The Treaty of Waitangi

One of the most significant documents in New Zealand’s history is the Treaty of Waitangi. Signed in 1840 between representatives of the British Crown and various Maori chiefs from the North Island of New Zealand, it gave Britain sovereignty over New Zealand while acknowledging the rights of the indigenous people, the Maori. It is considered a ‘founding document’ of New Zealand and has significant ramifications throughout New Zealand even  today.

At the time it was drafted, there was pressure on both sides for an agreement to be signed as the French were attempting to make inroads in settling in New Zealand and potentially claiming it as their own. The treaty itself was drafted in only a few days time and presented to Maori chiefs on the lawn of a James Busby in a town named Waitangi, hence the name. After vigorous debate, 150 northern chiefs signed it on February 6, 1840. Eight additional copies of the Treaty were made and sent around the country. An additional 500 signatures from Maori chiefs were obtained, although some chiefs refused to sign or were not given the opportunity.

Painting of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (1)

Painting of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (1)

The original English and Maori versions of the treaty differed significantly, as the English version of the treaty was translated into the Maori language overnight by someone who had only rudimentary understanding of the Maori language. Along with the different meaning and interpretation of words in both languages, there is a question of whether the Maori really understood what they were signing. Some argue that there was no real consensus as to exactly what was agreed on.

As you can imagine, it would be difficult for you and I to have any sort of written agreement about anything if the same or similar words meant different things, and if one of us didn’t even have words for what the other was trying to get us to agree to. Many English words had no direct counterpart in the Maori language, and many Maori concepts didn’t exist in the British world view.

In essence, the British believed the treaty gave Britain sovereignty over New Zealand, and gave the Governor the right to govern the country. Maori seemed to believe, however, that while gaining protection by the British (from the French and others who wanted their lands), they did not give up their authority over their lands and to manage their own affairs. Subsequent disputes by the Maori have often revolved around land loss, specifically the sale or acquisition of their land by dubious means and perceived unequal treatment by the state.

Maori chiefs' marks on the treaty

Maori chiefs’ marks on the treaty

While certainly contentious and problematic, the Treaty was an attempt to reconcile relations between the Maori and the Europeans whose clash was inevitable. And compared to other parts of the world where indigenous people’s rights have been essentially obliterated, the treaty has much to be said for it and it did bring the country and people under one rule and law.

Captain William Hobson made an actual proclamation of sovereignty on 21 May 1840 claiming the North Island for Britain based on the Treaty and the South Island based on ‘discovery.’ In those days, if you found some place with no people on it, or in this case very few people as on the South Island, you could simply say you discovered it and claim it as your own, or in this case, for the Queen. In November 1840, a royal charter was signed by Queen Victoria establishing New Zealand as a crown colony separate from New South Wales, Australia.

Over the years, various laws, legal cases and interpretations based on the Treaty of Waitangi have been incorporated into current New Zealand law, essentially assuring the Maori the control, enjoyment and protection of their resources along with tribal self-management, equal social treatment and equitable resolution of grievances. In 1975, the Treaty of Waitangi Act passed the New Zealand parliament setting up the Waitangi Tribiunal primarily to consider Maori land claims. To say that the matter is settled is an understatement. Disputes still arise over the execution and meaning of the original treaty. Despite this however, the Treaty of Waitangi can be said to have served to unite both Maori and the Europeans as one people living in New Zealand.

As a requirement for my wife applying to be a nurse in New Zealand, she had to understand, sign and acknowledge “Guidelines for Cultural Safety, the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori Health in Nursing Education and Practice.” Essentially these documents acknowledge the rights of the Maori as the original inhabitants of New Zealand, and the need for them to be treated with respect, cultural awareness and sensitivity while providing in an equitable manner for their interests and health needs.

“I’ve been a nurse for more than twenty years,” Rebecca said, “but I’ve never had to sign a treaty before.”

February 6th is Waitangi Day, a national holiday in New Zealand.


1) Alexander Turnbull Library 
Reference: G-821-2 
Oil painting by Marcus King


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