Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day in New Zealand –  173 years since Maori agreed to a short, three-clause treaty that is regarded as our founding national document, blueprint for a relationship between Maori and pakeha. New Zealand’s historical equivalent, in effect, of the US Constitution.

All of which belies the Treaty’s origins which were ad-hoc to say the least. I thought I’d post extracts from two of my books, telling the story behind the Treaty. I dug out the only eyewitness account of the day and made a point, too, of locating the first drafts of the Treaty, held in the Alexander Turnbull Library. I also wanted to sum up the consensus of New Zealand historians about how it had been translated – an important issue these days. It is a living document, and the meaning today is different from what it meant back in 1840.

These extracts have been commercially published and are copyright to me. Enjoy reading, but if you want to re-blog or re-use my words, please get in touch.

A photo I took in 2011 of the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi - the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.
A photo I took in 2011 of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

From Matthew Wright, Old South (Penguin, Auckland 2008)

Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s effort to set up a neo-feudal capitalist paradise in New Zealand collided with a belated British decision to establish a Crown Colony by treaty. The timing was not entirely coincidental. Busby’s appointment in wake of the Elizabeth affair and other incidents in the early 1830s did little to alter the problems of lawlessness on the periphery. His efforts to bring Maori on side through such mechanisms as the 1835 Declaration of Independence – dismissed by his superiors as ‘silly and unauthorised’[1] – brought mixed success. By the end of the decade, as Australian merchants began eyeing New Zealand’s wide grasslands with covetous greed, it was clear even in Colonial Office eyes that something had to be done.

Opinion in the Colonial Office’s Downing Street premises still veered away from forcing Crown government on Maori. The British Empire of the early nineteenth century was in flux. It had always been rather accidental, territories arriving usually as a downstream outcome of commercial and trading interests. Now, in the turbulent wake of the Napoleonic era, Britain’s era of ‘white plague’ was over. What Niall Ferguson has called the machine-gun age of ‘Maxim force’ had not yet begun.[2]

The distinction is important. From the post-colonial perspective it is too easy to view colonialism through the lens of its brutal late nineteenth century incarnation. In the early part of that century, however, a combination of libertarian pressure groups and the practical application of lassiez faire economics gave British imperialism a different character.[3] As Robert FitzRoy put it in 1846, policy was guided by a patriarchal and utilitarian spirit of ‘justice and clemency’.[4] It was perhaps unsurprising; the generation that followed the Napoleonic wars were tired of fighting; and the mind-set of a people exhausted by conflict reflected into every walk of life. It was generational, and this does much to explain why the movers-and-shakers of the early nineteenth century – but not their children – took the approach that they did…

New Zealand, which in the 1830s was a lawless frontier with no obvious commercial benefit to Britain outside the exploitation of a few natural resources, seemed a sitter for the policy, particularly as commercial interest grew in the place. By the late 1830s, with cowboy land deal proliferating and Wakefield sniffing around for opportunities of his own, it was clear something had to be done, and the Colonial Office finally ordered William Hobson to organise government by treaty.[5]  This was the rather unprosaic origin of the Treaty of Waitangi – a hasty, expedient and low-cost way of establishing Crown government over New Zealand, via the agency of Maori, mainly to control unruly British traders and land-grabbers. The short and rather badly written document that followed was also framed by the need to supersede the Declaration of Independence. It only gained a dimension as founding document and key arbiter of national race relations much later.[6]

The lawn in front of the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi, pretty much as it was in 1840 - complete with flagpole. On the day, a marquee was raised to the right of this picture.
The lawn in front of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi, pretty much as it was in 1840 – complete with flagpole. Apparent bow in the pole is an artefact of my lens – I shot this at 18mm. On the day, a marquee was raised to the left of this picture.

Extract from Matthew Wright: The Reed Illustrated History of New Zealand (Reed, Auckland 2003).

The pressure was on to get the treaty organised. Hobson and his secretary J. S. Freeman had prepared notes, broadly echoing Normanby’s instructions, which Busby reworked into something slightly different. He submitted the new version to Hobson on 3 February.[7]  In the first draft, Hobson’s idea to have New Zealand ceded in stages was transformed into a plan by which Maori would accept British sovereignty from North Cape to the Manakau estuary and the Thames. In exchange they would be treated as British and guaranteed possession of their ‘forests fisheries and other properties’, until they wanted to sell them to the Crown.[8]

