The Treaty of Waitangi is a much mentioned subject in present-day New Zealand. Held by many to be our country’s founding document, it is both a source of national identity and a cause of on-going controversy. But how many of us really know anything about it other than that it’s responsible for a public holiday? What follows is a nutshell version of the Treaty and its history.

Background to the Treaty

1832 - James Busby sent by the British Government to be the British Resident in New Zealand in response to a request by Northern Maori for help in protecting their lands from the French.

1835 - The Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, a document drafted by Busby, is signed at Waitangi by 35 Northern Maori chiefs.

1836 - The Declaration of Independence is ratified by Britain, officially recognising that the Sovereignty of New Zealand is held by the Maori chiefs.

• It seems at this point that Britain’s intention was for a Maori-run New Zealand in which British settlers could co-exist. Three years later, however, it became plain that there had been an about-face.

1839 - The territory of New South Wales is expanded to include New Zealand. The Governor of N.S.W., George Gipps, is appointed Governor over New Zealand.

• This expansion of New South Wales was tantamount to the annexation of New Zealand and signalled the desire by Britain to establish the country as one of its colonies. There was, however, a problem. Because Britain had ratified the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, the House of Commons ruled that annexation of the country, nominally a Maori sovereign state at that point, would be illegal unless Maori ceded sovereignty to Britain.

1840 - On January 29th William Hobson, the new Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand arrives in the Bay of Islands, tasked with creating a treaty that will voluntarily transfer sovereignty from Maori to the British Crown (and thus allow annexation).

• As Hobson had not been provided with a treaty document prior to his arrival in New Zealand he wrote his own with the assistance of his secretary, James Freeman, and British Resident, James Busby. The document was then translated into Maori by missionaries Henry and Edward Williams.

February 5th – The treaty is presented to a gathering of northern chiefs in the grounds of James Busby’s house in Waitangi.

February 6th – The Treaty of Waitangi is signed by 45 of the attending chiefs. Additional copies of the treaty are circulated throughout both islands, gaining an additional 500 signatures.

May 21st – Despite a refusal to sign by certain chiefs and tribes, Hobson declares British sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand.

November 16th – New Zealand is constituted as a British colony separate from New South Wales.

What Does the Treaty Actually Contain?

Though the Treaty of Waitangi would leave a trail of controversy and conflict in its wake, it is not a long or particularly complex document and consists of only three articles. The English version grants that:

1/ The Queen of the United Kingdom shall have sovereignty over New Zealand.

2/ The chiefs are guaranteed “exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties.” The second article also states that Maori are only allowed to sell land to the Crown (known as the pre-emption clause).

3/ Maori are guaranteed the same rights as all other British subjects.

Why Has There Been So Much Controversy?

In the main the controversy around the treaty stems from differences between the English version and its Maori translation. Of particular difficulty are the interpretations of the concepts of kawanatanga (governorship), rangatiritanga (chieftainship), and taonga (treasures).

The term kawanatanga was used in article one of the Maori translation of the treaty in relation to the cessation of sovereignty by Maori to the Crown. It is unlikely, in 1840, that many Maori understood the European notion of sovereignty and therefore, may not have known exactly what they were giving away to the British. Kawanatanga is, in fact, a transliteration of the word ‘governorship’ and was not properly part of the Maori language. Further, it may be argued that the idea of ‘governorship’ is something entirely different to that of ‘sovereignty’.

Similarly, the terms rangatiritanga or ‘chieftainship’, and taonga or ‘treasures’, used in article two of the Maori version of the treaty, suffer a laxity of definition. How far does ‘chieftainship’ extend? What delineates it from ‘governorship’? And the use of taonga – the British understood this to mean property in the traditional, physical, European sense. For Maori the notion of taonga has a broader meaning that can encompass such culturally relevant intangibles as language.

Legacy of the Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi, seeking as it did to meld two very different cultures, has had far-reaching and divergent repercussions for modern-day New Zealand. It has served as a bone of contention for Maori who believe it’s interpretation and application have been disadvantageous to their race, and it has stood centre-stage in a stream of land claim litigation. But, by recognising that Maori are entitled to equal rights and rights of ownership, however controversial the interpretation of these, it has also contributed to the world-leading level of social and cultural integration we enjoy in New Zealand today.

Understanding the Treaty of Waitangi, 3.8 out of 5 based on 11 ratings

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  1. Holly Roberts says:

    Very informative! Particularly the point that Northern Maori seeked help from the British to protect their lands from the French.

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  2. David says:

    As someone originally from Northern Ireland, where there is also a clash of cultures, I hope the clash here in New Zealand can remain in the realms of arguing over the meaning of the treaties (English and Maori). It is much better to talk than fight.

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  3. Harold says:

    great info guizzeeeeeeee <3 x0x0x0x0x i was like wow INFORMATION EVERYWHERE!!!

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    Rating: 3.0/5 (8 votes cast)
  4. mua den trang tri o dau ha noi says:

    Today, I went to the beach front with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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    Rating: 5.0/5 (3 votes cast)