What is the Treaty of Waitangi?
The Treaty of Waitangi is an agreement made in 1840 between representatives of the British Crown and more than 500 Māori chiefs. It resulted in the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand by Lieutenant Governor William Hobson in May 1840. Most chiefs signed a Māori-language version of the treaty. The English- and Māori-language versions held different meanings, and Māori and Europeans therefore had different expectations of the treaty’s terms. Ever since, resolution of these differences has presented New Zealand with challenges.
New Zealand before the treaty
In the 1830s an independent, Māori-controlled New Zealand was a frontier outpost of the British penal colony of New South Wales. As New Zealand’s trade and shipping expanded, relations between Māori and Europeans 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 European 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 New Zealand. 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 the 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 Māori would consent to becoming British. His instructions directed him to negotiate for the sovereignty 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 the treaty
Hobson arrived at 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), tidied these up and added to them. Over one evening, the notes were translated into Māori by the missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward.
Hobson presented this Māori-language treaty to a meeting of around 500 Māori invited to Waitangi on 5 February. They held a lively debate on the possible effects of the treaty on their chiefly authority, land and trade, but no agreement was reached when the day-long meeting closed.
One of the Ngāpuhi chiefs debating the treaty at Waitangi on 5 February 1840 was Rewa of Kororāreka (later renamed 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 father’s land’.1
Treaty first signed
The following day, 6 February 1840, with little further debate, more than 40 chiefs agreed to sign the treaty. The French Catholic Bishop Jean Baptiste François Pompallier requested that all religious beliefs should be allowed in the new colony, and Hobson agreed to this. In the following days, meetings at Waimate North and Hokianga added further signatures and marks of agreement to the treaty. This agreement was not unanimous, and some chiefs expressed strong reservations about signing.
Hobson was quick to report to the British government that his mission was successful. He noted that he had secured agreement to British sovereignty, especially from a number of chiefs who had already signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, in which 52 chiefs, mainly from Northland, had declared their sovereignty over New Zealand.
The missionaries involved in treaty meetings recognised the mana of chiefly women and took several signatures from them. Women who signed the treaty included Rangi Topeora at Kapiti; Kahe Te Rau-o-te-Rangi at Wellington; Rere-o-maki at Whanganui; Ana Hamu at Waitangi and Ereonora at Kaitāia.
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 handwritten copies of the Māori-language treaty were taken around the country over the following seven months. Nine of these copies have survived and are held by Archives New Zealand.
More than 500 chiefs, including a number of women, signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Nearly all signed a Māori-language copy. The exception was an English-language copy signed by 39 chiefs at Manukau Harbour and Waikato Heads. Each treaty copy was also signed by European witnesses who varied from place to place.