Kotahitanga means unity. Kotahitanga movements are Māori political movements that aim to unify Māori on a pan-tribal basis.
Kotahitanga movements were diverse; some were regional, while others were nationalist. Some attempted to unite tribes in a federation, others sought to switch loyalty from the tribe to the movement itself. Other movements aimed to unite Māori in pan-Māori organisations with no reference to their tribal origin. Some had a religious element at their core, reflecting the fact that traditional Māori society had a religious element. Some movements have been entirely independent of the government, while others have been state sponsored.
The 1834 flag
An early example of a kotahitanga movement dates back to the search for a national flag for New Zealand. Before 1840, when New Zealand became part of the British Empire, ships that were built in New Zealand were not entitled to fly the British flag. One New Zealand ship called the Sir George Murray, part-owned by northern chiefs Patuone and Taonui, was impounded, with Patuone on board, for not having a flag or register. To solve this issue, the British Resident (a representative of the British government) James Busby organised a meeting with northern chiefs to select a flag for use by ships from New Zealand. On 20 March 1834 the flag, known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, was adopted by 25 northern rangatira at Waitangi. The flag and informal Māori registers were recognised by Britain.
The Declaration of Independence
A year after a national flag was chosen, Busby organised a meeting at Waitangi for a number of northern chiefs. On 28 October 1835 they signed a Declaration of Independence, Te Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene, in which they declared their sovereignty (rangatiratanga) and a sovereign state (whenua rangatira). Initially it was northern chiefs who signed, but over the next few years other chiefs signed, including Waikato chief Te Wherowhero, and Hawke’s Bay chief Te Hāpuku. The united tribes were supposed to meet each year in a congress. However, this did not happen.
He iwi kotahi tātou – We are one people
At the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Lieutenant Governor Hobson said ‘He iwi kotahi tātou’ (We are now one people) as he shook the hand of each signatory to the treaty. This idea of unity between Māori and Pākehā was occasionally expressed in Māori writings as ‘kotahitanga’. A Ngāti Whātua letter to the governor in 1860 spoke of ‘ko te kotahitanga o enei iwi e rua’ (the union of the two races).1 However, the usual use of the term referred to unity between Māori people.
The Treaty of Waitangi, 1840
The Treaty of Waitangi is often referred to as New Zealand’s founding document. It was a treaty between Queen Victoria as head of state and the various Māori chiefs. One of the reasons for organising a treaty to negotiate the transfer of sovereignty was because the united tribes had declared their independence in 1835. The treaty specifically refers to the earlier declaration when it noted that those who sign the treaty are, ‘The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs’. The English version of the treaty purports to transfer sovereignty from Māori to Britain, while the Māori versions transfers ‘kāwanatanga’. In English Māori retained ownership of their properties, while in Māori they retained ‘te tino rangatiratanga’. Problematically, ‘rangatiratanga’ had been referred to in the Declaration of Independence as meaning ‘independence’. There has been much debate since about the true meaning of rangatiratanga, but historically Māori came to see the treaty as a basis of independence and a justification of independent kotahitanga movements.