Treaty of Waitangi made New Zeland part of empire

Gary Rycroft.
Gary Rycroft.

New Zealand is a long way from Lancaster. To fly would take just under 24 hours.

Still such swift travel would have amazed those making the journey just after 1840, the year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between various Maori Chiefs and the British Government, with the effect that the country became part of the British Empire.

A Lancaster born lawyer named William Swainson was one of the first colonists. Aged 31 on April 9, 1841 he sailed from England on a boat called “The Tyne” and disembarked at Auckland on 25th September that year.

The purpose of Mr Swainson’s epic journey was so that he could take up an appointment as Attorney General of New Zealand. He sailed with a more senior lawyer William Martin, who became the first Chief Justice of New Zealand.

The five month journey was not time wasted for the lawyers. They were travelling to a new colony with no established legal system. So they used the time to write the laws required to govern it and within six months of arriving new laws setting up a system of courts and land transfer had been passed.

The legal system in New Zealand remains closely linked with that of England, even though it is now an independent country. Like England the basis of the legal system is from two mains sources, namely statute (laws passed Parliament) and common law (based on decisions made by the courts). New Zealand common law is still influenced by English cases.

We can be proud that the humanitarian Mr Swainson was a friend of the Maoris. The Treaty of Waitangi was vague in parts and Mr Swainson exploited this to find in favour of Maoris in dispute with settlers claiming ownership of certain land under authority of the Treaty.

Mr Swainson returned briefly to England to extol the virtues of life in his adopted colony, including giving a lecture in Lancaster in September 1855, but he saw out his days in New Zealand. He lived in a small house at Taurarua, Auckland - a timber framed building taken by him from England on his original voyage in 1841 - known as “the cottage by the sea”.