Dissertation Preview: The Treaty of Waitangi

The following article is a preview of the dissertation I am required to write as the final piece of coursework for my Bachelor of Arts in History at the University of Exeter. It will not be a carbon-copy of my final work and, due to university regulations, I cannot provide footnotes or references until it has been submitted. This article is intended to establish the context of my dissertation topic and to identify key themes and relevances that make it a topic worthy of research.

Time-Frame: 1790 – 1975
Themes: Anthropology / Imperialism / Law / Post-Colonialism

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the 6th February 1840 by representatives of the British Empire, acting on behalf of Queen Victoria, and various Maori chiefs of New Zealand’s north island. The treaty was a binding document that, effective immediately, transferred all powers of sovereignty from the iwis (tribes) of New Zealand to the newly appointed governor-general of New Zealand; William Hobson. In exchange the Maori were granted the status and privileges of British subjects and were assured the safeguarding and protection of their culture. Now armed with a legal mandate the British used their usual system of colonial rule, indirect rule, to establish a foothold in a country literally on the other side of the planet from their imperial metropole in London. However, shortly after the signing of the treaty it dawned on the Maori, who had placed their faith in the sincerity of the British missionaries and royal representatives, that they had made a grave mistake and subsequently rose up in revolt when their grievances were not heard by either the newly established colonial government based in Auckland or the Westminster parliament based in London. What followed was a series of brutal and lengthy armed conflicts between the aggrieved Maori and the British Empire, a series of wars that came to be known as “The New Zealand Wars” (1845 – 1872).  By the end of armed hostilities the Maori, like so many other indigenous cultures before them, were endangered; having lost their land, their heritage, and any means of asserting their culture that was in serious danger of being drowned under the deluge of mass immigration and cultural assimilation. A flicker of hope remained though, a flicker that would miraculously reignite and power a movement a century later to recover that which had long been thought lost.

In order to understand the Treaty of Waitangi one must both understand the events that led to it being signed and the fundamental differences between the two cultures it concerns. History tells us that the first major interaction the Maori people had with Europeans was with the voyage of the British explorer captain James Cook in 1769. Cook’s expedition to the Bay of Islands, located on New Zealand’s northern tip, was short lived but nevertheless he encountered the Maori people and was able to report the existence of undiscovered land to the British authorities in London and New South Wales (South-Eastern Australia). After this expedition Europeans began arriving in miniscule numbers to New Zealand’s shores to prospect and to trade with the Maori. For the longest time this interaction was largely civil with minor skirmishes breaking out either between iwis as they strove to acquire as much European technology and knowledge as possible, or between iwis and escaped convicts from the British penal colony that was Australia. However, in the 1830’s a new problem concerned the Maori. The French, fresh from the Bourbon Restoration had arrived in New Zealand’s southern island and the Maori, upon realizing that they were hilariously out-gunned, became worried that they would be enslaved by them without the backing of a stronger imperial nation. This led to a group of 34 chiefs in the northern island signing a Declaration of Independence in 1835 at the behest of James Busby, which finally gave the British Empire a legal body (Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand) to negotiate with. Five years later in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was gradually signed by over 500 chiefs.

The English version reads as follows,

HER MAJESTY VICTORIA Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland regarding with Her Royal Favor the Native Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and anxious to protect their just Rights and Property and to secure to them the enjoyment of Peace and Good Order has deemed it necessary in consequence of the great number of Her Majesty’s Subjects who have already settled in New Zealand and the rapid extension of Emigration both from Europe and Australia which is still in progress to constitute and appoint a functionary properly authorised to treat with the Aborigines of New Zealand for the recognition of Her Majesty’s Sovereign authority over the whole or any part of those islands – Her Majesty therefore being desirous to establish a settled form of Civil Government with a view to avert the evil consequences which must result from the absence of the necessary Laws and Institutions alike to the native population and to Her subjects has been graciously pleased to empower and to authorise me William Hobson a Captain in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy Consul and Lieutenant-Governor of such parts of New Zealand as may be or hereafter shall be ceded to her Majesty to invite the confederated and independent Chiefs of New Zealand to concur in the following Articles and Conditions.

Article the first [Article 1]

The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess over their respective Territories as the sole sovereigns thereof.

Article the second [Article 2]

Her Majesty the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession; but the Chiefs of the United Tribes and the individual Chiefs yield to Her Majesty the exclusive right of Preemption over such lands as the proprietors thereof may be disposed to alienate at such prices as may be agreed upon between the respective Proprietors and persons appointed by Her Majesty to treat with them in that behalf.

Article the third [Article 3]

In consideration thereof Her Majesty the Queen of England extends to the Natives of New Zealand Her royal protection and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.

(signed) William Hobson, Lieutenant-Governor.

