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Treaty of Waitangi - Tiriti o Waitangi - February 6th, 1840

The Treaty of Waitangi was an agreement made between Māori and the British Crown in 1840. Today it is considered to be New Zealand’s founding document. This is a brief backgrounder to the Treaty and an introduction to recommended resources.

New Zealand before the Treaty was signed

By the late 1830s the inhabitants of New Zealand consisted of approximately 125,000 Māori and about 2000 settlers. The largest European settlement was Kororāreka (now known as Russell). Sealers and whalers were the first Europeans to establish settlements on the coasts of New Zealand. They were soon followed by traders who traded with Māori for food and natural resources such as flax and timber in exchange for clothing, guns and other products. Missionaries also came to New Zealand and introduced Māori to the Christian religion, using Māori translations of the Bible to teach reading and writing. Despite the presence of the missionaries, fighting and lawlessness in general were threatening the growing trade.

Pressures on Māori

More Europeans were becoming interested in settling permanently in New Zealand, and wanted to buy land for farms and houses. They were not always careful or fair in their dealing over land with the local Māori. Other European countries, in particular France, were becoming more interested in New Zealand as a source of trade or as a possible colony for settlement. In 1831 a petition signed by 13 northern Māori chiefs was sent to King William IV, asking for protection and recognition of their special trade and missionary contacts with Britain. Some of the concerns outlined in the petition included fear of takeovers by nations other than Britain, and the need for protection from the lawlessness of the British people in New Zealand.

Busby and the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand

Flag of the Independent Tribes of New ZealandJames Busby was appointed in 1833 as the British Resident in New Zealand to act as a go-between between Māori and European, and to deal with the growing number of crimes such as stealing, murder, assault and arguments over land.In 1834 Busby invited the northern chiefs to Waitangi to choose a New Zealand flag, which could be used on New Zealand ships to identify them. This flag was known as ‘The Flag of the Independent Tribes of New Zealand’, but was replaced after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by the Union Jack, the flag of Great Britain.

Worries about the French interest in New Zealand were highlighted when Baron Charles de Thierry took possession of land he claimed he had bought in the Hokianga. De Thierry declared himself the ‘Sovereign Chief’ of New Zealand. In 1835, at another meeting sponsored by James Busby at Waitangi, 34 chiefs signed a ‘Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand — He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni’ and formed a ‘Confederation of the United Tribes of Aotearoa’. In the Declaration they asked for William IV, King of England, to act as the Protector of the new state against any attempts on its independence. By 1839 a total of 52 Māori chiefs had signed the Declaration, which they saw as the guarantee of their independence.

Seeking a form of government without military force

At the same time the European settlers in New Zealand needed the protection and the friendship of the tribes, and trade to continue with them to survive in what was still a Māori country. Busby had limited powers, and was known as the man of war without guns because he had little support in the way of troops. This made it difficult to control those settlers who misbehaved. Instead he became more of a mediator or negotiator between Māori and European.

In 1838 plans by the New Zealand Company to establish large British settlements in parts of New Zealand increased the pressure on the British Government to try to put some form of government in place without having to use military force. However the signing of the Declaration, and its recognition by Britain, meant that Britain would have to negotiate a formal Treaty with the Māori chiefs if New Zealand was to become a British Colony.

Hobson replaces Busby

In 1839 Captain William Hobson was sent to replace James Busby and act for the British Crown as Lieutenant-Governor. He was to negotiate a treaty with the Māori by which New Zealand would become a British colony and the sovereignty of the country would be transferred to the British Crown. By the time of Hobson’s appointment, the attitude of the British Government had changed from wanting to establish a place for British settlers in a Māori New Zealand, to wanting to settle New Zealand with special protection for Māori. This was because of the increased numbers of people wanting to settle in New Zealand, and the need to establish a peaceful and law-abiding community.

The British government was very aware that there had been a lot of criticism of the way in which it had dealt with the indigenous people in the other British colonies. It wanted to avoid making the same mistakes in New Zealand. Hobson arrived in Waitangi on 29 January 1840, and immediately issued invitations to several hundred Māori to come to Waitangi on Wednesday 5 February. In the days in-between, Hobson, with help from Busby, had drawn up a treaty in English. This text was then translated into Māori by the missionary Henry Williams and his son, Edward, on the evening of 4 February.

Flag of the Independent Tribes of New Zealand

Flag of the Independent Tribes of New Zealand

Next page: The signing of the Treaty