Story: Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi

Page 1. Creating te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi

All images & media in this story

What is te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi?

Te Tiriti o Waitangi (known in English as the Treaty of Waitangi), is an agreement made in 1840 between representatives of the British Crown and (ultimately) more than 500 rangatira Māori. It resulted in the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand by Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson in May 1840. Most Māori signed the te reo tiriti.

The English treaty and the te reo tiriti held different meanings. Māori and Pākehā therefore had different expectations of the treaty’s terms. Ever since, resolution of these differences has presented New Zealand with challenges.

New Zealand before te Tiriti o Waitangi

In the 1830s an independent, hapū-controlled Aotearoa was also a frontier outpost of the British penal colony of New South Wales. As New Zealand’s trade and shipping expanded, relations between Māori and Pākehā depended on a good working accord, but violence sometimes flared up. British law did not extend to controlling unruly British subjects in New Zealand, so some Pākehā residents asked the British government to intervene to maintain order. It was reluctant to do so.

The British government was more concerned by other developments. European speculators were reported to have purchased vast areas of Te Ika-a-Maui and Te Waipounamu (the North and South Islands). At the same time, the London-based New Zealand Company had firm plans for organised settlement in New Zealand. In 1839 the company prepared to buy land on either side of Te Moana-o-Raukawa (Cook Strait), and dispatched ships there carrying several hundred settlers.

From independence to British colony

The British government finally decided to take action on New Zealand in 1839. It appointed a naval captain, William Hobson, as consul to an independent New Zealand, and as lieutenant-governor to any parts of the country that hapū and rangatira would consent to becoming British. His instructions directed him to negotiate for the sovereignty of all or parts of New Zealand, and to establish a British colony. En route from Britain Hobson received advice from George Gipps, the governor of New South Wales, about drafting a treaty with Māori.

Drafting and translating te tiriti

Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands on 29 January 1840. With the help of his secretary, James Freeman, he drew up some notes for a treaty. James Busby, the British Resident (an official position as a consular representative), tidied these up and added to them. Over an evening, the notes were translated into te reo Māori by the missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward.

Hobson presented this te reo Māori treaty (te tiriti) to around 500 Māori invited to Waitangi on 5 February. They held a lively debate on the possible effects of the treaty on their rangatiratanga, land and trade, but no agreement had been reached when the day-long meeting closed.


One of the Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Tawake rangatira debating the treaty at Waitangi on 5 February 1840 was Rewa of Kororāreka (also known as Russell). He may have been advised by Bishop Pompallier, who lived near him. Rewa told the meeting that Māori did not need a governor, for they were neither ‘whites nor foreigners’. Although a good deal of land had already been taken up by Europeans, ‘this country is ours … we are the Governor – we, the chiefs of this our fathers’ land’.1

Treaty first signed

On the night of the 5th, rangatira gathered at Te Tii near the Waitangi River to discuss whether they would give their agreement to the treaty. The following day, 6 February 1840, with little further debate, more than 40 rangatira agreed to sign te tiriti. This document was written in te reo. Some drew their moko as their signature. The French Catholic Bishop Jean Baptiste François Pompallier was present that day and requested that all religious beliefs should be allowed in the new colony. Hobson agreed to this (although this promise was not added in writing).

In the following days, meetings at Waimate North and Hokianga added further signatures and marks of agreement to the treaty. Not all the signatures and names are clear, but it seems around 240 people signed this original sheet. Agreement was not unanimous, and some rangatira expressed strong reservations about signing.

Hobson was quick to report to the British government that his mission had been successful. He noted that he had secured agreement to British sovereignty, especially from a number of rangatira who had signed the 1835 He Whakaputanga Declaration of Independence, in which (eventually) 52 rangatira, mainly from Northland, had declared their sovereignty over their whenua.

Women signatories

The missionaries involved in treaty meetings recognised the mana of chiefly wāhine and took several signatures from them. At least 13 women are thought to have signed around the country. Women who signed the treaty included Te Rangitopeora (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa) at Kāpiti; Kahe Te Rau-o-te-Rangi (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Mutunga and Te Āti Awa) at Wellington; Rere-o-maki (Te Arawa and Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi) at Whanganui; Ana Hamu (Ngāpuhi) at Waitangi and Ereonora ( Te Rarawa) at Kaitāia.

See associated resource about the women of mana who signed te Tiriti.

Gathering further signatures

Before Hobson could collect further signatures, he fell seriously ill. Two army officers and several missionaries were given responsibility for seeking agreement to the treaty elsewhere in the country. Several copies of te Tiriti o Waitangi were taken around the country over the following seven months. Some 50 other events were held around the country, with rangatira gathering to discuss and consider the document and whether they would sign. Copies were taken to places in the top half of the North Island, including the East Coast, Waikato, Manukau and Tauranga, and two were taken further afield, to Wellington, Kāpiti and the South Island. Nine of these copies have survived and are under the statutory guardianship and care of Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga Archives New Zealand.

More than 500 rangatira, including a number of women, signed te Tiriti o Waitangi. Nearly all signed a Māori-language copy. The exception was an English-language copy signed by 39 rangatira at Manukau Harbour and Waikato Heads. Each copy of te tiriti was also signed by European witnesses, who varied from place to place.

See associated resource about the 500-plus rangatira who signed te tiriti, the signing meetings, and locations.

  1. W. Colenso, The authentic and genuine history of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand, February 5 and 6 1840. Wellington: Government Printer, 1890, p. 19. Back
How to cite this page:

Claudia Orange, 'Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi - Creating te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 February 2024)

Story by Claudia Orange, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 28 Mar 2023 with assistance from Claudia Orange