Did Maori really understand the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840?

On 6 February 1840, as Hone Heke prepared to be the first Maori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, the young missionary printer William Colenso stopped proceedings. He had a question for William Hobson, the man about to become governor of the New Zealand colony. Did Maori really understand the Treaty?

It turned out that Colenso, who spoke te reo Maori fluently, had been listening in and felt that Maori really had no idea what the British intended. Hobson, already annoyed by interruptions, brushed him off. If Maori did not understand it – well, he had done everything he could and it was up to the missionaries to sort it out.

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.

What Colenso had in mind was the general conceptual idea of the Treaty. However, there has been considerable debate since as to whether Maori could have understood what Hobson had in mind even in detail, owing to some jiggery-pokery in translation. A te Reo Maori version of it was provided; but the translator of it, Henry Williams – a former naval office and a missionary – fudged the wording. Exactly why he did that has never been fully explored, nor can it be; the details were never recorded at the time, and the only extant document, by Williams, suggests that in general he though he knew what he was doing when it came to translation.

For a while it was thought that maybe he hadn’t had a full text to work from – this was the pre-photocopier era and any duplicates had to be written out longhand. Maybe he only had some scrappy notes? However, the English text that Williams worked from was identified and located a few years ago, and there is more than one copy of it (one copy is in Archives New Zealand, another in the US archives in Washington, of all places).

There are differences between the English text that Williams worked from and the one presented next morning for Maori to sign, because William Hobson – who was the man tasked with setting it up – wanted some further minor amendments. To Hobson, as I’ve shown in my book Waitangi: A Living Treaty, these weren’t material when it came to translation. To others, perhaps they were; but in terms of the events of the day it was Hobson’s attitude that counted.

But into that mix also has to be stirred Williams’ own rather eccentric ideas. A back-translation of his effort reveals some fairly peculiar alterations and omissions even from the English text that we now know he had, which almost certainly meant that the te reo Maori version, when read out to assembled chiefs on 5 February 1840, presented rather differently from the English version.

In particular, the idea of sovereignty was not clear; Williams used the neologism ‘kawanatanga’, meaning ‘governorship’. Exactly why he did that has been debated, but there are indications that he did not believe Maori would sign over their sovereignty. For all that, the translation remains rather eccentric – it was actually called ‘execrable’ when the Treaty was debated for the first time in the House of Representatives in 1865.

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The rest of the story behind the translation is in my book Waitangi: A Living Treaty. Check it out in any good New Zealand bookshop. Or click to buy online.

Meanwhile, any thoughts on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

5 thoughts on “Did Maori really understand the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840?

    1. The entire signing ceremony consisted of one interruption after another as the local missionaries pursued their rivalries with each other: Hobson was clearly exasperated by the time Colenso somewhat presumptuously poked his nose in, just at the crucial moment. There’s enough documentation that I was able to present a pretty detailed narrative of events in my book. Thanks to the interruptions it was reduced almost to farce, rather than the solemn expression of Imperial protocols that Hobson planned.


  1. I’m sure they were all trying to do their best given the time this all took place, and after the many conflicts there had been. Its all very well for people over 150 years latter to sit back and criticize the manner in which it was handled. So many people seem to have their own versions or agendas.


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