Treaty of Waitangi

This is the story of our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. It tells of the events leading up to the Treaty, at a time when Maori, far outnumbering Pakeha, controlled New Zealand.

It describes the essential bargain that was struck between Maori and the British Crown and what both sides hoped to obtain by agreeing to it. It also tells the story of the breakdown of the Treaty relationship, when the Treaty came to be ignored by successive settler-dominated governments in the nineteenth century, through to its renewed recognition in recent times.

At the outset it should be noted that while all history is contestable, this story of the Treaty seeks to reflect the broadly accepted, current understandings of the Treaty and Crown-Maori relations.
By way of simply one example, while the steps leading to the Treaty are well known and have been thoroughly studied, historians do differ in what they see as the main developments and trends.
Some historians, for instance, emphasise the humanitarian beliefs of the 1830s; others draw attention to the more coercive aspects of British policy or take a middle course of arguing that while British governments were concerned about Maori, they were equally concerned about protecting the interests of Britain and British subjects. There is simply no one correct interpretation of the events surrounding the Treaty.

Early days: 1830s

In New Zealand in 1840 there were about 100,000 Maori, and a tiny number of Europeans - mostly whalers, sealers and traders - along with missionaries sent to convert Maori to Christianity. Many missionaries supported the "humanitarian" treatment of indigenous peoples and detested what they thought was the immoral and lawless behaviour of many European residents. The missionaries had strong support within the Colonial Office in Britain. The Imperial authorities were concerned that "unruly" Pakeha might provoke conflict with Maori, requiring a costly intervention.

By the 1830s Britain was actively regulating settlers' behaviour, and in 1832 James Busby was appointed as official representative in the Bay of Islands. Although the British were reluctant to acquire sovereignty, they did not want rival European powers to annex the country.

The Declaration of Independence, 1835

In 1835 Busby persuaded several northern chiefs to sign a Declaration of Independence. This asserted the sovereign power and authority of the "United Tribes of New Zealand", but had little practical effect.

Pressure increased for Britain to be more active. This was partly because of the New Zealand Company, a group of private investors committed to "systematic colonisation". Speculation in large-scale purchases of Maori lands added to the humanitarian case for intervention.

The Treaty of Waitangi, 1840

By 1839 the British Government could no longer ignore the situation. In August William Hobson was sent out to negotiate with Maori to cede sovereignty over as much of the country as he saw fit.

Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands in January 1840 and announced the investigation of all land purchases. The Treaty document, translated into Maori by the missionary Henry Williams, was presented to 500 Maori at Waitangi on 5 February 1840. The next day it was signed by about 40 chiefs. By September 1840 some 500 chiefs, including women, had signed copies of the Treaty around the country. Nearly all signed the Maori version.

The issue of sovereignty

Historians have debated the differences between the Maori and English translations. Maori recognised that the Treaty gave the Crown rights of governance. However historians debate whether this extended to their own affairs (rather than those of the settlers) or whether Maori understood the yielding of sovereignty contained in the English version of the Treaty. Maori society valued the spoken word, and Hobson's explanations were probably as important as the document.

Hobson and others stressed the Treaty's benefits while playing down the effects of British sovereignty on rangatiratanga (often translated as chieftainship or authority, which was promised to the chiefs in Article II of the Maori Treaty text). Reassured that their mana and authority would be strengthened, many rangatira (chiefs) supported the agreement. Some chiefs signed while remaining uncertain. Others refused, or had no chance to sign.

The Colonial Office declared that the Treaty applied even to communities that had not signed. But how British sovereignty and Maori authority would work together remained to be worked out in practice. Sovereignty was proclaimed over the country on 21 May 1840, and in 1841 it became a separate colony.

Hobson died in September 1842. Robert FitzRoy, the new governor, took some legal steps to recognise Maori custom. However his successor, George Grey, promoted rapid assimilation. The practical effect of the Treaty was only gradually felt, especially in predominantly Maori regions.

Loss of land and influence: 1850s-1870s

More settlers were arriving, and an 1852 constitution granted them their own government.
The Treaty relationship deteriorated. Until 1867 Maori were not represented in Parliament. They were alarmed by the shift in power from governor to settlers.
Land loss also worried many chiefs. By the early 1860s, Maori had lost most of the South Island and about one-fifth of the North Island. Some officials saw their response, including the establishment of a Maori king in 1858, as challenging Crown sovereignty.

