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Artwork of the signing of Treaty of Waitangi - credit: 1948, LC Mitchell (WNT1949.18.1)

Hītori o Waitangi

History of Waitangi

Often called the ‘Birthplace of our Nation’, Waitangi weaves together the strands and stories of many people, events and places to reveal the rich cultural history of Aotearoa New Zealand, offering an inspiring and meaningful experience for every visitor.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a place for all New Zealanders and the place where much of New Zealand’s history was shaped through the signing of the Declaration of Independence, He Whakaputanga, in 1835 and the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840

Today, Waitangi can be seen as a tūrangawaewae for all those who call New Zealand home – a place where they can stand and feel they belong. The events leading up to the signing of these documents, the actual signing and their ongoing relevance to our nation are fully examined in Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi.

Entrance to Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Entrance to Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Entrance to Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Waitangi; Mr Busby’s (detail) by John Kinder (Collection of Waitangi National Trust WNT1962/4/1)

Scene at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 1840 (detail) by L.C. Mitchell (Collection of Waitangi National Trust WNT1949/18/1)

Sir Āpirana Ngata leading the haka at the opening of Te Whare Rūnanga, 6 February 1940 from the New Zealand Centenary Album (Collection of Waitangi National Trust 1989/166/1)

Early History

The earliest reference to Waitangi in oral tradition comes hundreds of years prior to European arrival. Maikuku, a puhi decended from Rāhiri and the mother of Te Rā, the founding ancestor of the hapū Ngāti Rāhiri was placed in a cave on the Waitangi peninsula; an area now known as Te Ana o Maikuku. For more information on Maikuku and the hapū Ngāti Rāhiri and Ngāti Kawa click here

Archaeological surveys of the Waitangi National Trust Estate indicate more than 100 sites predominantly along the coast and near Hutia Creek. Many sites are shell middens, but some are identified as wāhi tapu, and there is evidence of a pā on the site of the golf course. Early European accounts indicate Waitangi was not heavily populated, and settlements appeared to be seasonal. There were close kin-affiliated settlements from the Waitangi River inlet to Lake Ōwhareiti, with Ngāti Rāhiri occupying pā at Waitangi, Te Aute, Pakaraka and Pou

The first Europeans to negotiate purchase of land at Waitangi were the Halls, missionaries who purchased 50 acres of land from Waraki of Ngāti Pou in 1815. The Halls, along with two sawyers named Conroy and Campbell, arrived at Waitangi unknowingly becoming entrenched in local political tension. This tension resulted in spates of violence that saw Conroy, Campbell and the Halls leaving Waitangi in 1815 and 1816.

The British Residency

In 1831, a letter from Te Whakaminenga, the Confederation of United Tribes, was sent from Kororipo Pā in Kerikeri to the British Crown. This letter requested protection for Māori as well as assistance with managing the incoming settlers. The Crown appointed James Busby in 1832, and he was recognised as the first official British Resident of New Zealand.

Busby purchased Hall’s deed and made nine separate land transactions with local hapū chiefs, totalling 270 acres. Upon this land was where the British Residency (now the Treaty House) was constructed.

In 1834, Busby asked Te Whakaminenga to Waitangi to choose a flag by which they would be identified. On 20 March of that year, a vote was held and Te Kara o te Whakaminenga o Ngā Hapū o Nu Tireni was chosen.

He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni 1835

By 1835 a growing desire for international recognition of New Zealand (and its governance) led to a meeting of chiefs at Waitangi. Concerned about the intentions of the growing number of Europeans, the chiefs put their signatures to a document which declared New Zealand a ‘whenua rangatira’, an independent country. He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni (Declaration of Independence of New Zealand) was acknowledged and supported by the British Government and continued to make its way around New Zealand gathering signatures until 1839.

In June 1835, Frenchman Charles Phillipe de Thierry had made his way to the Pacific where he announced himself the King of Nuku Hiva of the Marquesas Islands. He then notified James Busby of his intention to land in New Zealand to establish himself as the “sovereign chief” of New Zealand1. Understandably, James Busby saw de Thierry’s intention to claim sovereignty as a direct threat to the British position and authority in New Zealand, and responded with a declaration of his own.

