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The New Zealand Company was established in 1839 to colonize New Zealand. They were not the only such company, but they were the most prominent. For example, the New Plymouth Company, established in 1840 to settle a peninsula on the North Island, merged with the New Zealand Company in April 1841.

The roots of the company go back further. The British first settled permanently on New Zealand when missionary activity began there under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society. Samuel Marsden, William Hall, Thomas Kendall, and John King were the first missionaries; Marsden gave the first sermon in New Zealand on Christmas Day 1814.

By 1831, there were enough European settlers to cause considerable consternation on the part of the Maori leaders. Thirteen Northern chiefs petitioned King William IV for protection, which the Crown granted. Two years later, the British Resident, a consular position, arrived and built a house in Waitangi. In 1835, the Resident, James Busby, drafted He Wakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene, the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, which placed the sovereign power of the land with the Maori and their hereditary chiefs. By 1839, 52 chiefs had signed the declaration.

In the meantime, the British, who had not sanctioned the declaration, decided to begin formally colonizing New Zealand in 1837. This is the same year discussions began to form the New Zealand Company from a previous venture, the New Zealand Association, which had failed to gain a royal charter. The British government appointed William Hobson to serve as Consul, under the authority of the Governor of New South Wales. Hobson was to oversee the purchase of land from the Maori.

By 1840, there were roughly 2,000 Europeans living in New Zealand, the majority single men—whalers, traders, and missionaries—and 7 of 10 of them were of British descent. They usually arrived via Sydney, in New South Wales.

At the same time the government was appointing a Consul, the first New Zealand Company ship had set sail for the islands. The Company's ship, the Tory was to survey and buy land for a settlement, which was decided to be at Port Nicholson (now Wellington Harbor). The first settlers arrived in Port Nicholson in January 1840, having been attracted as laborers by exaggerated pamphlets and propaganda published by the Company.    

The Treaty of Waitangi and the downfall of the New Zealand Company

The New Zealand Company was based on the idea that only civilized (white) men should own land; they sold land in “country sections” at “suitable prices” to investors. Then, the Company shipped over laborers to ensure there was a labor pool to work the land. However, many of the owners never emigrated, making them absentee landlords. Additionally, many of the purchases of land from the Maori were dubious at best.

Ironically, just as the initial settlers in Port Nicholson and the Company’s others early settlements—Whanganui (September 1840), New Plymouth (November 1841), and Nelson (February 1842)—were realizing that New Zealand was not the paradise they had been promised and that the land had not been fairly purchased, news of the New Zealand Company’s royal charter, granted in 1841, reached the islands. This was not enough to quell the discontent of the settlers and debate swirled in London as to the reputation of the Company.

In New Zealand, 1840 also marked the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The New Zealand Company was not the only body engaged in dubious land deals with the Maori. Governor Gipps of New South Wales prohibited further land sales early in the year, calling for all existing purchases to be reviewed. On February 6, 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by roughly forty chiefs; by September five hundred more signed on. A draft of the treaty had been read in Maori the day before, but the degree to which it contents were fairly translated and understood before being signed is a matter of controversy to this day.

The Treaty ceded the lands of New Zealand to British control and codified the systematic territorial and material dispossession of the Maori. One of the reasons for this move by the Crown was to counter New Zealand Company attempts to declare sovereignty over the Cook Strait, which was south of the main British strongholds on the North Island.

The New Zealand Company continued to sell land after the Treaty, on the North and the South Islands. This often led to conflict; New Zealand Company settlers clashed with the Maori over a shady land deal in the Wairu Incident of 1843; six Maori and 22 Europeans were killed. The fortunes of the New Zealand Company continued to decline and the company surrendered its charter in 1850; it officially dissolved in 1858.

Despite its short-lived and controversial history, the New Zealand Company was responsible for bringing 14,000 of the 18,000 people who settled in New Zealand between 1840 and 1851. Their promotional practices were used to continue to draw European settlers to the islands even after the company folded.