The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of modern New Zealand, a touchstone for both Pakeha and Maori, and its implications permeate New Zealand society. Signed in 1840 between what were ostensibly two sovereign states – the United Kingdom and the United Tribes of New Zealand, plus other Maori leaders – the treaty remains central to New Zealand’s race relations. The Maori rights guaranteed by it have seldom been upheld, however, and the constant struggle for recognition continues.

The Treaty at Waitangi

Motivated by a desire to staunch French expansion in the Pacific, and a moral obligation on the Crown to protect Maori from rapacious land-grabbing by settlers, the British instructed naval captain William Hobson to negotiate the transfer of sovereignty with “the free and intelligent consent of the natives”, and to deal fairly with the Maori. Hobson, with the help of James Busby and others, drew up both the English Treaty and a Maori “translation”. On the face of it, the treaty is a straightforward document, but the complications of having two versions (see The Treaty of Waitangi) and the implications of striking a deal between two peoples with widely differing views on land and resource ownership have reverberated down the years.

The treaty was unveiled on February 5, 1840, to a gathering of some 400 representatives of the five northern tribes in front of Busby’s residence in Waitangi. Presented as a contract between the chiefs and Queen Victoria – someone whose role was comprehensible in chiefly terms – the benefits were amplified and the costs downplayed. As most chiefs didn’t understand English, they signed the Maori version of the treaty, which still has mana (authority or status) among Maori today.

The Treaty after Waitangi

The pattern set at Waitangi was repeated up and down the country, as seven copies of the treaty were dispatched to garner signatures and extend Crown authority over parts of the North Island that had not yet been covered, and the South Island. On May 21, before signed treaty copies had been returned, Hobson claimed New Zealand for Britain: the North Island on the grounds of cession by Maori, and the South Island by right of Cook’s “discovery”, as it was considered to be without owners, despite a significant Maori population.

Maori fears were alerted from the start, and as the settler population grew and demand for land increased, successive governments passed laws that gradually stripped Maori of control over their affairs – actions which led to the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. Over the decades, small concessions were made, but nothing significant changed until 1973, when Waitangi Day (February 6) became an official national holiday. Around the same time, Maori groups, supported by a small band of Pakeha, began a campaign of direct action, increasingly disrupting commemorations, thereby alienating many Pakeha and splitting Maori allegiances between angry young urban Maori and the kaumatua (elders), who saw the actions as disrespectful to the ancestors and an affront to tradition. Many strands of Maori society were unified by the hikoi (march) to Waitangi to protest against the celebrations in 1985, a watershed year in which Paul Reeves was appointed New Zealand’s first Maori Governor General and the Waitangi Tribunal for land reform was given some teeth.

Protests have continued since as successive governments have vacillated over whether to attend the commemorations at Waitangi.

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