These details were amended in the final version of 4 February. Restricted sovereignty disappeared, as did the claim on ‘waste lands’.  However, both versions wrestled with the distinction between sovereignty and land ownership. None of the drafters were sure Maori understood the difference, and efforts to come up with wording to clarify it were flawed by haste and the lens of nineteenth century rationalism. The three clauses of the final were further muddied by translation. Hobson managed to get the CMS on side as instructed, and late on 4 February asked Henry Williams to translate the treaty ready for a meeting with Maori next morning.  Williams’ assistant was his son Edward, and they sat down to preserve the ‘spirit and tenor’ of Busby’s wording in a few hours. Inexperience was not the only pitfall; there is some evidence the draft Williams had been given did not include the words ‘forests and fisheries’.[9]

Irrespective of this blunder, Williams used ‘ratou taonga katoa’ to refer to property — a term which meant more to Maori than Williams apparently thought it did.  The result, as one historian has pointed out, was that Maori later argued for rights to resources that the British drafters did not intend, and which were not in the English version.[10] The other main problem was Williams’ use of ‘kawanatanga’ — ‘governorship’ — to mean sovereignty.  In the Declaration of Independence, the translation had been ‘mana’.  This mistranslation was compounded when Williams came to the clause guaranteeing Maori possession of their lands until they sold them. For ‘possession’, he selected ‘rangatiratanga’, which was a better match for ‘sovereignty’.[11] Hobson used it in that sense two months later,[12] and it was translated that way by missionaries in other Maori documents.[13]

Williams’ motives were debated during the late twentieth century re-analysis of the treaty,[14] and there has been suggestion he may have felt the treaty would not be accepted if chiefs thought they were going to lose authority.[15] The situation was further complicated by the cultural gulf. John Flatt, for instance, told a Lords Committee in 1838 that Maori: ‘…do not think anything of sovereignty… Their simple view is, that their land may be cultivated, and that they may be benefitted by that.’[16] This logic led the British to fear confusion between sovereignty and land ownership, not realising that the real confusion might be between sovereignty and chieftainship.

Charitably, Williams was doing his best to resolve these issues in wording Maori would be likely to accept.  However, he was not the most fluent Maori speaker, and his apparent effort to ‘spin’ the whole in order to sell it to Maori compounded the problem.

Then on the morning of the 5th Busby wanted amendments. Maori were assembling on the Residency lawn, and Busby ended up in the house with Hobson and Williams, making changes.  They finally emerged on to the ‘delightfully situated lawn’ in front of the house, where a ‘spacious tent…tastefully adorned with flags’ had been set up.[17]  Even the weather co-operated.  ‘Nature’, Colenso wrote, had ‘consented to doff her mantle of New Zealand grey.’  Colourful policemen, sailors and officials wandered about on the emerald lawn, contrasting with Maori who turned out in the more muted tones of their own formal dress, leavened with ‘woollen cloaks of foreign manufacture.’[18] Inside the tent, Hobson and his officers arranged everything to impress:

In the centre of the narrow raised platform were the Governor and captain of the man o’ war in full uniform, on the Governor’s left were Mr Busby, and the Roman Catholic bishop in canonicals, his massy gold chain and crucifix glistening on his dark-purple-coloured habit, on the right of his Excellency were the members of the Church of England Mission, in plain black dresses…[19]

The rangatira spent the day considering the treaty as read aloud, with supplementary explanations by Hobson, all translated rather liberally by Williams. At least one European fluent in Maori complained to Hobson that the ‘native speeches were not half interpreted by Mr. Williams, neither were His Excellency’s remarks fully interpreted to the natives.’[20] During the morning Te Kemara pointed out ‘in his energetic, peculiar manner’ that Busby and the missionaries had already bought land[21] — an embarrassing point. Tamati Waka Nene of Ngati Hao believed there would be commercial opportunities. His arguments ended the meeting, and Hobson announced they would reconvene on the 7th.

Next morning, however, ‘not less than 300’ Maori were back at the Residency, ‘talking about the treaty, but evidently not understanding it. Hobson arrived ‘in plain clothes’, and decided to ‘take the signatures’ of those who wanted to sign. However, as it was not a ‘regular public meeting’ he refused to accept further debate.[22] Pompallier then ‘pushed forward’ and asked: ‘That the natives might be informed that all who should join the Catholic religion should have the protection of the British government.’ Hobson, ‘with much blandness’, concurred, adding that he was sorry Pompallier had not asked earlier, as ‘your desire should have been embodied in the Treaty’.[23]

