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He Whakaputanga – Declaration of Independence

by Basil Keane

In 1835 northern chiefs signed a Declaration of Independence, asserting their sovereignty over New Zealand. The declaration had been drafted by a British official, prompted in part by rumours that a Frenchman was planning to declare himself king of New Zealand.

Background to the declaration

Appointment of the British Resident

In the early 19th century European traders, whalers and settlers were increasingly coming to New Zealand. Māori, missionaries and other European settlers were concerned about the lack of legal restraints on behaviour and the need for some kind of government. The visit of the French ship La Favorite in 1831 led to British concerns about other nations annexing New Zealand.

In 1831, 13 northern chiefs, assisted by missionary William Yate, sent a letter to King William IV requesting his protection. As a result James Busby was appointed as British Resident in New Zealand (an official position). He arrived in 1833, but was not well equipped. He had no army or police force to support him, and he had to use diplomacy to achieve anything. He was described as a man o’ war (warship) without guns.

United Tribes’ flag

New Zealand-owned ships were in danger of being seized as they did not fly a national flag. In 1830 the Sir George Murray, a ship part-owned by chiefs Patuone and Taonui, was seized in Sydney for not having a national flag.

Busby called together a number of northern chiefs to vote for a national flag. Three options were presented, which had been organised by missionary Henry Williams. On 20 March 1834, at Waitangi, the chiefs selected one which became known as the United Tribes’ flag. It received a 21-gun salute, and was eventually recognised by the British king and became a national flag for ships from New Zealand. Busby hoped to get Māori to work together collectively and he hoped this new national flag might encourage inter-tribal cooperation.

The declaration is signed

As well as concerns about lawlessness, there had also been concerns about the interest in New Zealand shown by France and the United States. This came to a head in 1834 when a French national, Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry was thought to be heading to New Zealand with a plan to declare a sovereign and independent state of Hokianga.

A number of northern chiefs were brought together by Busby at Waitangi to sign the Declaration of Independence. On 28 October 1835 the declaration was signed by 34 northern chiefs. Signatures continued to be added until 1839, by which time it had 52 signatures. These included the signatures of Te Wherowhero, the chief of Waikato who would later become the first Māori king, and chief Te Hāpuku of Ngāti Kahungunu.

The contents of the declaration

Framing the declaration

The declaration was drafted by James Busby, Henry Williams and missionary printer William Colenso.

The declaration that was signed was in Māori, but a translation into English was made. A comparison of the two texts suggests that the English translation was not carefully done. Each article in Māori uses ‘matou’ (us or we) to refer to the confederation of tribes, while in English the first article uses, ‘we’, but the other articles refer to the confederation in the third person (that is, they). No ‘wh’ was used in the declaration (or in the later Treaty of Waitangi) as it had not come into use in Māori orthography.

The full title of the declaration was He w[h]akaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene, Declaration of Independence of New Zealand.

The articles of the declaration

The declaration had four articles.

The first article declared a ‘w[h]enua rangatira’ (independent state), and while declaring ‘rangatiratanga’ (independence) the chiefs called themselves ‘te Wakaminenga o nga Hapu o Nu Tirene’ (the United Tribes of New Zealand).

The second article declared the ‘kingitanga’ (sovereign power) and ‘mana i te w[h]enua’ (authority in the land) to be held by the chiefs of the United Tribes in their collective capacity. It also declared that laws were to be made by huihuinga (congress).

The third article stated that the huihuinga would meet in autumn each year. It would act as a parliament and its role would be to frame laws, dispense justice, preserve peace and good order, and regulate trade. The congress also invited southern tribes (those south of Hauraki) to join the United Tribes.

The fourth article said that a copy of the declaration would be sent to the king of England and thanked him for acknowledging the flag. It also asked for him to be a parent of the infant state.

The declaration was forwarded to King William IV and ultimately recognised by Britain.

The aftermath of the declaration

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.

    • Quoted in Benedict Kingsbury, 'The Treaty of Waitangi: some international law aspects.' In Waitangi: Maori and Pakeha perspectives of the Treaty of Waitangi, edited by I. H. Kawharu. Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1989, p. 124. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'He Whakaputanga – Declaration of Independence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2023)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012