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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 man who signed te Tiriti.
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.
The meaning of te tiriti (the treaty) in Māori differed from the meaning of the treaty in English. There has been much debate over the differences. At the time it was signed, it is not clear how much notice was taken of the precise wording. The oral discussions before the signings may have mattered more than the written texts.
Most Māori signed the document written in te reo Māori.
Article OneTe reo Māori: rangatira gave the queen ‘te Kawanatanga katoa’ – the governance or government over the land.English: rangatira gave the queen ‘all the rights and powers of sovereignty’ over the land.
Article TwoTe reo Māori: confirmed and guaranteed the rangatira ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ – the exercise of chieftainship – over their lands, villages and ‘taonga katoa’ – all treasured things. Māori agreed to give the Crown the right to deal with them over land transactions.English: confirmed and guaranteed to the rangatira ‘exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries, and other properties’. The Crown sought an exclusive right to deal with Māori over land transactions.
Article ThreeTe reo Māori: The Crown gave an assurance that Māori would have the queen’s protection and all rights accorded British subjects. This was an accurate translation of the English text, although these rights were not defined.
In 1840, rangatira Māori decided for or against signing te tiriti on the basis of its Māori text and after weighing various considerations. They wanted regulated settlement and support in controlling settlers and land sales. Trade and the cash income from employment opportunities would bring benefits to Māori communities. The new relationship would also enable them to avoid the intertribal warfare that had escalated in previous decades.
Although rangatira were aware that a colonial administration would require some concessions to allow it to exercise power, they were assured by officials that their own authority was left in place by Article Two of te tiriti (in the Maori-language text). This suggested that authority would be shared between the government and rangatira. This shared authority would be enhanced by the other treaty articles, to Māori advantage.
Some rangatira had no opportunity to sign te tiriti, as there were apparently no treaty meetings in regions such as Taranaki and Wairarapa, and almost none in other areas, such as Hawke’s Bay. Sometimes rangatira were absent, and negotiators were too impatient to await their return.
Although a copy of te tiriti went into the central North Island, Te Arawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa rangatira refused to sign it. The impact of the European world on these inland tribes was less than on coastal iwi at that time. Rangatira valued their independence and were not prepared to place their mana under that of the British queen. The powerful Waikato rangatira Te Wherowhero also refused to sign, perhaps for this reason.
In districts where intertribal disputes were in progress, rangatira were not prepared to allow British interference. Tāraia (Ngāti Tamaterā and Ngāti Maru) of Thames and Tūpaea (Ngāi Te Rangi) of Tauranga refused to sign the treaty because they wanted to retain full control over their affairs, and settle their own disputes.
Although several powerful rangatira did not sign the treaty, the British Crown was given a considerable mandate for its colonisation plans. However, it was not an overwhelming mandate and was therefore likely to be challenged in the future.
Colonial officials mainly interpreted te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) on the basis of its English-language text, which placed less emphasis on maintaining the authority of rangatira than the Māori-language version. Within four years of the signing, officials admitted that the traditional rights of rangatira would have to be limited because they conflicted with Crown authority.
Even though many rangatira did not sign the te tiriti, the British government insisted that it placed all Māori under British authority. Government agents and successive governors asserted that the treaty gave protection and guarantees to Māori, but sometimes these intentions conflicted with official practice in handling legal and land issues. Violence between settlers and Māori at Wairau in 1843 and war in Northland in 1845 were early precursors of more serious battles to come. Occasionally the government chose to ignore te tiriti altogether. For example, the government succumbed to pressure from the New Zealand Company and validated its dubious purchases of Māori land to establish the town of Wellington.
Many Māori doubted that the Crown would uphold its obligations under te tiriti. Those doubts were confirmed in the decade after it was signed. The ‘protector of aborigines’, appointed by the government to defend Māori interests, became compromised by acting as a land-purchase negotiator. The position was abolished in 1846. In 1847, concerns that the Crown might seize uncultivated Māori land prompted an appeal from Waikato chief Te Wherowhero to Queen Victoria. Her assurance that treaty guarantees would be honoured was delivered to Māori by Governor George Grey.
In his 1860 book criticising government policy in Taranaki, William Martin, a former chief justice, wrote, ‘Here in New Zealand our nation has engaged in an enterprise most difficult, yet also most noble and worthy of England. We have undertaken to acquire these islands for the Crown and for our race, without violence and without fraud, and so that the native people, instead of being destroyed, should be protected and civilized … The compact is binding irrevocably. We cannot repudiate it so long as we retain the benefit which we obtained by it.'1
The government’s intention to honour the treaty is shown by many of its early dealings with iwi. However, in the 1840s the government had little or no authority in many parts of the country. The colonial Parliament, which first sat in 1854, hoped to acquire more substantial power and authority, and was not prepared to share that authority with Māori. Māori were, in effect, excluded from participating in political decisions at a national level.