Williams objected on the basis that this protection applied to all denominations by default, but Hobson insisted and Williams ‘accordingly commenced’ to write a ‘grave announcement…for the benefit of all’, declaring that Maori who joined the Anglican, Wesleyan or Catholic churches — or retained what Williams called ‘heathen beliefs’ (‘ritenga Maori’), would receive the same protections under the Treaty.  He read it out in silence,  ‘the Maories [sic] being at a perfect loss, [as to] what it could all mean.’[24]  Some early twenty-first century commentators suggested that this was a ‘fourth’ clause of the Treaty.[25] In fact the clarification was for Pompallier’s benefit, and he left as soon as it was read out.[26]

Hobson then had Williams re-read the treaty. At first no-one wanted to sign, so Hobson decided to call out names, starting with Hone Heke Pokai — ‘known to be most favourable’ towards the Treaty.[27] As Heke was about to place his mark, Colenso interrupted and asked whether Maori actually understood it. ‘I have spoken to some Chiefs,’ he continued, ‘who had no idea what ever as to the purport of the Treaty.’  Hobson remarked that he had done all he could to make sure they did, ‘and I really don’t know how I shall be enabled to get them to do so.  They’ve heard the Treaty read by Mr W.’[28] After some discussion he threw the onus back to the CMS.  Heke then signed, the first of more than forty who placed their marks, while two others made ‘long speeches against the signing’ in the background.[29]  Twenty six had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence.  Hobson waited out the 7th, and the following day proclaimed the new colony with a 21-gun salute and flourish of flags from the Herald.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2004, 2008 and 2013

[1]           Quoted in King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, , p. 155.

[2]           Niall Fergusson, Empire: how Britain made the modern world, Penguin, London 2003, pp. 53-84, 221-240.

[3]           Fergusson, p. 118.

[4]          T. Lindsay Buick, New Zealand’s First War: or the rebellion of Hone Heke, Capper Press reprint, Christchurch 1976, pp. 272; Vaggioli, p. 124.

[5]           See, e.g. Wright, The Reed Illustrated History of New Zealand, pp. 52-63; King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, pp. 156-167;

[6]           Wright, The Reed Illustrated History of New Zealand, pp. 52-62, King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, pp. 164-165.

[7]          Ibid, p. 58, n. 6.

[8]          WTu MS-Papers-1983, Busby, James, ‘Three documents by or relating to James Busby, 1840’.

[9]          R. M. Ross ‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi’. in in Judith Binney (ed), The Shaping of History, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington 2001, p. 100; see also Orange, p. 40.

[10]         Michael King Nga Iwi o Te Motu, p. 33-34; see also Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, p. 160.

[11]         King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, p. 160.

[12]         Ross, p. 100.

[13]         WTu-MS-Papers f-76-048 – Colenso, William, 1811-1899: letter from James Busby to William Colenso and other papers, letter by Waka Nene and others (fragment).

[14]         For discussion see Oliver ‘The future behind us’ pp. 26-27.

[15]         Belich, Making Peoples, p. 194.

[16]         Cited in Alan Ward,  A Show of Justice,  ANU Press 1974., p. 88.

[17]         William Colenso ‘The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi’, Government Print 1890; ‘Wednesday, February 5th.’

[18]         Ibid.

[19]         Ibid.

[20]         Ibid.

[21]         William Colenso ‘The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi’, Government Print 1890; ‘Wednesday, February 5th.’

[22]         Ibid.

[23]         WTu MS Papers 1983 Busby, James Papers ‘Three documents by or relating to James Busby, 1840’

[24]         Orange, p. 53, see also MS Papers 1983 Busby, James Papers ‘Three documents by or relating to James Busby, 1840’

[25]         King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, p. 163.

[26]         WTu MS Papers 1983, Busby, James Papers ‘Three documents by or relating to James Busby, 1840’

[27]         Vaggioli, p. 115.

[28]         WTu MS-Papers-1611, Colenso, William Papers, ‘Memoranda of the Arrival of Lieut. Governor Hobson in New Zealand’.  This is the ‘first draft’ of Colenso’s later ‘Authentic and Genuine’ history and its emendations suggests it was written at or soon after the meeting. Compare ‘Authentic’, Thursday February 6th.

[29]         William Colenso The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Government Print 1890; ‘Thursday, February 6th.’

12 thoughts on “Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

  1. It’s all a bit sad really. I can’t read the story of New Zealand’s beginning without feeling a kind of sadness that it was all for the wrong reasons.

    It makes me wonder about how the US moved on from having persecuted the native population to becoming something of a victim themselves at the hands of the British. It’s like NZ never had its revolution, it hasn’t had any uprising to take the focus away from the inevitable conclusion that any study of the Treaty brings. The US tell their story (and we saw it in the excellent ‘John Adams’ series) in an era that perhaps conveniently sweeps aside any reference to native populations, because they then confront their colonial powers, make new allies with the French and wrest power back from the English.

