On February 6, 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi ITe Tiriti o Waitangi in Māori) was signed by representatives of the British Crown and Māori chiefs (rangatira), establishing New Zealand as a British colony.The Treaty of Waitangi. It is a document of central importance to the history and political constitution of the state of New Zealand, and has been highly significant in framing the political relations between the government and the Māori population.
The Treaty was written at a time when British colonists were pressuring the Crown to establish a colony in New Zealand, and when some Māori leaders had petitioned the British for protection against French forces. It was drafted with the intention of establishing a British Governor of New Zealand, recognizing Māori ownership of their lands, forests and other possessions, and giving Māori the rights of British subjects. It was intended to ensure that when the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand was made by Lieutenant Governor William Hobson in May 1840, the Māori people would not feel that their rights had been ignored.
The first contact between the Māori and Europeans was in 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman arrived and was fought off, and again in 1769 when the English navigator Captain James Cook claimed New Zealand for Britain at the Mercury Islands. Nevertheless, the British government showed little interest in following up this claim for over half a century. The first mention of New Zealand in British statutes is in the Murders Abroad Act of 1817, which clarified that New Zealand was not a British colony (despite being claimed by Captain Cook) and “not within His Majesty’s dominions.”
Between 1795 and 1830, a steady flow of sealing and then whaling ships visited New Zealand, mainly stopping at the Bay of Islands for food supplies and recreation. Many of the ships came from Sydney. Trade between Sydney and New Zealand increased as traders sought kauri timber and flax and missionaries purchased large areas of land in the Bay of Islands. This trade was seen as mutually advantageous, and Māori tribes competed for access to the services of Europeans that had chosen to live on the islands because they brought goods and knowledge that were essential to the local iwi (the Māori word for the social unit often called “tribe” or “people”). At the same time, Europeans living in New Zealand needed the protection that Māori chiefs could provide. As a result of trade, Māori society changed drastically up to the 1840s. They changed their society from one of subsistence farming and gathering to cultivating useful trade crops.
The Māori generally respected the British, partially due to encouragement from missionaries and also due to British status as a major maritime power, which had been made apparent to Māori traveling outside New Zealand. The other major powers in the area around the 1830s included American whalers, whom the Māori accepted as cousins of the British, and French Catholics who came for trade and as missionaries. The Māori were still deeply distrustful of the French, due to a massacre of 250 people that had occurred in 1772, when they retaliated for the killing of Marion du Fresne and some of his crew.
While the threat of the French never materialized, in 1831 it prompted thirteen rangatira from the far north of the country to meet at Kerikeri to compose a letter to King William IV asking for help to guard their lands. It is the first known plea for British intervention written by Māori. In response, the British government sent James Busby in 1832 to be the British Resident in New Zealand. In 1834, Busby drafted a document known as the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand which he and 35 northern Māori chiefs signed at Waitangi on October 28, 1835, establishing those chiefs as representatives of a proto-state under the title of the “United Tribes of New Zealand”. This document was not well received by the Colonial Office in Britain, and it was decided that a new policy for New Zealand was needed.
From May to July 1836, Royal Navy officer Captain William Hobson, under instruction from Sir Richard Bourke, visited New Zealand to investigate claims of lawlessness in its settlements. Hobson recommended in his report that British sovereignty be established over New Zealand, in small pockets similar to the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada. Hobson’s report was forwarded to the Colonial Office. From April to May 1838, the House of Lords held a select committee into the “State of the Islands of New Zealand”. The New Zealand Association (later the New Zealand Company), missionaries, Joel Samuel Polack, and the Royal Navy made submissions to the committee.
On June 15, 1839, new Letters Patent were issued to expand the territory of New South Wales to include the entire territory of New Zealand, from latitude 34° South to 47° 10′ South, and from longitude 166° 5′ East to 179° East. Governor of New South Wales George Gipps was appointed Governor over New Zealand. This was the first clear expression of British intent to annex New Zealand.
Hobson was called to the Colonial Office on the evening of August 14, 1839, and given instructions to take the constitutional steps needed to establish a British colony. He was appointed Consul to New Zealand and was instructed to negotiate a voluntary transfer of sovereignty from the Māori to the British Crown as the House of Lords select committee had recommended in 1837. Normanby gave Hobson three instructions – to seek a cession of sovereignty, to assume complete control over land matters, and to establish a form of civil government, but he did not provide a draft of the Treaty. Hobson’s instructions gave no provision for Māori government of any kind nor any Māori involvement in the administrative structure of the new colony.
Hobson left London on August 15 and was sworn in as Lieutenant-Governor in Sydney on January 14, 1840, finally arriving in the Bay of Islands on January 29. Meanwhile, a second New Zealand Company ship, the Cuba, had arrived in Port Nicholson on January 3 with a survey party to prepare for settlement. The Aurora, the first ship carrying immigrants, arrived on January 22.
On January 30. 1840, Hobson attended the Christ Church at Kororareka (Russell) where he publicly read a number of proclamations. The first was the Letters Patent 1839, in relation to the extension of the boundaries of New South Wales to include the islands of New Zealand. The second was in relation to Hobson’s own appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand. The third was in relation to land transactions (notably on the issue of pre-emption).
Without a draft document prepared by lawyers or Colonial Office officials, Hobson was forced to write his own treaty with the help of his secretary, James Freeman, and British Resident James Busby, neither of whom was a lawyer. Historian Paul Moon believes certain articles of the Treaty resemble the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the British Sherbro Agreement (1825) and the treaty between Britain and Soombia Soosoos (1826).
The entire Treaty was prepared in four days, in which it underwent many revisions. There were doubts even during the drafting process that the Māori chiefs would be able to understand the concept of relinquishing ‘sovereignty’. Realizing that a treaty in English could not be understood, debated or agreed to by Māori, Hobson instructed missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward Marsh Williams, who was more proficient in Te Reo, the Māori language, to translate the document, and this was done overnight on February 4.
The translation of the Treaty was reviewed by James Busby, and he proposed the substitution of the word whakaminenga for huihuinga, to describe the “Confederation” or gathering of the chiefs. This no doubt was a reference to the northern confederation of chiefs with whom Hobson preferred to negotiate, who eventually made up the vast majority of signatories to the Treaty. Hobson believed that elsewhere in the country the Crown could exercise greater freedom over the rights of ‘first discoverers’, which proved unwise as it led to future difficulties with other tribes in the South Island.
On February 5, the original English version Treaty and its translation into Māori were put before a gathering of northern chiefs inside a large marquee on the lawn in front of Busby’s house at Waitangi. Hobson read the Treaty aloud in English and Williams read his Māori version. Māori chiefs then debated the Treaty for five hours, much of which was recorded and translated by the Paihia missionary station printer, William Colenso. Rewa, a Catholic chief, who had been influenced by the French Catholic Bishop Pompallier, said “The Māori people don’t want a governor! We aren’t European. It’s true that we’ve sold some of our lands. But this country is still ours! We chiefs govern this land of our ancestors”. Moka ‘Kainga-mataa’ argued that all land unjustly purchased by Europeans should be returned. Whai asked: “Yesterday I was cursed by a white man. Is that the way things are going to be?”. Protestant Chiefs such as Hōne Heke, Pumuka, Te Wharerahi, Tamati Waka Nene and his brother Eruera Maihi Patuone were accepting of the Governor. Hōne Heke said:
Governor, you should stay with us and be like a father. If you go away then the French or the rum sellers will take us Māori people over. How to you. Some of you tell Hobson to go. But that’s not going to solve our difficulties. We have already sold so much land here in the north. We have no way of controlling the Europeans who have settled on it. I’m amazed to hear you telling him to go! Why didn’t you tell the traders and grog-sellers to go years ago? There are too many Europeans here now and there are children that will unite our races.
