If you ask a Melbournian about William Hobson, most of us would mutter something about Hobson’s Bay or the Hobson’s Bay City Council. I hadn’t really thought about who ‘Hobson’ was: I assumed that he was an old sea-dog living down somewhere around Williamstown, and when I thought hard about it, I wasn’t even really sure if I knew where Hobson’s Bay was. “Somewhere in Port Phillip Bay” I would airily gesture- thereby setting my Uncle Peter’s teeth on edge over the tautological use of Port and Phillip and Bay in the same phrase. (“It’s Port Phillip, Janine, – the Port named after Governor Phillip; not Port Phillip Bay”)
Hobson’s Bay is the bay immediately at the mouth of the Yarra River, with Williamstown on its west shore and Port Melbourne and Middle Park round to the east. And Hobson, for whom it is named, was not a long-term Melbourne resident but instead spent a three-month stint between September and December 1836 surveying and charting the coastline of Port Phillip, returning to Sydney before a second brief trip accompanying Governor Bourke for an official visit and exploratory expedition in March 1837. Hobson was impressed with Port Phillip and was already dreaming of the fortune that could be made there. In his letters to his wife he expressed hopes of perhaps being appointed Governor there in the future. That didn’t happen. Instead, he was sent off to New Zealand to investigate conflict there and on the basis of the report he submitted to the Colonial Office, he was appointed Consul to New Zealand in August 1839. There seems to have been some slippage in the terminology of Consul/Lieutenant Governor/ Governor that probably signalled much about precedence and status at the time, but which is less significant to us now. After meeting with the recently-appointed Governor Gipps in Sydney in December 1839, he sailed off to New Zealand arriving 29th January 1840 and was not to leave the country again before his death in 1842. He didn’t muck around when he arrived: the first copy of the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on 6th February, just over a week after his arrival.
Which is, of course, where my interest comes in. On the flight over to New Zealand, I read a review of Paul Moon’s latest book The Edges of Empire: New Zealand in the mid-Nineteenth Century. I hadn’t heard of Paul Moon- not that that necessarily means anything- but I had heard of Cynthia Orange and other historians who have written about the Treaty of Waitangi. From his Wikipedia entry, he seems to be a prolific and at times controversial historian from Auckland University of Technology- perhaps an unusual location for an academic historian?
Certainly in his preface he distances himself from other historians, their methodology and their debates.
In preparing this biography, I have cautiously avoided trying to make the subject conform to a particular theme or line of argument, and any themes that do arise tend to be incidental…Consequently, many of the episodes in this work have been retraced in the way that they unfolded for Hobson at the time, rather than with the didactic and ‘superior’ sort of hindsight that necessarily distorts as it attempts to simplify and clarify. (p12)
In his eschewal of historiography and debate, he relies heavily on fairly lengthy slabs of official correspondence and primary sources predominantly from the New Zealand end. The Colonial Office is depicted as a lumbering, compromised body ‘over there’- a simplistic approach which overlooks the contested nature of lobbying politics and the machinations of individuals and factions. These political currents are well described by Adams in Fatal Necessity and more recently in Zoe Laidlaw’s analysis of the Aborigines Select Committee, the lobby group that lay behind much of the Colonial Office approach to indigenous affairs right across the empire. Moon does, despite his protestations, engage with historical debates, most particularly over the Treaty of Waitangi, but does not extend what I conceive to be the courtesy of naming the historians or their arguments- instead prefacing his own sallies with “It has been suggested that…” It’s also striking how few recent references he cites in his bibliography: there is a heavy reliance on works from the early 20th century or the 1960s. He critiques Paul Scholefield’s ‘hagiographical’ and ‘apologetic’ (p. 12) treatment of Hobson in 1934, but doesn’t take up any of his points in detail beyond this blanket condemnation.
By concentrating on the time 1840 to 1842, Moon does not pick up on the significance of Hobson’s naval background, a theme explored so well in Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language and in Jane Samson’s Imperial Benevolence: Making British Authority in the Pacific. He also skips over the significance of the patronage of Lord Auckland, after whom Hobson named the town he chose as capital city.
However, his approach does shed light on the contest between the missionaries and the Wakefieldian-influenced land settlement company New Zealand Company, both of which vied for Hobson’s attention and decried his limitations to their patrons back in England. Add to this the corrosive influence of self-serving and canny civil servants, plucked from obscurity in Sydney on Hobson’s way to New Zealand, who were just as avaricious as any land entrepreneurs in London or in Port Nicholson, the rival North Island city settled by the New Zealand Company. Then, if that’s not enough, overlay this with Hobson’s own evident ill-health, evident even to me 160 years later, looking at the shaky and at times child-like signature of Hobson’s name on different versions of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Peter Adams Fatal Necessity: British Intervention in New Zealand.1977
Greg Dening Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, 1994
Zoe Laidlaw ‘Integrating metropolitian, colonial and imperial histories- the Aborigines Select Committee of 1835-7’ in Tracey Banivanua Mar and Julie Evans Writing Colonial Histories: Comparative Perspectives, University of Melbourne 2002.
Cynthia Orange The Treaty of Waitangi, 1987.
Jane Samson Imperial benevolence: making British Authority in the Pacific 1998.
Paul Scholefield Captain William Hobson: First Governor of New Zealand 1934.