There are differing evaluations of the significance of the Declaration of Independence. Some have argued that it was largely driven by British Resident James Busby to try to get assistance from chiefs in maintaining law and order. Others have argued that it was part of a tribal strategy to gain recognition of national independence.
Following the signing of the declaration, the promised huihuinga (congress) did not meet. One of the difficulties was that a number of inter-tribal wars were happening at the time.
Recognition of the declaration
Britain recognised the declaration of independence in 1836. France acknowledged that the British had formally recognised the independent state of New Zealand under its native chiefs. The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations noted that the North Island had been, ‘under the dominion of the native tribes, and these were to a great extent confederated. This confederation was entered into October 28, 1835, by a convention of chieftains who declared their independence under the name of the United Tribes of New Zealand.’1
This recognition of New Zealand’s independence was one of the reasons that the British felt that te Tiriti o Waitangi, which was signed in 1840 and made New Zealand a colony of Britain, was required. The first article of the treaty specifically refers to ‘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’ as signatories.
Issues with te Tiriti o Waitangi
One of the issues around te Tiriti o Waitangi was that in English it was supposed to subsume the Declaration of Independence. However, in the declaration the United Tribes had claimed ‘independence’ using the term ‘rangatiratanga’. In the Māori text of te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, Māori were guaranteed ‘rangatiratanga’ under article two. Additionally, sovereignty was translated as ‘kāwanatanga’ (governorship). Neither of the words ‘kingitanga’ or ‘mana’, which had been used in the declaration to refer to sovereignty, were used. Kotahitanga (Māori unity) movements in the 19th century would refer to the Declaration of Independence and te Tiriti o Waitangi together as preserving Māori independence, largely due to the use of ‘rangatiratanga’ in both documents.