    It seems we are left with this one narrative, which doesn’t exact much pride as a nation. Did we miss out on a revolution of the people, because we are made up of so many who wanted out from those empires anyway? I really don’t know and I am no historian, apologies if this sounds very naive.

    1. I think history – not just for NZ but worldwide – is in a state of constant re-invention. The way we see the past will always be framed by the way we see the present, and if we go back through the various ways the Treaty has been viewed, understood and acted on, it’s always been a function of prevailing thought. To me that makes it a living document. The problem. I think, arises when the historical community carries the conceit that they have somehow discovered the ‘final truth’ – a belief that, on my experience, has as much to do with individual egoes and perceived personal status of the historian as it does with a philosophical position.

      My experience getting the passage above peer-reviewed was salutary; in 2003, when I had the MS complete, I had a chat with the author of the standard text on the Treaty. Now, just to put this in perspective, my general history was the first new one in NZ in over two decades, a major project by my publishers, Reed – New Zealand’s oldest publisher – down to having their own brand and name as part of the title. A sign of their faith in me and the point I’d reached in the field nationally. (We didn’t know that Michael King and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage were both working on their own general histories just then.) My publication list was ten times the scale of this historian’s. But that made no difference to me and I was interested in a different view. Alas, when we met, this person first wanted to know whether I was a junior student maybe employed some stage for the national biographical project. I explained my background. Then the only comments I got were about the length of a quote, which this historian decided was too long – a level of remark I’d expect from a lecturer on a first year essay. I got nothing out of it other than a very clear sense that I was being patronised, put down, and dismissed.

      You’re right that NZ missed out on a ‘revolution’, in the sense that the act of moving to the colony was itself the ‘revolution’. People did want ‘out’ from Britain – wanted to better themselves elsewhere. But they did not want to destroy the old; their focus was on taking what they thought was the best of it, without its troubles. There was a good deal of fervent idealism in the people who set up New Zealand, not least in Gibbon Wakefield who thought a perfect British society could be engineered using pure market principles. Michael King argued in his 2003 history of NZ that the changes of the 1984-99 period were our real ‘revolution’. That was maybe reasonable from the perspective of the time when he wrote. but I think the decade or more since has let some of the dust settle and shown that he was wrong about that. I’m publishing that argument, with supporting material, in the second edition of my New Zealand general history – it’s ‘in press’ right now, though I don’t have a release date yet.

      1. I guess in years from now they will look back and say the only pioneers were those who left their homeland and discovered completely uninhabited parts and forever after, outsiders were fought, massacred, negotiated with and finally they came asking permission or pleading suffering i.e. (modern immigration/asylum). What the future holds, who knows?

        What would happen I wonder should another great continent rise up from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, would it provoke that 20thC resource – war? It seems humanity is a long way from any other consideration.

        It is at least a sign of warmer times that you have such a open-hearted approach to engaging with your readers. It is much like in business, we are slowly coming out of that authoritarian era which lacked trust and openness, into one that acknowledges we would all do better by sharing and be open and encouraging and supportive.

        I look forward to reading more about your second edition, good luck with that.

        1. Thank you! It’s an individual approach. My own view is that history is about people – not just the people being written about, but the people who read the history. These are who I write for, and I think it is just wonderful to be able to engage with them. The internet has become a quite amazing tool for being able to do that, and there are some great people out there.

          Apropos what would happen were new land to appear? I’m cynical enough about human nature to believe that war would inevitably follow. Humanity has an appalling self-destructive streak. Actually, I live in fear right now that Middle Eastern scale oil will be discovered under the Ross Sea…

    1. Thank you! It’s an interesting part of New Zealand’s history. I’ve got the story of the Treaty parchment document itself to tell, too, which I’ll do in another post a little later (I’m starting a series soon on ‘history mysteries’ which seems appropriate for it).

      1. That sounds really interesting too, I’ll try to come back for it!

        A bit off-topic, but yesterday’s Daily Prompt was about healthcare, so I was wondering what healthcare is like in New Zealand?


        1. It’s basically the British or European model – care is provided by the government as a right for all New Zealanders, paid for via the tax take, though the quality of hospitals is pretty average. The state also provides subsidies for infants and the elderly to access private healthcare, pay doctors’ bills and so forth.There’s also private healthcare available which is usually a better experience for the patient.

            1. Ther weird thing here is that if you go private, you’re likely to be treated by exactly the same specialists who work in the public system – only it costs more!

Comments are closed.