Māori signatories were often eager for more – and profitable – contact with Pākehā, but the numbers of European colonists arriving in key settlements such as Auckland, Wellington and Nelson came as a shock. The settlers’ determination to acquire Māori land in or near these settlements was threatening to local Māori who did not wish to sell their land. In most other areas, however, life went on much as usual as iwi and hapū retained control over their tribal lands. In many regions, settlers relied on Māori for protection, food supplies and assistance. In the 1840s the power balance between Māori and European still favoured Māori in most areas.
Over the 1840s and 1850s European settlement expanded and tensions over land worsened. Many iwi responded by strengthening their traditional rūnanga. Waikato iwi formed an alliance, aiming for unity and drawing in iwi from other regions. In 1858 the Tainui chief Te Wherowhero was appointed head of this alliance and renamed Pōtatau, becoming the first Māori monarch. One aim of the Kīngitanga (the King movement) was to retain land by withholding it from sale. The Kīngitanga believed that the Māori king and British queen could coexist peacefully.
By the end of the 1850s, Pāhekā opinion on te tiriti was divided. Some settlers, such as William Martin (who wrote a book on the subject), felt that the honour of the Crown was at stake in upholding the treaty’s promises. Others thought that the treaty was not compatible with the advancement of European settlement. Government officials regarded the Māori king as a treasonable challenge to British sovereignty, so conflict between the Crown and Māori became almost inevitable.
In 1860 fighting broke out between Māori and British troops in Taranaki over a disputed land transaction. Governor Thomas Gore Browne hoped to convince Māori leaders to support his actions in Taranaki and reject the Kīngitanga. He called a conference of rangatira at Kohimarama, Auckland, in mid-1860. Over three weeks te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) was presented and explained to at least 200 rangatira, including many who had signed it. The rangatira discovered that they had differing understandings of te tiriti. Finally they passed a unanimous resolution, called the Kohimarama covenant, which both recognised the Crown’s sovereignty and confirmed chiefly rangatiratanga.
The Kohimarama resolution was similar to a formal ratification of the treaty. The government promised to convene further conferences to discuss sharing power, but no more were held. The rangatira who attended the conference expected to play a greater part in decision-making, but they were to be disappointed.
George Grey, recalled to a second governorship of New Zealand in 1861, saw the Kīngitanga as a direct challenge to Crown authority and the future of British settlement. The government responded to the movement by invading Waikato with British troops. This action escalated into warfare that spread to Bay of Plenty and elsewhere. The conflict was officially described as a suppression of Māori who were in rebellion against the Crown, but some politicians admitted that it was a war to assert British supremacy.
These military actions demonstrated to many Māori that the government had not upheld their rights under the treaty. The confiscation of Māori land in Waikato, Taranaki, Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay after the wars left a further legacy of bitterness.
The treaty’s promised protection of Māori land rights was ignored by successive governments. By 1860 almost the entire South Island had been alienated from Māori. The Native Land Court (later the Māori Land Court) converted iwi-owned Māori land rights into Crown-granted titles, making the land easier to sell. By the early 1890s around two-thirds of the North Island had been alienated, and land loss continued through the late 19th and 20th centuries.
By the 1870s te tiriti seemed to have disappeared from settler consciousness. It may have been practically unknown to the hundreds of thousands of migrants who flooded to New Zealand to ‘open up’ the country. By the end of the 1870s Māori were outnumbered ten to one by the Pāhekā population. Breaches of Māori rights under the treaty escalated as settlement extended across the North Island.
It became increasingly clear to Māori that te tiriti provided them with very limited protection. Court decisions, shady land dealings and legislation all played a part in undermining the treaty's guarantees. For instance, the treaty could not lessen the impact of the Public Works acts of 1864 and 1876. Together with later legislation, these acts enabled the Crown to compulsorily acquire Māori land for roads, railways and other public works.
The treaty’s promises to Māori of ‘exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries, and other properties’ were not upheld by settler actions such as foreshore reclamation, timber floatage (transporting timber downstream through flooding), which smashed fish weirs on rivers, and drainage schemes which damaged eel reserves and freshwater fishing. Local body works and the imposition of rates often caused economic disadvantage and land loss for iwi and hapū.
