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James Busby (1801–1871)

by J. W. Davidson

This article was published:

James Busby (1801-1871), viticulturalist and civil servant, was born on 7 February 1801 in Edinburgh, the second son of John Busby and his wife Sarah, née Kennedy. He accompanied his parents when they migrated to New South Wales, where they arrived in February 1824.

James Busby received a grant of 2000 acres (809 ha) in the Hunter River district and obtained employment at the Male Orphan School near Liverpool. He had previously studied viticulture in France and had written A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine and the Art of Making Wine, which was published in Sydney in 1825. At the orphan school he was to take charge of the school farm and teach viticulture. He lost this position when the orphan school came under the control of the trustees of the Church and School Corporation in 1827. He was then given temporary employment as collector of internal revenue, but a permanent appointee to this position arrived in the colony in 1829. Busby was dissatisfied with the new offer of employment made to him by the government at this stage and also with the terms of his dismissal from the orphan school. He therefore decided to place his case before the Colonial Office in person.

Busby sailed for England on 19 February 1831. Viticulture was still his main interest. In 1830 he had published A Manual of Plain Directions for Planting and Cultivating Vineyards and for Making Wine in New South Wales (Sydney). In September 1831 he began a four-month tour of Spanish and French vineyards, which resulted in two further publications: Journal of a Tour Through Some of the Vineyards of Spain and France (Sydney, 1833); and Journal of a Recent Visit to the Principal Vineyards of Spain and France (London, 1834). But it was a memoir on New Zealand, which he presented to the Colonial Office, that gained him an appointment. In March 1832 he was appointed British Resident in New Zealand.

During the 1820s contact between Europeans and the Maori had reached substantial proportions. The Church Missionary Society had a mission at the Bay of Islands and the Wesleyans one at Hokianga. Whale-ships frequented the Bay of Islands; traders for flax, timber and other commodities visited many parts of the coast; and several hundred Europeans lived permanently on shore, as traders, artisans or beachcombers. In 1830 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling had informed the Colonial Office of the need for action to curb European lawlessness. In 1831 he had proposed to appoint a Resident and to provide him with a ship so that he could visit the various settlements; but circumstances, including Darling's own recall, prevented implementation of the proposal. At the time of Busby's appointment, the secretary of state decided against giving the Resident any naval or military support, other than that which he might gain from the occasional visits of naval vessels. He did, however, intend to arm him with the power to arrest and deport those who committed offences in New Zealand; but the bill providing these powers was opposed in the House of Commons and was dropped.

Busby arrived back in Sydney on 16 October 1832. On 1 November he married Agnes Dow of Segenhoe. He embarked for New Zealand in H.M.S. Imogene on 21 April 1833. His principal duties, as defined in instructions from Governor Sir Richard Bourke, were to check outrages by Europeans against the Maori, to protect 'well-disposed' British settlers and traders, and to seize escaped convicts. He was also to assist the Maori, if possible, to establish 'a settled form of government'. For the attainment of these objectives, he was to rely on the influence that an 'educated man possesses over the wild or half-civilized savage' and on the assistance of the missionaries and of visiting warships.

Formidable though these duties were in relation to the means available for carrying them out, they rather appealed to Busby, since they seemed to confer on him a quasi-diplomatic status. In particular, he relished the task of trying to found a New Zealand state. On 20 March 1834 he held a meeting of chiefs at the residency at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, at which a New Zealand flag was adopted. On 28 October 1835, after the receipt of a communication from the Baron de Thierry who styled himself 'Sovereign Chief of New Zealand and King of Nukuheva' (in the Marquesas), he held a further meeting attended by chiefs from as far away as the North Cape and the River Thames. This meeting declared New Zealand to be an independent state with the title of the United Tribes of New Zealand. A congress was to meet each year to pass legislation; and Britain was asked to protect the 'Infant State'. This scheme was largely a product of Busby's imagination; and no attempt was made to carry it out. In June 1837 he outlined a somewhat less unrealistic proposal in a letter to the colonial secretary of New South Wales. He suggested that the British Crown should obtain, by treaty with the United Tribes, the powers necessary for it to undertake the administration of the country 'in trust for the inhabitants'. A Maori congress would nominally enact the laws, but actually it would 'not be intrusted with any discretion whatever'. Real power would be in the hands of the British Resident. Before Governor Bourke received this proposal he had asked Captain William Hobson, commander of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, to visit New Zealand and report on the best means 'of securing … the common interests of the Natives and of the British settled amongst them'. Hobson's recommendations seemed to the governor and, in due course, to the Colonial Office to contain the elements of a workable solution. Busby's scheme was not seriously considered.

In the performance of his more limited duties Busby was little more successful. To some extent this was a consequence of his lack of legal powers; but almost equally it was a result of his personal qualities. He was a man who sought to build up his own dignity by magnifying that of his office. A year after his arrival in New Zealand a group of settlers at the Bay of Islands ventured to offer him advice on the performance of his duties. He never forgave their impertinence, and his unofficial contacts with them almost ceased. Similarly his pride prevented him from invoking the assistance of the missionaries. The appointment by Bourke of Thomas M'Donnell as additional Resident, without emolument, aroused in him both resentment and fear for his own position. M'Donnell, a retired naval officer living at Hokianga, scorned Busby's carefully cultivated dignity and restraint. He was practical and energetic, but also reckless and quick-tempered. His relations with Busby became so bad that he eventually resigned. Nor was Busby much more successful in his relations with Maori chiefs. They had some respect for him, but none of them became his close friends. John Dunmore Lang who visited the Bay of Islands in 1839, wrote that Busby seemed to have 'no employment … but that of standing sentinel upon the British Ensign'. And this was only a slight exaggeration.

By that time Busby had been defeated not only by his lack of power and his personal deficiencies but also by events. An increasing stream of settlers was arriving from the Australian colonies; and the New Zealand Colonisation Co. (later the New Zealand Co.) had been formed in England. The British government had already accepted the inevitability of more decisive intervention. At the end of January 1840 Captain Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands with instructions to obtain the cession of at least those parts of New Zealand in which Europeans were already settled and a commission as lieutenant-governor. Busby prepared a draft treaty of cession, which was accepted by Hobson with only minor changes; and the first Maori signatures were obtained at the residency at Waitangi on 6 February.

Busby had made small purchases of land during his earlier years in office; when he had realized that he was about to be superseded, he bought land on a considerable scale. His major purchases were, in due course, disallowed, He spent much time during the remainder of his life seeking redress of what he considered to be a wrong decision and eventually received substantial compensation. He engaged in storekeeping and farming; for a time he was a newspaper editor; he served for several terms in the Auckland Provincial Council; and he published a number of pamphlets. He was able, well read and thoughtful, but he became a tiresome controversialist, a lone-hand, crotchety, oversensitive, and embittered.

James Busby died on 15 July 1871 during a visit to England. He was survived by his wife and three of their six children.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ramsden, Busby of Waitangi, H.M.'s Resident at New Zealand, 1833-40 (Wellington, 1942)
  • E. J. Tapp, Early New Zealand: A Dependency of New South Wales, 1788-1841 (Melb, 1958)
  • E. Ramsden, ‘James Busby: The Prophet of Australian Viticulture’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 26, part 5, 1940, pp 361-86
  • J. W. Davidson, European Penetration of the South Pacific, 1779-1842 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1942).

Citation details

J. W. Davidson, 'Busby, James (1801–1871)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Busby, n.d.

James Busby, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 21699

Life Summary [details]


7 February, 1801
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


15 July, 1871 (aged 70)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

lung congestion

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