Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 July 2020
The British government’s decision in 1839 to seek the consent of native chiefs to its assumption of sovereignty in the islands of New Zealand cannot be explained adequately by reference to international law, European political thought or Christian humanitarianism. It owed a great deal instead to strategic and political considerations and a complex sequence of historical events that took place in the preceding seventy years. The decision to treat with the chiefs for sovereignty was in large part a function of protection talk that generated a status for Māori as being more or less an ally of Britain and brought into being a relationship of mutual protection between the chiefs and the British Crown. At the same time, small parties negotiated with natives to purchase land from the outset of European settlement, and later groups of European adventurers and land-grabbers followed suit. At the point the Colonial Office reluctantly accepted that the British government had to intervene and assume sovereignty, the long history of encounter in New Zealand persuaded it that the means required to make a treaty were available in the form of chiefs as interlocutors and missionaries as go-betweens.