War began in Taranaki in 1860, spread to Waikato in 1863 and across the central North Island until 1872.
Under legislation of 1863 the government confiscated the lands of Maori "rebels". This caused widespread resentment, especially when many Maori who were neutral, or had fought for the Crown, found their lands taken.

The Native Lands Act of 1862 allowed settlers to purchase Maori land after investigation of customary ownership. It had envisaged Maori participation in the process, but the Act was replaced in 1865. A more formal court system emphasised Pakeha legal processes and gave Pakeha judges greater powers.

Interests in Maori lands were communal, but the court awarded them to individuals, destroying the reciprocal control over the land of chiefs and their people.
Each owner named in the court titles could now sell their interest without consultation.

Although some Maori tribal groups attempted strategic deals, they had limited control over land sales.
The expensive court process and the individual titles issued saw Maori lose much of the North Island by 1900.

Addressing grievances: 1890s-1970s

Increasingly, Maori looked to the Treaty for protection from what they considered were the unjust actions of the Crown, but they were unable to obtain its ratification.
A Maori Parliament was established in the 1890s but was not officially recognised. At this time the King Movement was strengthened by the establishment of the Kauhanganui, or King's Council.

Yet the Crown remained committed to the "amalgamation" of Maori into colonial society. Magistrates mediated English law in Maori communities. Approximately half of the Maori population sent their children to Native Schools, and many of the most capable Maori leaders of the future would receive their primary education through the Native Schools system.

Apirana Ngata, Maui Pomare, Peter Buck and other members of the Young Maori Party achieved some success in the first part of the twentieth century, including funding to develop the remaining Maori lands. In the 1920s the first steps were taken to address historical Maori grievances, and compensation was paid for some lakes.

Maori made some progress after 1935, and rates of infant mortality and other social indicators began to improve.
The anniversary of the Treaty signing each 6th of February gained importance, with large crowds gathering at Waitangi. In 1960 Waitangi Day was named a "national day of thanksgiving".
In 1973, it became a public holiday.

Settling claims: from 1975

The Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 officially recognised the Treaty in law. The Waitangi Tribunal was set up to investigate Maori grievances, but could only make findings and recommendations on events dating from 1975. In 1985 the Tribunal's jurisdiction was extended back to 1840. The settlement of grievances became a major focus for Maori.

Some believe that Maori protest and anger over Treaty issues since the 1970s has created tension in New Zealand; others, that the root cause of conflict was the Treaty’s long neglect. Yet in a small society with many links between Maori and Pakeha, the Treaty debate inevitably reverberates through the entire community.

Some New Zealanders look back further to the original exchange of promises in 1840 contained within the Treaty of Waitangi, our founding document, and contemplate the place of these promises in contemporary New Zealand.

Text of the Treaty of Waitangi

HER MAJESTY VICTORIA Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland regarding with Her Royal Favour the Native Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and anxious to protect their just Rights and Property and to secure to them the enjoyment of Peace and Good Order has deemed it necessary in consequence of the great number of Her Majesty's Subjects who have already settled in New Zealand and the rapid extension of Emigration both from Europe and Australia which is still in progress to constitute and appoint a functionary properly authorised to treat with the Aborigines of New Zealand for the recognition of Her Majesty's Sovereign authority over the whole or any part of those islands - Her Majesty therefore being desirous to establish a settled form of Civil Government with a view to avert the evil consequences which must result from the absence of the necessary Laws and Institutions alike to the native population and to Her subjects has been graciously pleased to empower and to authorise me William Hobson a Captain in Her Majesty's Royal Navy Consul and Lieutenant-Governor of such parts of New Zealand as may be or hereafter shall be ceded to her Majesty to invite the confederated and independent Chiefs of New Zealand to concur in the following Articles and Conditions.

The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess over their respective Territories as the sole sovereigns thereof.

Her Majesty the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession; but the Chiefs of the United Tribes and the individual Chiefs yield to Her Majesty the exclusive right of Preemption over such lands as the proprietors thereof may be disposed to alienate at such prices as may be agreed upon between the respective Proprietors and persons appointed by Her Majesty to treat with them in that behalf.

In consideration thereof Her Majesty the Queen of England extends to the Natives of New Zealand Her royal protection and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.

William Hobson,
Lieutenant Governor

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Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi - copyright Alexander Turnbull Library