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William Hobson (1793–1842)

by E. J. Tapp

This article was published:

William Hobson (1793-1842), by Mary Ann Musgrave, 1839?

William Hobson (1793-1842), by Mary Ann Musgrave, 1839?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6054546

William Hobson (1793-1842), naval officer and governor, was born on 26 September 1793 at Waterford, Ireland, the son of Samuel Hobson, a barrister, and Martha, née Jones, a member of an Anglo-Irish family prominent in church and state. Through the patronage of Captain John Poo Beresford he entered the navy before the age of 10 as a second-class volunteer. In 1806 he became a midshipman and spent several years in the West Indies and in the blockade of French Channel ports. In 1814 he joined the Spy and distinguished himself in the Mediterranean in a daring and successful foray against pirates. After promotion to commander he was invalided home, but in 1825 was appointed to command a flotilla for service in the West Indies. At Nassau on 17 December 1827 he married Eliza Elliott, only daughter of a West Indian merchant of Scottish origin.

Distinguished service (immortalized in Michael Scott's Tom Cringle's Log, Paris, 1836) earned him command of the frigate Rattlesnake, which sailed in 1835 for the East Indies. Thence he was ordered to Port Jackson at the request of Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke who, in response to entreaties from settlers and missionaries in New Zealand for protection against the Maoris, decided to send a naval vessel to support the British Resident there, James Busby.

Before the Rattlesnake went to New Zealand Bourke requisitioned it to take William Lonsdale and the first officials to Port Phillip, where it anchored on 26 September 1836. During the three months that the ship lay off Point Gellibrand, Hobson and three of his officers surveyed the bay and made charts: one of the coast of Port Phillip, one of the navigable channels and one of Hobson's Bay. Hobson made several excursions into the adjacent country, sometimes hunting with the Aboriginals, whom he found 'an inoffensive and rather an intelligent race of people'. The Rattlesnake returned to Sydney at the end of the year. It was the finest warship yet to visit the port, and the ship's complement was lavishly entertained, Hobson particularly seeking invitations to homesteads around Sydney where he was anxious to inspect the soil so that 'he might be better able to estimate the lands of Port Phillip'. He wrote enthusiastically to his wife of the high calibre of the colonists and the prosperity of the colony, privately conceiving the purpose of abandoning the sea for colonial life. He confided to his wife his hope of becoming governor of Port Phillip. The Rattlesnake returned to Port Phillip in March 1837 with Governor Bourke and his suite on his first visit to the new settlement. Hobson accompanied Bourke and Phillip Parker King on a number of exploring expeditions. The mission at Port Phillip had scarcely been completed when Bourke learned from Busby that war had broken out in the North Island, New Zealand, between two Maori tribes; accordingly the Rattlesnake was sent to the Bay of Islands, where it arrived in May.

During a two-month stay Hobson visited the main European and native settlements and went as far south as Cloudy Bay in the South Island. His mission accomplished, he returned to Sydney where he advocated negotiated treaties with Maori chiefs and the establishment in New Zealand of 'factory' enclaves on the Indian pattern. He returned in the Rattlesnake to India in August 1837 to help to meet expected trouble with Burma; but the crisis passed before he arrived and he was ordered back to England where he was put on half-pay.

Meanwhile the problem of maintaining law and order in New Zealand had become more urgent. A House of Lords report in 1838 and the dispatches of Governor Sir George Gipps and Busby argued strongly for increased British responsibility in the islands. The British government, which had been impressed by Hobson's report on the country, in December appointed him British consul in New Zealand. With instructions from the Colonial Office to treat with the Maoris for the cession of their lands, he left England with his family in August 1839 and arrived in Sydney at the end of December to seek assistance from Gipps on whom he was to be temporarily dependent. After proclaiming the extension of the boundaries of New South Wales to cover any territory that might be acquired in New Zealand and arming Hobson with appropriate powers, especially over the sale of land, Gipps in January 1840 sent him in the Herald, with a detachment of troops, to be lieutenant-governor of New Zealand.

Landing at Kororareka on 29 January he secured, with the help of Busby and the missionaries, the signatures of about fifty chiefs to a treaty made at a large Maori gathering at Waitangi. By this treaty the Maoris, in return for British protection, ceded their lands to Queen Victoria. Intent on asserting his authority over the whole country and incensed with the New Zealand Co.'s settlers at Port Nicholson, who scoffed at the Treaty of Waitangi and were taking matters into their own hands, Hobson was preparing to travel south when he was crippled by partial paralysis. Further hampered by lack of co-operation from Captain Nias of the Herald, he was forced to await reinforcements under Major Bunbury from Governor Gipps before sending the treaty throughout the North Island for further signatures. On 21 May he proclaimed British sovereignty over the whole country: the North Island on the ground of cession and the South Island by virtue of James Cook's discovery. In July, fearing imminent French settlement on the Banks Peninsula in the South Island, Hobson sent the Britomart under Commander Owen Stanley to establish effective occupation there.

On 1 July 1841 the short-lived connexion with New South Wales came to an end and New Zealand became a separate colony with Hobson its first governor. With the ready counsel and limited resources of Gipps still available to him, he set about securing firm and efficient administration. In spite of vigorous protests from Port Nicholson settlers who wanted it in Wellington, he transferred the seat of government from Russell to Waitemata (Auckland) to be near the main centres of Maori and British settlement and possible sources of racial friction. In August 1841, however, he partly allayed the settlers' discontent by making a promised visit to Wellington.

Financial depression and small returns from the sale of Maori lands forced Hobson to draw bills on the British Treasury which were dishonoured locally. Even the well-disposed Gipps, facing a critical Legislative Council, was able to give only limited help, and then too late. Dogged by ill health, indifferently served by his lieutenants, and opposed by settlers who disliked his restrictive land policy, Hobson died, broken in spirit, on 10 September 1842, before he had the satisfaction of learning that the British government approved his administration. He left a wife, one son and four daughters, all of whom returned to England in 1843.

In spite of personal disappointment his governorship of New Zealand was no failure. He brought to his task the qualities that it needed. Though lacking in formal education he possessed an uncommon fluency with tongue and pen which stood him in good stead. By his courage, firmness, and irreproachable private life Hobson won the respect of all who knew him, especially the Maoris, who deeply mourned his death. For them the Treaty of Waitangi remained both their Magna Charta and his chief memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 19-20
  • J. C. Beaglehole, Captain Hobson and the New Zealand Company: A Study in Colonial Administration (Northampton, Mass, 1928)
  • G. H. Scholefield, Captain William Hobson (Lond, 1934)
  • 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)
  • R. D. Boys, First Years at Port Phillip (Melb, 1959).

Citation details

E. J. Tapp, 'Hobson, William (1793–1842)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 May 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

William Hobson (1793-1842), by Mary Ann Musgrave, 1839?

William Hobson (1793-1842), by Mary Ann Musgrave, 1839?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6054546

Life Summary [details]


26 September, 1793
Waterford, Waterford, Ireland


10 September, 1842 (aged 48)
New Zealand

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