Māori looked closely at the promises made to them in te tiriti to try to solve problems arising from settlement and land loss. From the 1870s many hui debated issues of law and authority, land and fisheries. Ngāti Whātua, an iwi in the Auckland region led by the chief Paora Tūhaere, held major gatherings for this purpose in 1879 and the early 1880s. At Waitangi, Te Tii marae became a key place to deliberate on treaty issues.
At each of these conferences, strategies were adopted to redress the power imbalance between the Crown and Māori authority, and regain control of Māori affairs. Māori sent hundreds of petitions on treaty-related grievances to the government, to no avail.
In 1882, 1884, 1914 and 1924, deputations of Māori travelled to England to take petitions based on te tiriti to the British monarch and government. Each of these petitions asked for treaty rights to be observed. They were all referred back by the Crown to the New Zealand Parliament, which denied breaching te tiriti. Parliament clearly had no intention of upholding te tiriti as Māori understood it.
The first four Māori members of Parliament, elected in 1868, were not able to exert influence in a Parliament dominated by settler politicians. The Māori MPs introduced a long string of bills seeking to give effect to te tiriti and to obtain greater control for Māori over their own affairs. These were voted down by the other MPs.
Māori set up alternative institutions to assert their treaty rights. A pan-tribal Māori parliament, Te Kotahitanga o te Tiriti o Waitangi (the union of the Treaty of Waitangi), was formed in 1892. Its supporters hoped that a unified Māori voice might support the Māori MPs and be heard by Parliament in Wellington. However, politicians ignored the Kotahitanga parliament and it ceased meeting early in the 20th century.
The Kīngitanga had also established a parliament, Te Kauhanganui, in the 1880s. This grew more active in the early 20th century, and remained in existence in the 21st century. In 2008 representatives of Te Kauhanganui signed an agreement with the government for co-management of the Waikato River.
Despite the continuing sale of Māori land, relations between the government and Māori began to improve in the first decades of the 20th century. This gave Māori new hope that the government would respect their treaty rights.
An educated Māori elite increasingly participated in both the Māori and European worlds, and began to address Māori social problems. The most prominent member of this group was Apirana Ngata of Ngāti Porou, member of Parliament for the Eastern Māori electorate from 1905 to 1943. In the 1920s Ngata introduced schemes to develop Māori land and consolidate fragmented landholdings. Māori farming ventures received government funding for the first time.
The 1920s saw some government moves to address Māori grievances. In 1921 a Native Land Claims Commission upheld Ngāi Tahu’s grievances about land sales. In 1928 the Sim Commission validated many of the grievances of iwi whose lands had been confiscated following the wars of the 1860s. In both instances, it was not until the 1940s that settlements based on modest annual payments to trust boards were arranged.
For many years Māori had tried without success to secure fishing rights of various kinds. In the early 1920s the government acknowledged the long-standing claims of Te Arawa to traditional rights over lakes in the Rotorua region and agreed to pay compensation for the loss of fishing and burial rights in the lakes. In 1926 a similar agreement was reached with Ngāti Tūwharetoa over its rights in Lake Taupō and adjoining streams. These agreements raised Māori hopes about other treaty rights.
The Rātana Church, initially a prophetic movement, entered politics in the 1920s with the specific aim of securing treaty rights. It called for the ratification (legal recognition) of te tiriti. Until this was obtained, the Rātana Church said, the treaty could not be properly recognised and given effect to.
The Rātana political movement formed an alliance with the Labour Party and its parliamentary candidates won all four Māori seats in the 1943 general election. For the next 30 years, Rātana MPs sought to have te tiriti recognised in law.
Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) was largely ignored by European New Zealanders in the early 20th century, but it came to public attention in 1932. In that year the governor-general, Lord Bledisloe, and his wife gifted to the nation James Busby’s house at Waitangi, outside which te tiriti had been signed, and land around it. A great hui at Te Tii marae in 1934 marked this gift. It also marked the 100th anniversary of the selection by northern rangatira of the United Tribes’ flag as the flag of an independent New Zealand.
The government wanted a great demonstration of national pride and unity for the centennial of the signing of te tiriti in 1940. Māori were less enthusiastic, since the government’s poor record on treaty rights rankled with many iwi. However, Apirana Ngata used the centennial celebrations to draw attention to the government’s under-performance on treaty promises, and to call on the government to settle treaty-related grievances.
A whare rūnanga (meeting house) was built at Waitangi, close to Busby’s Treaty House, and opened for the 1940 celebrations. The whare was carved and constructed under the supervision of Ngata, who saw it as a symbol of the two treaty partners standing together.
After the Second World War, public awareness of te tiriti continued to expand as a result of annual commemorations at Waitangi. These events focused on the positive aspects of the treaty relationship, which were celebrated as evidence of New Zealand’s race relations – claimed to be the world’s finest. Complexities and contradictions in the treaty relationship were rarely mentioned.
