Waitangi Day

on 05 Feb 2014 

Tomorrow, 6 February, is Waitangi Day in Aotearoa/New Zealand, known at various times as 'New Zealand Day', commemorating the signing between Maori and the British Crown on 6 February 1840 of the Treaty of Waitangi, at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands.  I've put together below a quick history and synopsis of the Treaty, drawn from various sources.

Growing numbers of British migrants arrived in New Zealand in the late 1830s, and there were plans for extensive settlement. Around this time there were large-scale land transactions with Māori, unruly behaviour by some settlers and signs that the French were interested in annexing New Zealand. The British government was initially unwilling to act, but it eventually realised that annexing the country could protect Māori, regulate British subjects and secure commercial interests.

The Treaty is a broad statement of principles on which the British and Māori made a political compact to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand. The document has three articles. In the English version, Māori cede the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Māori give the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wish to sell, and, in return, are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Māori are given the rights and privileges of British subjects.

The Treaty in Māori was deemed to convey the meaning of the English version, but there are important differences. Most significantly, the word ‘sovereignty’ was translated as ‘kawanatanga’ (governance). Some Māori believed they were giving up government over their lands but retaining the right to manage their own affairs. The English version guaranteed ‘undisturbed possession’ of all their ‘properties’, but the Māori version guaranteed ‘tino rangatiratanga’ (full authority) over ‘taonga’ (treasures, which may be intangible).  Different understandings of the Treaty have long been the subject of debate.

The short-term effect of the Treaty was to prevent the sale of Māori land to anyone other than the Crown. This was intended to protect Māori from the kinds of shady land purchases which had alienated indigenous peoples in other parts of the world from their land with minimal compensation. Indeed, anticipating the Treaty, the New Zealand Company made several hasty land deals and shipped settlers from Great Britain to New Zealand, assuming that the settlers would not be evicted from land they occupied. Essentially the Treaty was an attempt to establish a system of property rights for land with the Crown controlling and overseeing land sale to prevent abuse.

Initially this worked well. Māori were eager to sell land, and settlers eager to buy. The Crown mediated the process to ensure that the true owners were properly identified (difficult for tribally owned land) and fairly compensated, by the standards of the time. However after a while Māori became disillusioned and less willing to sell, while the Crown came under increasing pressure from settlers wishing to buy. Consequently government land agents were involved in a number of dubious land purchases. Agreements were negotiated with only one owner of tribally owned land and in some cases land was purchased from the wrong people altogether. Eventually this led to the New Zealand Wars, a series of armed conflicts that took place in New Zealand between 1845 and 1872,which culminated in the confiscation of a large part of the Waikato and Taranaki.  The earliest conflicts in the 1840s happened at a time when Māori were still the predominant power, but by the 1860s settler numbers and resources were much greater.

From the 1970s especially, many Māori have called for the terms of the Treaty to be honoured.  The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 by the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. The Tribunal is a permanent commission of inquiry charged with making recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to actions or omissions of the Crown that potentially breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi.  More than 2000 claims have been lodged with the tribunal, and a number of major settlements have been reached, totalling $1.3 billion as at December 2012.

The legislation giving legal force to, and acknowledgment of, the Treaty of Waitangi catapulted the treaty into public notice in ways that stunned and surprised many New Zealanders. The sudden prominence of the treaty in daily life sparked the need for treaty awareness workshops and led historians, lawyers and scholars to challenge accepted views of a benevolent treaty history and good Crown–Māori relations.  Successive governments have continued addressing the challenge of securing the treaty’s original aim – to reconcile the Crown and Māori. This has included projects to give all New Zealanders an understanding of a national vision of two peoples under the treaty.