Before the Treaty, Māori had long been concerned about the lawlessness of numbers of Pākehā. Their hope was that James Busby (the appointed British Resident) would exercise control over British subjects, but Busby proved to be largely ineffective in dealing with criminal offending. His requests to Britain for assistance, in the form of troops and a warship, were turned down. Some Māori groups became open to the idea of having a British governor for the Pākehā people.
In the Māori political order, rangatira were responsible to and for their own hapū. They expected, with the growing number of British subjects, that the Queen would want to bring her people to order. And, in fact, this was one reason for British interest in a treaty with Māori. Treaty-making, the process of making agreements between polities, has a long history in Māori politics. Ngāti Kahungunu knew such agreements as mahi tūhono, or “work to draw the people together”. The idea of treating with the Crown was therefore an affirmation of rangatiratanga and recognition that each polity should be responsible for its own people. Also important to the hapū was their growing international trade. The strengthening of ties with Britain was seen as favouring this growth.
Another factor was increasing tension over land, particularly in the North. Hapū allocated plots of land (tuku whenua) to the new settlers, but these were grants of land use, more like leases than sales. These grants were designed to establish relationships of reciprocity between the hapū and the newcomers. Hapū and their rangatira were dismayed when some settlers acted as if they had an absolute right to the land and showed disregard for the hapū who gave the grant in the first place. When Hobson arrived in New Zealand in 1840 rangatira asked that, as part of the treaty agreement, the Crown would see to the return of lands wrongly taken.
The British Crown, too, had concerns about land deals. By the late 1830s, it had been made aware that speculative land purchases of dubious legality were taking place around the country. In 1838, the more law-abiding settlers, traders and missionaries petitioned the British Crown asking for a more effective presence than Busby could provide.
The situation in New Zealand at the time was monitored by humanitarian groups based in London such as the Aborigines Protection Society, which was concerned about the impact of colonisation on indigenous peoples. They had an ally in the Secretary of State for Colonies, Lord Glenelg, who was opposed to the plans of the New Zealand Company to establish a colony based on the principles of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
However, the departure of settler-laden New Zealand Company ships for Port Nicholson in 1839, without official parliamentary sanction, prompted the Colonial Office to rethink its position. Accepting colonisation as an “inevitable measure” and to protect British trade and economic interests, the new secretary, Lord Normanby, sent Captain William Hobson to New Zealand. He was instructed to acquire sovereignty over the whole or any parts of the country that Māori wished to cede (give up), by negotiating a treaty. Because Britain had recognised Māori rights in the Declaration of Independence, and because this was “binding on the faith of the Crown”, no British authority could be established in New Zealand without Māori agreement.
Treaty-making was a long-established instrument of British colonial policy, so although Hobson did not land with a treaty already fully drafted, many of the guarantees which would be included had been expressed in earlier treaties with other nations.
Hobson arrived in New Zealand on 29 January 1840.