Early on Waitangi Day morning a small group of inner city residents, mainly from Grafton, Parnell and Arch Hill but even from as far afield as Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, as they had the year before, quietly gathered at the grave of Governor William Hobson to pay tribute to the man who gave us the Treaty of Waitangi and brought New Zealand into the British Empire. A wreath, posies of flowers and a New Zealand flag were respectfully placed on the marble gravestone.
Waitangi Day and the Treaty has had more than its share of controversies over recent years, so much so that Captain William Hobson R.N. and his role in those momentous events of early February 1840 has been rather overlooked.
What of the man himself? Interesting enough, this very dutiful servant of Empire was born in Ireland in 1792, the son of an Anglo-Irish barrister in the city of Waterford.
Hobson joined the Royal Navy in 1803 during the Napoleonic Wars, just one month short of 11. Graduating to midshipman he passed his examinations and was commissioned lieutenant in 1813. Command followed in 1824. Most of Hobson’s sea service was in the West Indies intercepting pirate ships and launching raids on their bases (’nests’). In those times this duty was especially arduous not least because of the region’s often deadly tropical diseases one of which Hobson reportedly contracted. Illness was followed by a period six years ashore on half pay.
However Hobson’s luck changed in 1834 when the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Auckland (George Eden), to Hobson’s eternal gratitude, arranged for him the highly desirable command of the frigate Rattlesnake. In her Hobson was posted to the East India Station, during which time he visited Port Jackson, New South Wales in 1837. While he was at Sydney Hobson was ordered to New Zealand to show the flag and to report on the country’s ‘lawless’ situation. His report so impressed his superiors it led to his appointment in 1839 as Consul to New Zealand.
Hobson’s Treaty of Waitangi and his achievement in persuading the leading rangatira of the north to sign it (they had very little to go on except for their impression of his integrity) was a remarkable triumph. But as so often happens great success was followed not by acclaim and happiness, but rather misfortune and sorrow. On 1 March Hobson suffered what is believed to be a hemiplegic stroke. However he soon recovered. Returning to full duties he resolved to move his capital to Tāmaki on the Waitematā harbour, thereby founding the city of Auckland. This, his second great historic accomplishment drew bitter criticism from NZ Company settlers in Wellington where almost overnight from canvas tents and nikau whares colonial society had sprung up complete with declaiming newspapers and turbulent meetings of irate settlers. Thereafter Hobson was constantly denounced by the colonists – even in Auckland! (Lending truth to the adage ‘no good deed goes unpunished’).
Hobson’s task to build a country with an administration that was hopelessly under-resourced, mediating between the Māori chiefs with whom he had signed the Treaty on the one hand, and land-hungry businessmen who proved to be more formidable than the pirates of the Caribbean, on the other, would have difficult enough for the most experienced politician or bureaucrat. William Hobson was neither of these. A sea officer trained to obey orders and to have his orders obeyed, he found criticism, especially public criticism, extremely difficult to bear. As Prof Russell Stone observed in his ‘From Tamaki-Makau-Rau to Auckland’:
‘In Captain William Hobson there was much to admire. He was brave, conscientious, and diligent in his public duties. His private life was beyond reproach; he was a loving husband and a devoted family man. Yet of all the governors…he was the least popular and the most calumniated.’
Dr Ron Trubuhovich in his remarkable investigation ‘Governor William Hobson – His Health problems and Final Illness’, wrote of Hobson’s mysterious final days:
‘During the months after returning to Auckland, pressures mounted, particularly at the hands of the town’s ‘Clique’ whose members hounded him mercilessly, instigating public meetings to humiliate him when his enfeebled condition was worsening. In Aug. 1842, too sick to attend public meetings, he was asked to sign petitions condemnatory of himself in attachments to memorials from citizens’ meetings’.
Dr Trubuhovich concluded ‘Perhaps it was all too much for him, he simply gave up in spirit and allowed/wished himself to die.’ He was only 49.
Governor Hobson, architect of the Treaty of Waitangi, founder of the modern state of New Zealand, founder of the city of Auckland, is buried in Symonds Street cemetery. It is a strange feeling to go there and stand at the grave of this ancient figure from an entirely different age to our own. There is a quietness there, even though it is only metres from the Southern Motorway on-ramp, where traffic roars by. He has lain there for 172 years, largely forgotten by the citizens of the country and the city he founded. He was the only governor to stay.
This article was published in the March issues of Ponsonby News and The Hobson