Now therefore We the Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand being assembled in Congress at Victoria in Waitangi and We the Separate and Independent Chiefs of New Zealand claiming authority over the Tribes and Territories which are specified after our respective names, having been made fully to understand the Provisions of the foregoing Treaty, accept and enter into the same in the full spirit and meaning thereof in witness of which we have attached our signatures or marks at the places and the dates respectively specified. Done at Waitangi this Sixth day of February in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty.

The first and most striking element of the Treaty of Waitangi is just how short and-to-the-point it is, and this is understandable when one discovers that it was literally cobbled together over the course of four days and translated into Maori overnight. For the supposed ‘founding document’ of an entire nation it is very thin on detail and substance. You would be forgiven for looking at the above treaty and seeing little wrong with it and that is also understandable as to those fluent in English now and then it was concise and perfectly clear. However, the major problems arise when one discovers that not only was the translated Maori version hugely different in content and terminology to the version the British held but also that eight different versions of the same treaty were distributed in Maori around the northern island for the various iwis to sign. Put in layman’s terms; some believe that the British authorities deliberately misled the Maori into surrendering their sovereignty or mana (authority) to the British through bogus legal means. Rather than take the Maori’s land and country by force of arms the British opted to do so through legal subterfuge, and ended up causing a war that lasted nearly three decades in the process.

That perspective is only one of many however, as historiography demonstrates that new viewpoints on this issue have emerged as well as some having evolved over time like an historical snowball. Many perspectives, such as the aforementioned one, currently circulate in academic circles but what I personally believe, the case that I shall make, is that the true fault does not entirely lie with the British Crown or even with the Maori, but with the private-enterprise New Zealand Company. Right off the bat the New Zealand Company does not paint a glorious picture of itself as it was founded by a former convict arrested for abducting a politician’s daughter and holding her to ransom (Gibbon Wakefield), a banker who amassed his wealth through extremely suspect means (Francis Bering), and (to a lesser extent of guilt) the Earl of Durham. Upon hearing of the prospect of cheap land in New Zealand the company set about advertising for colonists to travel to New Zealand and become their own land owners far away from the old world of Britain. Lured by false promises of cheap land, land that Wakefield was selling to people even before they got on the boat to New Zealand, colonists piled onto ships bound for the country. When they arrived they watched in horror as the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, a treaty that gave the very Maori they were going to cheat out of land the protection of the Crown. This presented a major problem for William Hobson as he now had on one hand long-standing British subjects fresh from the metropole and on the other newly introduced British subjects in the form of the Maori. Hobson managed to compromise and keep the peace until his death in 1842 at which point events in New Zealand really began to get out of hand.

The claim from some historians and a portion of the New Zealand public that the British authorities intentionally misled the Maori with the goal of stealing their land and crushing their culture falls apart when one examines the state of British society and British politics at the time. Shortly after the Reform Act of 1832 which expanded the British electorate the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833 thanks in large part to a humanitarian movement at the grass-roots level and in part to liberal politicians such as William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, James Stephen, Lord Glenelg and Charles Middleton. Also consider that the British Empire had not one, but two bad experiences involving imperialism within a few decades. The American Revolution was a crippling blow to British imperial politics and those that championed the Empire in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Then consider the subsequent Napoleonic Wars that made the country even more wary of troubles that could arise from imperial misconduct. As the American Revolution proved, diplomatic negotiation was not exactly a forte of the British Empire and therefore one can see why their first attempt to establish diplomatic relations with an indigenous culture would have been hap-hazard, not because of deliberate misinformation but because of a neophyte’s incompetence. The Treaty of Waitangi was not deliberately misleading, it was just badly written by those who did not have much experience in writing treaties with less developed cultures. It was, in short, written by amateurs on one side and signed by those on the other side who understood little of its implications. Add to this the fundamental and unavoidable differences in cultural values between the Maori and the British and one has a perfect storm of a problem.

Although the remnants of the Maori understandably did their utmost to keep the Waitangi sentiment alive, with regards to the settler (Pakeha) population, after The New Zealand Wars had concluded the Treaty of Waitangi vanished from the public sphere, literally – they lost the founding document of their nation! It was only rediscovered in 1908 by Dr. Thomas Hocken in the basement of an Auckland government office, rat-eaten and water-damaged. Even with the advent of it’s rediscovery the reemergence of the Treaty of Waitangi into the public conciousness at-large did not really happen until the 1950’s onwards. The circumstances surrounding this happening, the shift of mentality towards supporting the Maori, are fascinating and would make for an engaging study for any serious anthropologist but suffice to say once ‘mother had abandoned her child’ following the Second World War mountains that had stood for centuries began to shift.


These points and more will be expanded upon throughout the impending academic year, I will share the completed version with you all once it has been submitted.

Thank you for your time.


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