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Treaty of Waitangi

by Claudia Orange

Te Tiriti o Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, was meant to be a partnership between Māori and the British Crown. Although it was intended to create unity, different understandings of the treaty, and breaches of it, have caused conflict. From the 1970s the general public gradually came to know more about the treaty, and efforts to honour the treaty and its principles expanded.

Creating Te Tiriti o Waitangi

What is Te Tiriti o Waitangi?

Te Tiriti o 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 signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, in which 52 chiefs, mainly from Northland, had declared their sovereignty over New Zealand.

Women signatories

The missionaries involved in treaty meetings recognised the mana of chiefly women and took several signatures from them. Women who signed the treaty included Te Rangitopeora at Kāpiti; 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 under the statutory guardianship and care of Archives New Zealand.

More than 500 chiefs, 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 chiefs at Manukau Harbour and Waikato Heads. Each treaty copy was also signed by European witnesses, who varied from place to place.

    • 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

Interpretations of Te Tiriti o Waitangi

Māori- and English-language versions

The meaning of the treaty in Māori differed from the meaning in English.

Article One

Māori: chiefs gave the queen ‘te Kawanatanga katoa’ – the governance or government over the land.

English: chiefs gave the queen ‘all the rights and powers of sovereignty’ over the land.

Article Two

Māori: confirmed and guaranteed the chiefs ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ – the exercise of chieftainship – over their lands, villages and ‘taonga katoa’ – all treasured things. Māori agreed to give the Crown a right to deal with them over land transactions.

English: confirmed and guaranteed to the chiefs ‘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 Three

Māori: The Crown gave an assurance that Māori would have the queen’s protection and all rights – ‘tikanga’ – accorded British subjects. This was close to an accurate translation of the English text.

Reasons for signing

In 1840 Māori leaders decided for or against signing the treaty 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 a 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 the chiefs 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 the treaty (in the Maori-language version). This suggested that authority would be shared between the government and the chiefs. This shared authority would be enhanced by the other treaty articles, to Māori advantage.

Reasons for not signing

Some chiefs had no opportunity to sign the treaty 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 chiefs were absent from meetings, and negotiators were too impatient to await their return.

Although a copy of the treaty went into the central North Island, Te Arawa and Ngāti Tuwharetoa chiefs refused to sign it. The impact of the European world on these inland tribes was less than on coastal iwi. Chiefs valued their independence and were not prepared to place their mana under that of the British queen. The powerful Waikato chief Te Wherowhero also refused to sign for this reason.

In districts where intertribal disputes were in progress, chiefs were not prepared to allow British interference. Tāraia of Thames and Tūpaea 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 chiefs 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.

The first decades after the treaty – 1840 to 1860

Crown views of the treaty

Colonial officials mainly interpreted Te Tiriti o Waitangi on the basis of its English-language text, which placed less emphasis on maintaining the authority of the chiefs than the Māori-language version. Within four years of the treaty signing, officials admitted that the traditional rights of chiefs would have to be limited because they conflicted with Crown authority.

Even though many chiefs did not sign the treaty, 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 the treaty altogether. For example, the government succumbed to pressure from the New Zealand Company and validated its dubious purchases of Māori land to found the city of Wellington.

Māori views of the treaty

Many Māori doubted that the Crown would uphold its obligations under the treaty. Those doubts were confirmed in the first decade after the treaty was signed. A ‘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.

Irrevocably binding compact

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

Changing balance of power

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.

The Māori King movement

Over the 1840s and 1850s European settlement expanded and tensions over land worsened. Many tribes responded by strengthening their traditional tribal rūnanga (councils). In Waikato, tribes of the Tainui federation formed an alliance, aiming for tribal unity and drawing in tribes from other regions. In 1858 the Tainui chief Te Wherowhero was appointed head of this alliance and renamed Pōtatau, becoming the first Māori King. The aim of the King movement (Kīngitanga) was to retain land by withholding it from sale. The movement believed that the Māori king and British queen could co-exist peacefully.

Settler attitudes to the treaty

By the end of the 1850s European opinion on the treaty 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.

    • W. Martin, The Taranaki question. Christchurch, Kiwi Publishers, 1998 (originally published 1860), p. 82. Back

Dishonouring the treaty – 1860 to 1880

Kohimarama conference, 1860

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 Māori King movement. He called a conference of chiefs at Kohimarama, Auckland, in mid-1860. Over three weeks Te Tiriti o Waitangi was presented and explained to at least 200 chiefs, including many who had signed it. The chiefs discovered that they had differing understandings of the treaty. Finally they passed a unanimous resolution, 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 hold further conferences to discuss sharing power, but no more were held. The chiefs who attended the conference expected to play a greater part in decision-making, but they were to be disappointed.

War in Waikato

George Grey, recalled to a second governorship of New Zealand in 1861, saw the King movement 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 government, 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 subsequent confiscation of Māori land in Waikato, Taranaki, the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay left a further legacy of bitterness.

