Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty that established a Crown Colony in these islands. These days it’s a public holiday.

Possibly the closest equivalent in the US is Independence Day, though the New Zealand version isn’t quite the same. Our day is usually divisive, and the normal outcome is a succession of public spats in a couple of key places around the country – including Waitangi itself – while just about everybody else ignores it and has a day off. To me that isn’t really how it should be, but it’s hard to see what can be done to change it – such matters are generational.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985
Reconstruction of the Treaty being signed. Note William Hobson (left centre) in his blue morning coat and hat. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

I’d like to think things might be less tense if people better understood the differing historical and present realities of the Treaty of Waitangi, so called because it was signed at Waitangi (Wailing Waters) just north of the Te Tii marae (formal meeting place) in the Bay of Islands. These are indicative of the way that the Treaty is a living document, not just a historical relic – something that underscores its importance and value to New Zealand. Legally and constitutionally, it remains a key founding document; and the idea of the Treaty – its social place and meaning – has been re-cast many times since it was signed, reflecting changing values, all of them valid to their own times. Some of the mid-nineteenth century ideas were backdrop to the career of the man whose hidden private life and character I explored in my latest book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House 2015). Donald McLean,  coincidentally, arrived in the Bay of Islands just as the Treaty was being signed – little realising that he had a career ahead of him as a major Crown land buyer and Native Minister whose job it was to live by its values. Sort of, anyway. (Click on the cover in the sidebar to the right to check it out).

Those ideas, in turn, were very different from the way it was seen in the late nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or today. Needless to say, all of the ways the Treaty has been seen are a far cry from the gimcrack way the Treaty was actually set up in 1840.

Gimcrack? Sure. In 1839-40, when it was mooted and then signed, the British weren’t very interested in setting up a colony in New Zealand. Theirs was a trading Empire, and although there was a supply centre developing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand lay far off the main trading routes. To a penurious Treasury, it seemed to offer only cost and very little benefit.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.
Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee on the grass to the right of the flagpole, about where the flagpole was in 1840.

But pressure was growing to do something. The place had become a haven for white criminals – escaped convicts from Australia among them – and there had been some nasty incidents, including the Elizabeth affair, when a British sea captain apparently chartered his ship to Maori so they could conduct a war expedition that ended in heavy bloodshed and, allegedly, cannibal feasting on board the British vessel. Nobody objected to what Maori had done; it was accepted that they were at war and the conduct of the war party was precisely correct according to their own values. The problem was the intimate involvement of a British sea captain; not only had he profited from it, but apparently his crew had gotten rather too enthusiastically involved – and by British law, those actions rendered him a pirate.

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 of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – home of British Resident James Busby from 1833. 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.

In this context the Treaty was an expedient – a cheap way of applying British law to a country that, it seemed, was going to be drawn into the British sphere whether the Treasury and Colonial Office in London wanted it or not.

The moment came in a brief window of time when a war-weary Britain was exploring a more liberal and humanist approach to the world. The Anglican-based Church Missionary Society led the charge, arguing that British civilisation would unerringly destroy any indigenous peoples it encountered. The Colonial Office was effectively a hot-bed of ex-CMS officials; and the Treasury – which reflected similar thinking – was insistent that a New Zealand colony could only be set up with the full consent of Maori, by Treaty.

That was why the Treaty was ordered. It was done in haste by officials such as William Hobson, who were not familiar with New Zealand – he was, in fact, a naval commander – and it was drafted in circumstances where neither he nor his local advisors were sure whether it should apply to the whole of the New Zealand archipelago or just the part around the Bay of Islands. Even the way it was signed was ad-hoc. It was put to local rangitira (chiefs) on 5 February 1840; they did not agree during korero (discussion) that day, so Hobson arranged for a further meeting on 7 February. But next morning, 6 February, chiefs arrived to sign it. Hobson decided to take up the offer and rushed to arrange it, clad informally in a morning coat rather than his official naval uniform. Later, when the Treaty was taken around New Zealand, the only people the British actively sought to sign it were rangitira who had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, which the Treaty of Waitangi superseded – its whole first clause, in fact, was given over to that purpose.

The Treaty remains the only example of its kind in the world – and it’s fitting that it has become a blueprint in New Zealand for race relations since. But that’s a far cry from its gimcrack origins, a fact that underscores just how times change, and how interesting a foreign land history really is.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015