Story: Nation and government

Page 1. The origins of nationhood

All images & media in this story

The Treaty of Waitangi

The story of New Zealand as a modern nation state began in 1840. In that year the country became a British colony when more than 500 Māori chiefs and representatives of Queen Victoria signed the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty is the country’s founding document.

The treaty in English and Māori

The treaty was written in English and translated into Māori. Most Māori chiefs signed this translation. It seems likely that the two peoples had a different understanding of certain key concepts.

After a preamble, which noted the need to provide for peace and good order, there were three ‘articles’. The English version of the first article stated that the chiefs ceded ‘the rights and powers of sovereignty’ to the Queen of England. The English understood sovereignty to mean supreme or ultimate authority. The Māori translation was ‘kāwanatanga’ or ‘governorship’, and was derived from the word ‘governor’. Māori might have understood this to mean power as exercised by the governor of New South Wales in Australia – a more distant and limited power than sovereignty.

In the second article the Queen guaranteed to Māori chiefs and tribes ‘the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties’. In the Māori version, chiefs and tribes were promised ‘te tino rangatiratanga’. This meant the full essence of chieftainship, which Māori may have interpreted to be much closer to absolute power. In addition, the phrase ‘Forests Fisheries and other properties’ was translated as ‘taonga’ (treasures). This has subsequently been interpreted to include other treasures such as the Māori language.

The third article gave Māori the ‘rights and privileges’ of British subjects.

Exactly how the treaty was understood at the time is uncertain, and there have been many debates about its meaning since. All that can be said with certainty is that the chiefs who signed the treaty agreed that the British should exercise some sort of power or authority in New Zealand, and that people from Britain, Europe and Australia could settle in the country. They understood that in turn they were guaranteed possession of their lands, that they could maintain their own customs, and that the traditional authority of the chiefs would be upheld.

The treaty in law

The treaty still governs the relationship between the Crown and Māori. Its legal status has been debated, but the rights it proclaims are now enforceable in the courts, in certain circumstances.

Against the odds

Today the copy of the Treaty of Waitangi signed on 6 February 1840 has an honoured place in the He Tohu exhibition at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington. But it bears the scars of neglect. It had a narrow escape in 1841, when the Auckland public offices where it was kept burned down. In the later 19th century, while in storage in Wellington, the document was gnawed by rats and damaged by water. Later it was transferred to the Alexander Turnbull Library for safe-keeping, then placed on public display once the treaty was recognised to be one of the nation’s founding documents.

The Waitangi Tribunal

The Waitangi Tribunal, first established in 1975, hears claims by Māori who believe they have been prejudicially affected by legislation or practices of the Crown. In 1985 the tribunal was empowered to hear claims relating to any actions by the Crown since 1840. More than 2,000 claims have been made to the tribunal. Ngāi Tahu made a successful claim on the grounds that promises were not honoured when the tribe sold its land to the government in the mid-19th century. Several North Island tribes have lodged claims that the confiscation of land during the wars of the 1860s was unjust. The tribunal makes recommendations on claims which the government can either accept or reject.

The tribunal can also be asked to report whether any proposed legislation runs contrary to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Once the Waitangi Tribunal has made a recommendation on a claim, the Office of Treaty Settlements negotiates a settlement between the tribe concerned and the Crown.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Nation and government - The origins of nationhood', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2016