Native Land Court

The treaty’s promised protection of Māori land rights was ignored by successive governments. By 1870 almost the entire South Island had been alienated from Māori. The Native Land Court (later the Māori Land Court) converted tribally 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 also been alienated, and land loss continued through the 19th and 20th centuries.

European settlement expands

By the 1870s Te Tiriti o Waitangi seemed to have disappeared from settler consciousness. It may have been practically unknown to the hundreds of thousands of settlers who flooded to New Zealand to ‘open up’ the country. By the end of the 1870s Māori were outnumbered 10 to one by the European population. Breaches of Māori rights under the treaty escalated as settlement extended across the North Island.

Lack of protection for Māori

It became increasingly clear to Māori that the treaty 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 developments 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 rates were often not fully explained to Māori communities and became major sources of irritation to them.

Māori responses to the treaty – 1880 to 1900

Debating the treaty

Māori looked closely at the promises made to them in the treaty to try and solve problems arising from settlement and land loss. From the 1870s many conferences debated issues of law and authority, land and fisheries. Ngāti Whatua, a tribe 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.

Petitioning the Crown

In 1882, 1884, 1914 and 1924, deputations of Māori travelled to England to take petitions based on the treaty to the British monarch and the 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 the treaty. Parliament clearly had no intention of upholding the treaty as Māori understood it.

Parliamentary representation for Māori

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 the treaty and to obtain greater control for Māori over their own affairs. These were voted down by the other MPs.

Māori parliaments

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 the Parliament in Wellington. However, politicians ignored the Kotahitanga parliament and it ceased meeting early in the 20th century.

The King movement 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.

Implementing the treaty – 1900 to 1940

Māori hopes rise

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, 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 land holdings. Māori farming ventures received government funding for the first time.

Settling grievances?

The 1920s saw some government moves to meet Māori grievances. In 1921 a Native Land Claims Commission upheld Ngāi Tahu’s land-claim grievances. 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.

Restoring fishing rights

For many years Māori had tried without success to secure fishing rights of various kinds. In the early 1920s the government acknowledged Te Arawa iwi’s longstanding claims 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 Tuwharetoa over its rights in Lake Taupō and adjoining streams. These agreements raised Māori hopes about other treaty rights.

Rātana political movement

The Rātana Church, initially a prophetic movement, entered politics in the 1920s with the specific aim of securing treaty rights. It called for ratification (legal recognition) of the treaty. Until ratification was obtained, the Rātana Church said, the treaty could not be properly recognised and given effect.

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 maintained their goal of having the treaty recognised in law.

Gifting the Treaty House

Te Tiriti o Waitangi was largely ignored by European New Zealanders in the early 20th century, but it came to the forefront of 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 where the treaty 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 of the United Tribes’ Flag by northern Māori chiefs as the flag of an independent New Zealand.

Centennial celebrations, 1940

The government wanted a great demonstration of national pride and unity for the centennial of the signing of the treaty 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 performance on treaty promises, and to call on the government to settle grievances under the treaty.

A whare rūnanga (meeting house) was built at Waitangi, close to Busby’s Treaty House, and opened for the 1940 celebrations. The whare was specially carved and constructed under the supervision of Ngata, who saw it as a symbol of the two treaty partners standing together.

Honouring the treaty – 1940 to 2000s

Waitangi Day

After the Second World War public awareness of the treaty 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.

Loss of Māori land

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 blocks or undeveloped land) in Māori land. In 1975, under the leadership of Northland kuia (female elder) 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 the treaty as the cornerstone of the Māori relationship with the Crown.

Name changing

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. It was made a nationwide public holiday in 1974 and renamed New Zealand Day. Its name reverted to Waitangi Day in 1976.

Increasing protest

In the 1970s and 1980s protests at Waitangi revealed the gap between Māori understanding of the treaty 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.

Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975

For many years Māori MPs had pressed for the treaty to have statutory recognition, since it had no legal authority unless 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.

Waitangi Tribunal

The Waitangi Tribunal was formed as a permanent commission of inquiry to consider claims by Māori that the Crown had breached principles of the treaty. The tribunal could also make recommendations to government on its findings from claim hearings. However, its jurisdiction was initially restricted to hearing claims dating from 1975, and for some years it had very little social and 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 nation’s 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.

Principles of the treaty

From the mid-1980s several dozen new acts of Parliament included references to the treaty. 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 are raised in any case covered by the legislation. This legal recognition has had far-reaching consequences for government agencies and throughout local government.

The treaty in daily life

The legislation giving legal force to, and acknowledgment of, Te Tiriti o Waitangi catapulted the treaty into public notice in ways that stunned and surprised many New Zealanders. The sudden prominence of the treaty 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 addressing the challenge of securing the treaty’s original aim – to reconcile the Crown and Māori. This has included projects to give all New Zealanders an understanding of a national vision of two peoples under the treaty.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Claudia Orange, 'Treaty of Waitangi', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Claudia Orange, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012