Treaty of Waitangi

Information about the Treaty of Waitangi

Detail from original treaty of waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi, commonly called New Zealand’s founding document, was an agreement between representatives of the British Crown on behalf of people wishing to settle in the country, and rangatira Māori (honoured Māori leaders) on behalf of their hapū (extended family groups). 

It is worth noting that Te Tiriti o Waitangi is not a single document. It is a group of nine documents, together representing an agreement between the British Crown and representatives of iwi Māori. On the day that it was first signed, there were versions in English and Māori. New Zealand history online website holds a pdf version of the treaty with explanatory footnotes by Professor Hugh Kawharu.

The treaty is named after the location where it was first drawn up and was signed on 6 February 1840 in Waitangi, but other copies of the treaty were distributed throughout the country. Around 50 meetings were held to discuss the treaty and copies of the treaty were distributed throughout the country between February and September 1840. These copies were signed by many rangatira although some declined to sign.

In total, 39 rangatira signed the English version and 540 rangatira – including 13 women – signed the Māori version.

The treaty contains three articles:

1.    Article 1 grants the Queen of England governorship over New Zealand.
2.    Article 2 guarantees Māori leaders their continued rangatiratanga (absolute sovereignty and self-determination) and ownership of their lands and taonga (treasures). It also specifies that Māori will sell land only to the Crown.
3.    Article 3 guarantees Māori the same rights as British subjects.

Varying versions and interpretations

Unfortunately, the English and Māori versions were different, and their interpretations have led to strife and debate throughout New Zealand’s history.

The most fundamental difference revolves around the interpretation of two Māori words: kawanatanga (governorship) and rangatiratanga (absolute sovereignty and self-determination).

Depending on how these words are interpreted, the treaty can mean anything from a ceding of absolute sovereignty, to a contract of the Crown managing land on behalf of Māori.

The different interpretations are crucial to understanding why many Māori feel the Treaty was not honoured. Many sectors of the Māori community maintain ‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi’ is the version that received the greatest support and should therefore be the version upheld in New Zealand decision-making processes and legislation.   

There is however little consensus about what was agreed to. The British thought the treaty gave them sovereignty over New Zealand, and the Governor the right to run the country. The Māori, on the other hand, felt they never ceded sovereignty, and that the Governor was only in charge of the British.

After a series of questionable land sales by the Crown and 10 years after the treaty was signed, Māori began appealing to the Governor but with no success. 
Over time, this led to struggle and disagreement between the two cultures resulting in the New Zealand Wars in 1863, much of it bloody and bitter. One result of these wars was raupatu (government confiscation of large areas of Māori land).


Treaty and the legislation

In 1877, the contractual obligations under the Treaty had been disregarded to the extent that the courts considered it a ‘legal nullity’ – that is to say it practically did not exist.

Māori have been prolific in reminding the Crown to honour the treaty, and over the next 100 years, several legislative acts were established to address treaty issues.

In 1975, the Treaty of Waitangi Act was enacted so that land claims could be lodged through the Waitangi Tribunal. Initially, claims could only be made for breaches after 1975, but in 1985, claims could extend back to 1840.

In 1995, the Office of Treaty Settlements was established for the negotiations of historical claims on behalf of the Crown. 

Waikato-Tainui and Ngāi Tahu were the first two iwi to receive settlements.

Even though a channel exists for Māori land claims, there is a backlog of claims waiting to be heard. As of June 2010, there are over 1000 claims on the Waitangi Tribunal’s books.

And although the gap in understanding between Māori and the government has not closed, dialogue has truly begun and Treaty of Waitangi discussions and negotiations are set to continue and evolve.


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