James Busby 1832
portrait by J Read
Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, ref.no: F4999  

James Busby (1802-1871)

If there was one European who held a ring-side seat as New Zealand took its first steps towards being a nation under the Treaty of Waitangi, that person was James Busby. Busby was New Zealand's first public servant. He was born in Edinburgh in 1802 to a civil engineer, John Busby and his wife, Sarah. Trained in France as a viticulturist, or wine-grower, Busby sailed with his family for Australia where his father had been employed to construct the water supply for Sydney and to survey its coal resources.

He pioneered wine-growing in the Hunter Valley, writing several papers on the subject while also working for the public service. Returning to England he impressed the Colonial Office with his knowledge on colonial matters. This won him a job as British Resident in New Zealand. On a visit to Sydney, Busby married Agnes Dow, with whom he was to have six children. The couple settled at Waitangi in 1834.

As set out by Governor Bourke of New South Wales, Busby's duties were to direct Maori towards 'a settled form of government' and protect 'well disposed settlers and traders' (1). However, he had no means of enforcing his authority - neither troops, nor powers of arrest status as a magistrate. He also had to cope with the unrelenting stinginess of his government. Known to the Maori as 'the man-o-war without guns' (2), all he could do was to operate as a kind of conciliator.

Nevertheless Busby was determined in his work to commit his 'whole strength' to his duties. He called a meeting of chiefs in 1834. This succeeded in winning support from both Maori and the British Admiralty for a national flag, a red St George's Cross on a white background with four eight-pointer stars. The meeting also achieved the right to register locally built ships. This was a significant breakaway step for New Zealand from New South Wales, enabling customs to be cleared in foreign ports.

When Frenchman, Baron de Thierry's plans to create a sovereign state in the Hokianga became known, Busby was concerned. He called his second meeting of chiefs in 1835 at which thirty four of them signed the Deed of Independence of New Zealand asking the Crown for protection. A further eighteen chiefs later added their names to the document, and all pledged to meet regularly at Waitangi to frame laws. Although nothing came of the annual congress, this Declaration of Independence, acknowledged by the British government, served as both a first step towards what would become the 1840 Treaty and a first line in the sand for Maori national identity.

Busby became personally, and almost fatally, entangled in outbreaks of tribal warfare in the Bay of Islands in 1836-37. These finally drove him to report that his position was untenable. British naval officer, Captain William Hobson was sent to investigate. Busby recommended the creation of a Protectorate run by the British acting in the interests of all inhabitants. However Hobson's recommendations for the establishment of 'factories' - essentially European trading enclaves - found favour. In 1839 Hobson took up his position as Consul in the Bay of Islands.

With his limited jurisdiction and resources Busby continued to act as British Resident. His achievement was to create an environment in which Maori accepted the possibility of further British intrusion. It was he, who after initial efforts by others, drew up the draft of the Treaty, adding the clause offering Maori 'all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.'

He continued to work as a farmer and wine-grower making several substantial land purchases at Waitangi, Waimate, Ngunguru, and Whangarei. Then following Hobson's proclamations that land purchases prior to the signing of the Treaty needed to be investigated, he was drawn into a prolonged effort to validate his own purchases.

The result of this was that Busby was tied up for the next quarter of a century seeking redress for his land. Finally in 1868 he received some measure of compensation, although it fell well short of his claims. He continued, nevertheless, to take an active part in civic life and to comment and write on historical matters, even starting a bi-weekly newspaper. He considered himself the architect of the country's founding document, and in his latter years, with an ear trumpet to combat his deafness, frequently and spiritedly entered public debates. He died in 1871.


(1) Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Vol. 1. (1990). Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs. pp 61-63.

(2) New Zealand Heritage. Vol. 1. p 257.

Flaxing our muscles

No wonder James Busby felt frustration in dealing with a government indifferent to his concerns in New South Wales. As shipbuilding began in New Zealand, ship owners discovered that since their vessels were neither British nor from New South Wales the question of registration reared its head. When completed in 1829, the barque, Sir George Murray carried timber and flax to Sydney. It was bought in January 1831 by trader, Thomas McDonnell who sought to register it by obtaining a formal document from two prominent local chiefs, Patuone and Taonui. However, this did not prevent the ship being impounded by the authorities and its cargo auctioned. In August the New South Wales Customs Department issued a temporary licence that allowed the barque to legally trade between Sydney and New Zealand.