Hobson was born in Waterford, Ireland and joined the Royal Navy on August 25, 1803. He served in the Napoleonic wars and was later involved in the suppression of piracy in the Caribbean. In December 1834 he obtained a commission from Lord Auckland to the East Indies. His ship was involved in the founding of Williamstown (later Melbourne) and surveyed Port Phillip. In 1837 he sailed to the Bay of Islands in response to a request for help from James Busby, the British Resident in New Zealand, who felt threatened by wars between Maori tribes. He arrived on 26 May and helped to reduce the tensions. On his return to England in 1838 he submitted a report on New Zealand to propose a trading system and a treaty with the Maori to obtain land.
At the time, the British government recognised the sovereignty of the Maori people, as represented in the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand of October 1835, which had been organised by Busby. Hobson was appointed as lieutenant governor (ratified on July 30, 1839) and British consul to New Zealand (confirmed on August 13, 1839). He was issued with detailed instructions by Lord Normanby on August 14, giving reasons for intervention in New Zealand and directions for the purchase of land 'by fair and equal contracts'. The land would be resold to settlers at a profit to provide for further operations.
Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands on January 29, 1840 and drafted the Treaty of Waitangi together with Busby. After obtaining signatures at the Bay of Islands, he travelled to Waitemata Harbour to obtain more signatures and survey a location for a new capital. After suffering a stroke on March 1 he was taken back to the Bay of Islands, where he recovered sufficiently to continue work.
On May 21, in response to the settlers at Port Nicholson (later Wellington) who were laying out a new town under the flag of the independent New Zealand, he asserted British sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand, despite the incompleteness of the Treaty signing effort. He sent Willoughby Shortland and some soldiers to Port Nicholson on May 25, where the council of the settlers was disbanded. Their leader William Wakefield later travelled to the Bay of Islands to pledge allegiance to the Crown. His suggestion to make Port Nicholson the capital was rejected in favour of Hobson's plan for a new town on Waitemata Harbour, to be named Auckland after Lord Auckland.
On July 11 the French frigate L'Aube arrived at the Bay of Islands on its way to Banks Peninsula as part of the settlement plan of the Nanto-Bordelaise Company. Hobson immediately sent two magistrates to the area to establish a claim by holding courts.
Near the end of 1840 the Port Nicholson settlers sent a petition to Queen Victoria calling for Hobson's dismissal over his treatment of them. Hobson responded on May 26, 1841 to the secretary of state.
In November 1840 the Queen signed a royal charter for New Zealand to become a Crown colony separate from New South Wales. Hobson was sworn in as governor and commander in chief on May 3, 1841. Until that moment Hobson had been only the de facto Governor of New Zealand. The official Governor was Sir George Gipps, governor of New South Wales. However Hobsons claim to be the first Governor of New Zealand is generally recognized.
Hobson travelled to Wellington in August 1841, where he heard the complaints of settlers and selected magistrates. He then visited Akaroa to settle the French claims. Back in Auckland, he had some difficulty with the Maori and his government was ridiculed by journalists in Wellington and Auckland. He responded by closing down the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette. With his government low on funds, he resorted to issuing unauthorised bills on the British Treasury in 1842. Hobson faced opposition from the Senate clique who sent a petition to the secretary of state to have Hobson recalled.
Hobson suffered a second stroke and died on September 10, 1842. He was buried in the Grafton cemetery in Auckland.
The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography cites: