Waitangi Day is New Zealand’s national public holiday. Celebrated on the 6th of February each year it serves to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and provides a focus for national pride. But how did it come into being? What chain of events blessed us with another day off work?
Waitangi – The Early Days
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the grounds of James Busby’s house in Waitangi in 1840. James Busby was the British Resident for New Zealand at the time and had, six years earlier, drafted the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand which the treaty sought to replace. The signing of these two documents guaranteed the site a place in New Zealand history.
It took almost another hundred years, though, for the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi to begin to be marked in any public way.
In the early 1930s Governor-General Lord Bledisloe bought James Busby’s house and grounds and in 1934 gifted them to the nation in the hope that they would serve to symbolise the uniting effects the Treaty of Waitangi had had on the population of New Zealand.
The celebrations held at the site in 1934 to mark Bledisloe’s gift might be considered to be the very first Waitangi Day. Annual celebrations, however, did not commence from this date and commemorations of nationhood continued, as they had up to that date, to be held on the 29th of January – the date in 1840 when William Hobson arrived as Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand in the Bay of Islands.
Although the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was observed at the Waitangi site in 1940, it was not until 1947 that yearly commemorations of Waitangi Day began. In that year a Royal New Zealand Navy ceremony was held at Waitangi. It was a low-key event and featured no Maori. In subsequent years, though, the ceremony grew in stature and Maori participation increased steadily. By 1958 the importance of the event to the country had grown to such an extent that the Prime Minister began to attend.
The first proposal that Waitangi Day be made a public holiday was mooted in 1957 by the New Zealand Labour Party. After their election, though, rather than create an entirely new public holiday, Labour passed the 1960 Waitangi Day Act. This allowed individual localities to redesignate an existing public holiday as Waitangi Day. For instance, in 1963 Auckland Anniversary Day became Waitangi Day for Northland.
In 1971 Matiu Rata, Labour shadow minister for Maori Affairs, introduced a private members’ bill to make Waitangi Day a national public holiday in its own right. This bill failed, but after a successful 1972 election, Labour announced that from 1974 the 6th of February would be a national holiday called New Zealand Day.
The Final Step
And so we had our new Waitangi holiday in everything but name. The final step in the process came with the election of the National government in 1975. The combination of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s personal dislike for the name New Zealand Day, and Maori sentiment, which tended to feel that it undermined the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi, led in 1976 to the passing to a second Waitangi Day Act which renamed New Zealand Day… Waitangi Day.
Take a tour of the historic Watangi site with this video.Waitangi Day – The History of Our National Holiday,