Treaty of Waitangi

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Signed in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi is an agreement between the British Crown and Maori.

Around this time, there were 125,000 Maori and about 2000 settlers in New Zealand. Sealers and whalers were the first Europeans settlers, followed by missionaries. Merchants also arrived to trade natural resources such as flax and timber from Maori in exchange for clothing, guns and other products.

As more immigrants settled permanently in New Zealand, they weren’t always fair in their dealings with Maori over land. A number of Maori chiefs sought protection from William IV, the King of England, and recognition of their special trade and missionary contacts with Britain. They feared a takeover by nations like France, and wanted to stop the lawlessness of the British people in their country.

The Treaty of Waitangi drafted and signed

As British settlement increased, the British Government decided to negotiate a formal agreement with Maori chiefs to become a British Colony. A treaty was drawn up in English then translated into Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6, 1840, at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. Forty-three Northland Chiefs signed the treaty on that day. Over 500 Maori Chiefs signed it as it was taken around the country during the next eight months.

The articles

The Treaty had three articles:

  1. that the Queen (or king) of Great Britain has the right to rule over New Zealand;
  2. that Maori chiefs would keep their land and their chieftainships, and would agree to sell their land only to the British monarch; and
  3. that all Maori would have the same rights as British subjects.

It is the second and third articles have caused controversy through the years, mainly because of translation problems. Successive governments believed the Treaty enabled complete sovereignty over Maori, their lands and resources. But Maori believed that they were merely giving permission for the British to use their land.

Conflict breaks out

Disputes over ownership followed involving a series of violent conflicts during the 19th century. These became known as the New Zealand Land Wars, and were concentrated around Northland and the southern part of the North Island during the 1840s, and the central North Island in the 1860s. Both sides suffered losses, with the Brittish Crown the eventual victor. Land confiscation and questionable land sales carried on through to the 20th century, until the vast majority of land in New Zealand was owned by settlers and the Crown. 

Today's Treaty

Following its signing, many of the rights guaranteed to Maori in the Treaty of Waitangi were ignored. To help rectify this, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975. It has ruled on a number of claims brought by Maori iwi (tribes) and in many cases, compensation has been granted.

While disagreements over the terms of the treaty continue to this day, it is still considered New Zealand’s founding document.

The grounds and building where the treaty was signed have been preserved. Today, the Waitangi Historic Reserve is a popular tourist attraction. There is a large Maori meeting house, the colonial mission house, an historic flagstaff, as well as a very long waka taua (Maori war canoe).


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