Afterward, the chiefs then moved to a river flat below Busby’s house and lawn and continued deliberations late into the night. Hobson had planned for the signing to occur on February 7. However, on the morning of February 6, 45 chiefs were waiting ready to sign. Around noon, a ship carrying two officers from HMS Herald arrived and were surprised to hear they were waiting for the Governor so a boat was quickly dispatched back to let him know. Although the official painting of the signing shows Hobson wearing full naval regalia, he was in fact not expecting the chiefs that day and was wearing his dressing gown or “in plain clothes, except his hat”.
The Treaty signing began in the afternoon. Hobson headed the British signatories. Hōne Heke was the first of the Māori chiefs who signed that day. As each chief signed, Hobson said “He iwi tahi tātou“, meaning “We are [now] one people”. Two chiefs, Marupō and Ruhe, protested strongly against the Treaty as the signing took place but they eventually signed and after Marupō shook the Governor’s hand, seized hold of his hat which was on the table and gestured to put it on.
Busby’s house would later become known as the Treaty House and is today New Zealand’s most visited historic building. The grounds had previously been the site of other important events, such as the signing of the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand in 1835. The property remained in the Busby family until 1882, when it was sold to a local farmer. For at least some of the next few years it was used for agricultural purposes, including shearing sheep. It fell into disrepair, despite some efforts to bring it into public ownership. These were successful in 1932, when Governor General Viscount Bledisloe purchased the property and donated it to the nation. The house was subsequently restored by leading architect William Henry Gummer. This was one of the earliest major state restorations of a historic building in New Zealand. The grounds were dedicated as a national reserve in 1934, in a ceremony attended by thousands of people, both Māori and Pākehā, and including the Māori King. It was the site of another major event in 1940, when the centenary of the Treaty signing was celebrated. From 1947, the grounds became the site of annual Waitangi Day celebrations.In preparation for the 1990 sesquicentennial of the Treaty signing, the house was modified to more accurately reflect what it would have been like in 1840.
Once the Treaty had been written and translated, it was first signed by Northern Māori leaders at Waitangi, and subsequently copies of the Treaty were taken around New Zealand and over the following months many other chiefs signed. Around 530 to 540 Māori, at least 13 of them women, signed the Treaty of Waitangi, despite some Māori leaders cautioning against it. An immediate result of the Treaty was that Queen Victoria’s government gained the sole right to purchase land.
In total, there are nine signed copies of the Treaty of Waitangi including the sheet signed on February 6, 1840, at Waitangi. In 1841, Treaty documents, housed in an iron box, narrowly escaped damage when the government offices at Official Bay in Auckland were destroyed by fire. They disappeared from sight until 1865 when a Native Department officer worked on them in Wellington at the request of parliament and produced an erroneous list of signatories. The papers were fastened together and then deposited in a safe in the Colonial Secretary’s office.
In 1877, the English-language rough draft of the Treaty was published along with photolithographic facsimiles, and the originals were returned to storage. In 1908, historian and bibliographer Dr. Thomas Hocken, searching for historical documents, found the Treaty papers in poor condition, damaged at the edges by water and partly eaten by rodents. The papers were restored by the Dominion Museum in 1913 and kept in special boxes from then on. In February 1940, the Treaty documents were taken to Waitangi for display in the Treaty House during the Centenary celebrations. It was possibly the first time the Treaty document had been on public display since it was signed. After the outbreak of war with Japan, they were placed with other state documents in an outsize luggage trunk and deposited for secure custody with the Public Trustee at Palmerston North by the local MP, who did not tell staff what was in the case. However, as the case was too large to fit in the safe, the Treaty documents spent the war at the side of a back corridor in the Public Trust office.
In 1956, the Department of Internal Affairs placed the Treaty documents in the care of the Alexander Turnbull Library and they were displayed in 1961. Further preservation steps were taken in 1966, with improvements to the display conditions. From 1977 to 1980, the library extensively restored the documents before the Treaty was deposited in the Reserve Bank.