New Zealand’s Declaration of Independence, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni, of 1835, is the official Declaration of Independence and sovereignty of Māori over the lands formally known as Nu Tireni, but better known as Aotearoa New Zealand. This constitutional document was initially drafted by Busby, who had it translated into Māori by the Reverend Henry Williams of the Church Missionary Society.

 He Whakaputanga consists of four articles. Firstly, the Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of of Nu Tireni declare New Zealand an independent state. Secondly, New Zealand’s sovereign powers will reside with the collective chiefs of the land. Next, Māori will hold congressional meetings every autumn in Waitangi, while the final article makes certain a copy of the Declaration is provided for the King of England. Eruera Pare Hongi, a close relative of Hongi Hika, produced a finalised version of the Declaration which was conclusively signed by 34 northern chiefs on the 28th of October.

James Busby assisted in having this Declaration immediately sent to the colonial office in Britain where it was finally received by King William VI who recognises Māori authority by registering the first flag of Nu Tireni - Te Kara2. By July 1839, another 18 chiefs from around Aotearoa had put their mark to the parchment.

 For Māori, He Whakaputanga was an ascertion of authority over these lands known as Aotearoa New Zealand. Northern Māori in particular consider He Whakaputanga the parent document of  Te Tiriti, citing that Māori recognition of ownership had to be acknowledged to enable a resulting Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 to be established3. For James Busby, some have said the Declaration was a double-edged sword merely acting as a tool to counter French claims of sovereignty, while at the same time, helped foster a closer working relationship with Māori.

The Treaty of Waitangi

In January 1840, William Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands under orders from the British Government to make a treaty with Māori. James Busby offered to organise a meeting with Te Whakaminega to hear Hobson’s proposal.

Hundreds of Māori attended the discussion on 5 February at Waitangi, with rangatira coming from as far as Ngāti Tūwharetoa. The English text of the treaty was drafted by Hobson and amended by Busby before being translated into te reo Māori by Reverend Henry Williams and his son Edward, and presented to the chiefs.

Many rangatira spoke their opinions on the proposed treaty, both for and against the idea of signing. Discussion carried on long into the night and by the morning of 6 February some chiefs were ready to sign.

Copies of Te Tiriti o Waitangi were circulated around parts of the country for signing. In May of that year, Hobson published the Proclamation of Sovereignty, declaring Queen Victoria’s ‘full Sovereignty of the Islands of New-Zealand’. This was despite the fact Treaty copies were still making their way around the country gathering signatures. At the end of the seven-month journey of the Treaty copies, approximately 540 chiefs had signed. Many did not, but to Hobson and the Colonial Office they considered they had the ‘free and intelligent consent’ from Māori leaders.

Post Treaty

With differences in wording between the English and te Reo Māori texts relating to sovereignty and possession of lands and other properties, there has been much discontent since the signing. Within five years, the New Zealand Wars had begun with the Battle of Kororāreka. The Wars continued in different parts of the countries for several decades resulting in lost lives, livelihoods, and land.

By 1867 Māori were vastly outnumbered and dispossessed of much of their land. They were granted four seats in parliament and from this small beginning the political strength of Māori grew, both inside and outside the system.

After more than 100 years, the endurance of Māori resulted in the Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975, an Act of Parliament which now governs and guides all Treaty-related issues and claims in New Zealand. This Act resulted in the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal which has heard and settled claims since 1975 and continues to be an integral part of contemporary Māori’s dedication to the struggle and resilience of their ancestors.

Waitangi Day, a day to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is an acknowledgement of New Zealand’s past which provides a platform for all New Zealanders to consider what the Treaty means today. Recent years have seen the Government at Te Whare Rūnanga come together across parties to engage with mana whenua at the place where the Treaty was first signed.

Header image credit:

Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 1948, LC Mitchell (WNT1949.18.1)

1 Sinclair, Keith (1986). A History of New Zealand (3rd ed.).Auckland, New Zealand. Pp. 52-53.

2 Te Kara – A flag established in 1834 by James Busby, assisted by northen chiefs and Eruera Pare Hongi.

3 Wīhongi (1990). Ngāpuhi Speaks.