23 May: New Zealand's first "republic"

On this day in 1840, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson made his “Proclamation on the Illegal Assumption of Authority in the Port Nicholson District.” It followed from earlier proclamations of British sovereignty over New Zealand on 20 May.

The illegal assumption of authority Hobson referred to was referring to was the “republic” created by the New Zealand Company at Port Nicholsen (modern-day Wellington). The New Zealand Company had deliberatly founded a colony in 1839 in an attempt to beat the British Government’s pre-emption of land sales (meaning the New Zealand Company wouldn’t be able to speculate in land sales), which of course came to pass with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi - Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840.

On 14 September 1839 the colony had created its own “Provisional Constitution” and started to fly the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, described as the “colours of New Zealand” by the expedition’s leader, William Wakefield. The United Tribes had adopted this flag in 1834 and in 1835 proclamed their own declaration of independence of New Zealand, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni. By using it, the New Zealand Company was further signifying that it didn’t want a part of the British Government’s claims to New Zealand, especially the right of pre-emption for land sales.

Hobson took this as a slight on the authority of the British Government, and just over a month after his May 23 proclamation, sent an armed detachment and the Colonial Secretary to take down the flag, and fly the Union Flag in its place. And so ended, after less than a year, New Zealand’s first republic.

Image from Te Papa’s collections