Land grievances continued to be a sore point with Māori in the 1950s and 1960s. The Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 made it easier for the government to compulsorily acquire ‘uneconomic interests’ (small or undeveloped blocks) in Māori land. In 1975, under the leadership of Te Rarawa and Taranaki kuia Whina Cooper, Māori marched from the far north to Parliament in Wellington to protest against the loss of Māori land. The march drew public attention to te tiriti as the cornerstone of the Māori relationship with the Crown.
Waitangi Day, 6 February, was first officially recognised as New Zealand’s national day in 1960. In 1963 Waitangi Day became a public holiday in Northland. In 1974 it was renamed New Zealand Day and made a nationwide public holiday. The name reverted to Waitangi Day in 1976.
In the 1970s and 1980s protests at Waitangi revealed the gap between Māori understanding of te tiriti and that of the government and most of the non-Māori community. These conflicting meanings gained more prominence from 1974, when 6 February, the date of the first treaty signing, became a public holiday. Waitangi Day protests grew larger and more vehement, and were seen throughout the country on television news broadcasts.
For many years Māori MPs had pressed for te tiriti to have statutory recognition, since it would have no legal authority until it was incorporated into New Zealand law. With the aim of improving relationships between the Crown and Māori, the government passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. This established the Waitangi Tribunal and began a radical shift in the role of the treaty in the nation’s life.
The Waitangi Tribunal was created as a permanent commission of inquiry to consider claims by Māori that Crown actions had breached the principles of te tiriti. The tribunal could also make recommendations to the government on its findings following the hearing of claims. However, its jurisdiction was initially restricted to hearing claims arising from events since 1975, and for some years it had very little social or political influence.
In 1985 the tribunal’s jurisdiction was extended to cover Crown acts and omissions since the signing of the treaty in 1840. This opened up the historical record of Crown–Māori relationships to intense scrutiny. Further amendments to the Treaty of Waitangi Act expanded the tribunal’s membership and extended its capacity for research, hearings and report writing.
Since its formation, the Tribunal has reported on many inquiries into alleged treaty breaches in particular regions of the country, and on contemporary issues that affect all Māori, such as te reo Māori, social issues such as health and justice, fresh water and fisheries. These reports have often led to the settlement of treaty claims; other settlements between iwi and the Crown have been reached by direct negotiation without a Tribunal report.
From the mid-1980s, several dozen acts of Parliament included references to te tiriti. As with the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, each of these acts referred (with some variation) to the principles of the treaty. These acts allowed the courts to interpret the extent to which treaty principles were raised in any case covered by the legislation. This legal recognition has had far-reaching consequences for central and local government.
As Justice McKay noted in the Court of Appeal in his 1992 judgment on the Broadcasting case: ‘It is the principles of the Treaty which are to be applied, not the literal words. The English and Māori texts in the first schedule to the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 are not translations the one of the other, and the differences between the texts and shades of meaning are less important than the spirit’.1
The legislation giving legal force to te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) catapulted te tiriti into public notice in ways that stunned and surprised many New Zealanders. The sudden prominence of te tiriti in daily life sparked the need for treaty awareness workshops and led historians, lawyers and scholars to challenge accepted views of a benevolent treaty history and good Crown–Māori relations.
Successive governments have continued to address the challenge of securing te tiriti’s original aim – to reconcile the Crown and Māori. This has included many formal treaty settlements, negotiated between the Crown and iwi to resolve historic and contemporary breaches of te tiriti. It has also included projects to give all New Zealanders an understanding of a national vision of two peoples living under te tiriti.
For Māori like Ngāpuhi lawyer Moana Tuwhare, the key goal is true partnership and genuine power-sharing. ‘People in Ngāpuhi are over the situation where they are passive participants in processes that directly affect their futures. A significant result would be one that puts us back on an equal footing with the Crown.2
Hill, Richard S. State authority, indigenous autonomy: Crown–Maori relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900–1950. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004.
Hill, Richard S. Maori and the state: Crown–Maori relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa, 1950–2000. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009.
O'Malley, Vincent. He Whakaputanga The Declaration of Independence, 1835. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2017.
Orange, Claudia. The Treaty of Waitangi. Rev ed. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2011.
Orange, Claudia. The Story of a Treaty: He Korero Tiriti. Rev ed. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2023.
Orange, Claudia. The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi: an illustrated history. Rev ed. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2023.
Palmer, Matthew S. R. The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand’s law and constitution. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2008.
Ward, Alan. An unsettled history: treaty claims in New Zealand today. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1999.