguous.  It could mean simply the legal notion of title transfer, or it could encompass gifting, or sale and purchase.  But it is telling that the acknowledgement stops short at stating “gifting” outright, which is as it should be.  The use of gifting to describe the original land transaction for Auckland should be struck out of public commemorative signage and plaques and replaced with truthful references to selling.

Reviving Hobson’s commemoration

September this year will mark 177 years since Hobson, the founder of Auckland and father of modern New Zealand, died in the city he created. At least up until 1965 his death anniversary was officially commemorated but the practice seems to have fallen into abeyance.  

Auckland City Early Heritage Group seeks to revive the tradition of showing respect to the Governor by convening at his grave site and undertaking a guided walk through the surrounding cemetery. The free upcoming informal event will take place on the morning of Saturday, 14 September 2019. Due to parking logistics, we will first meet up at a nearby location at 10 am and walk to the site (total duration of the event approximately 1 hour). If you would like to participate, please email Michael Coote for further details: AucklandEarlyHeritage@gmail.com

To join the conversation with Auckland City Early Heritage Group, please like our social media page here or search “Auckland City Early Heritage” on Facebook.