Te Tiriti o Waitangi ‒ the Treaty of Waitangi


Interaction between Maori and Europeans began slowly with Captain Cook’s first visit in 1769. Contact became increasingly varied and frequent in the first decades of the 19th century.

East Polynesians arrived in these islands perhaps 800 years ago. By the time of Tasman’s brief encounter in 1642 and Cook’s several visits from 1769, Maori society and culture was well-established and complex, based on independent and often competing iwi and hapu (tribes), with differing dialects and traditions.

Seasonal food gathering was significant in the communal economies, while in the north horticulture was also important. Access to resources all over New Zealand was provided by extensive exchange. A rising population and competition for resources from the 16th century led to communities organised for both warfare and peace, particularly in the north.

From the British settlement of New South Wales in 1788, entrepreneurs looked for resources to exploit.  They found rich possibilities in New Zealand. Many Maori, especially those on the coast, soon became familiar with Europeans who profited from whales, seals, timber, flax, and Maori labour and artefacts.

Maori adopted aspects of European culture which they found useful. Metal, clothing and new foods, such as potatoes and pigs, were quickly acquired. Guns led to more intense tribal warfare; other metal saw a flowering of Maori carving.

British missionaries settled in New Zealand from 1814, seeking to ‘civilise’ Maori society through British customs and Christianity. New Zealand also attracted more unruly convicts, traders, sailors and adventurers, mostly concentrated in the Bay of Islands. These visitors distressed the missionaries, who encouraged Maori to look to Britain for protection. However, Britain had no formal authority, and indeed recognised Maori independence.

By the 1830s Maori were suffering from intensified intertribal warfare and diseases, such as measles and influenza, against which they had no immunity. Lawless Europeans were also a problem. James Busby became British Resident in 1833, supposedly to control the British in New Zealand, but he had no means of enforcing order. He did arrange for a New Zealand flag in 1834, and he also persuaded 34 northern chiefs to sign a Declaration of Independence in 1835. This was acknowledged by Britain.

Maori continued to adapt some European practices, and in the late 1830s Christianity, filtered by Maori teachers, appealed to many Maori. So did the literacy which came with it, learning to read the Bible in Maori. However, Busby’s hope for the evolution of a central Maori authority was in vain for this was an alien concept. Maori independence was centred on iwi and hapu.

Towards a treaty

Considerable pressure was placed on the British government to intervene in New Zealand in the late 1830s. Recognition of Maori independence meant the British needed a treaty to gain formal authority. In some haste a document was created in early 1840.

The British were reluctant to intervene in New Zealand because colonies were expensive and there were usually problems for the colonisers in their relations with native peoples. However, in the late 1830s, greater involvement was forced by a number of factors.

By late 1839 there were some 2000 Europeans in New Zealand, among perhaps 100,000 Maori.

The Colonial Secretary, Lord Normanby, decided to annex at least some of New Zealand on 30 May 1839. In June Letters Patent were issued to allow New South Wales authority to be extended into New Zealand.

William Hobson, a naval officer who had reported on New Zealand in 1837, was chosen to be Lieutenant-Governor of the new colony, representing the British Crown and government. When the first New Zealand Company settlers sailed, it was made clear to Hobson that annexation of the whole country would be best.

Normanby’s instructions to Hobson were ambiguous. Maori were to be protected, including land rights, so land purchase was to be controlled by the Crown. Maori sovereignty was ‘little more than nominal’. British annexation would benefit them.  Britain needed legal authority over its own subjects. Sovereignty would also allow the Crown to encourage and control the intermingling of Maori and settlers.

Captain Hobson arrived on the Herald at the Bay of Islands on 29 January 1840, a week after the first New Zealand Company settlers landed at Port Nicholson (Wellington). Land ‘purchases’ from Maori continued. Hobson knew he had to act fast.

Busby sent invitations to northern chiefs to meet Hobson, ‘a rangatira of the Queen of England’, at his place at Waitangi on 5 February 1840 to discuss a formal arrangement.

Hobson had no draft treaty. Neither he nor James Freeman, his secretary, had legal training, or much understanding of Maori.  After a first attempt with Freeman, Hobson fell ill. Busby added considerably to the draft, which was finalised by Hobson on 4 February. Into the evening the missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward translated the draft into Maori.

A clean copy of the proposed treaty in Maori was made on parchment by the Rev Richard Taylor early on 5 February 1840 to be presented to the hui that day.

Signing Te Tiriti o Waitangi

After considerable discussion, William Hobson, representing the British Crown, signed a treaty with Maori at Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Many other signatures were subsequently gained elsewhere.

The proposed treaty in Maori was presented and explained to 500 Maori and 200 Pakeha at Waitangi on 5 February. Missionaries acted as the main translators from English to Maori. Explanation and discussion continued through the day.  Many chiefs spoke against a treaty. The mood was altered by chiefs, concerned about the situation in the north, who realised that they could not prevent the influx of Europeans. In the evening, after Hobson had left, discussion continued, but it remained unclear whether Maori would sign.

The discussion gave Maori only limited understanding of what signing the presented document would mean. Missionaries, trusted by many Maori, generally favoured it, while some traders were against. Possible benefits were stressed and little said about the restrictions Maori would face. The absolute nature of the transfer of authority to the British Crown, intended in the English word ‘sovereignty’, was played down, but ideas of protection through a personal relationship with Queen Victoria and of union in covenant under one god were stressed.

The hui was to resume on 7 February, but some Maori wished to leave a day earlier, so Hobson hastily agreed the treaty could be signed. He did not allow any further discussion, though Bishop Pompallier gained Hobson’s verbal agreement to religious tolerance for all, including Maori.  After some hesitation on the part of Maori, Hone Heke decided to sign, and some 43 chiefs then wrote their names or drew a sign on the parchment sheet of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Hobson then travelled, gathering more signatures, first at Waimate and then at a large hui at Mangungu on the Hokianga.  On 1 March 1840 at the Waitemata harbour Hobson suffered a stroke; he could not gather all the signatures wanted. As well the Waitangi sheet was already too small and there was also the risk of loss with just one sheet.

So copies of the treaty, in Maori, were made, for others to take to various parts of New Zealand. Those gathering signatures also had copies of the English text, for their understanding. Some took printed copies of the Maori text, made by William Colenso at the Church Missionary Society Printery in the Bay of Islands on 17 February.

Major Thomas Bunbury set off in the Herald with one copy, to gain signatures in a variety of places, including the South Island. Willoughby Shortland organised for other sheets to be taken to specific areas:

The collection of signatures lasted till early September. Well before that, on 21 May 1840, Hobson proclaimed British sovereignty, the North Island through the Treaty, and further south by right of Cook’s discovery.  Unaware of Hobson’s action, Bunbury proclaimed British sovereignty over Stewart Island on 5 June and the South Island on 17 June, the latter on the basis of the signatures he had obtained. British authority was official, as far as the British were concerned.

For more information, go to: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/category/tid/133