The text of the Treaty includes a preamble and three articles. It is bilingual, with the Māori text translated from the English. Article one of the English text cedes “all rights and powers of sovereignty” to the Crown. Article two establishes the continued ownership of the Māori over their lands, and establishes the exclusive right of pre-emption of the Crown. Article three gives Māori people full rights and protections as British subjects. However, the English text and the Māori text differ in meaning significantly, particularly in relation to the meaning of having and ceding sovereignty. These discrepancies led to disagreements in the decades following the signing, eventually culminating in the New Zealand Wars.
During the second half of the 19th century, Māori generally lost control of the land they had owned, some through legitimate sale, but often due to unfair land deals or outright seizure in the aftermath of the New Zealand War. In the period following the New Zealand Wars, the New Zealand government mostly ignored the Treaty and a court case judgement in 1877 declared it to be “a simple nullity”.
Beginning in the 1950s, Māori increasingly sought to use the Treaty as a platform for claiming additional rights to sovereignty and to reclaim lost land, and governments in the 1960s and 1970s were responsive to these arguments, giving the Treaty an increasingly central role in the interpretation of land rights and relations between Māori people and the state.
In 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal was established as a permanent commission of inquiry tasked with interpreting the Treaty, researching breaches of the Treaty by the British Crown or its agents, and to suggest means of redress. In most cases, recommendations of the Tribunal are not binding on the Crown, but settlements totaling almost $1 billion have been awarded to various Māori groups. Various legislation passed in the later part of the 20th century has made reference to the Treaty, but the Treaty has never been made part of New Zealand municipal law. Nonetheless, the Treaty is widely regarded as the founding document of New Zealand.
Waitangi Day was established as a national holiday in 1974 and commemorates the date of the signing of the Treaty. The day was first commemorated in 1934, when the site of the original signing was made a public reserve. However, it was not until 1974 that the date was made a public holiday. Waitangi Day has been the focus of protest by Māori (as was particularly the case from the 1970s through to the 1990s), but today the day is often used as an opportunity to discuss the history and lasting effects of the Treaty. The anniversary is officially commemorated at the Treaty House at Waitangi.
In anticipation of a decision to exhibit the Treaty of Waitangi in 1990 (the sesquicentennial of the signing), full documentation and reproduction photography was carried out. Several years of planning culminated with the opening of the climate-controlled Constitution Room at the National Archives by Mike Moore, Prime Minister of New Zealand, in November 1990. It was announced in 2012 that the nine Treaty of Waitangi sheets would be relocated to the National Library of New Zealand in 2013. In 2017, the He Tohu permenant exhibition at the National Library opened, displaying the Treaty documents along with the Declaration of Independence and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition.
New Zealand has issued several stamps specifically commemorating the Treaty, the first being Scott #233 released on January 2, 1940, as part of a 10-stamp celebration of the colony’s centennial (Scott #229-238). A miniature sheet of five stamps was issued on February 5, 1974, marking New Zealand Day (Scott #552) with one stamp depicting Treaty House (Scott #552a) while another portrays the signing itself (Scott #552c). A souvenir sheet containing two stamps appeared on January 17, 1990, to commemorate the Treaty’s 150th anniversary (Stanley Gibbons #MS1540). Stanley Gibbons #MS3662 was released on February 4, 2015, for the 175th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi. This is a souvenir sheet with one $2.50 stamp showing the figures of Tamati Waka Nene and William Hobson shaking hands. The design combines a coin design by James Berry with contemporary Māori design.
The Waitangi Crown minted in 1935 was not technically a commemorative coin, but it functioned like one and was sold for more than its face value. The figures are set against a backdrop of sculptural designs executed by Rangi Kipa, based on his development of two Northland designs of unahi (fish scale) and kiri kiore (Pacific rat). The fish scale design references the value of the abundant sea life that formed a staple part of the diet sustaining the many Māori coastal communities and the kiri kiore design is a visual metaphor that relates the beauty of the Kiore pelt to that of a finely woven cloak which had great value in Maori society.
The souvenir sheet was designed by Rangi Kipa, Te Atiawa, Taranaki Tuturu, and Roy McDougall. It was printed by Southern Colour Print using four-color offset lithography, perforated 14½ x 14.