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

Hītori o Waitangi

Waitangi's History

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 visit http://www.waitangimarae.co.nz/pitopito-korero.html  

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. Citing growing tensions and lawlessness from Europeans, the letter resulted in the appointment of the first British Resident to New Zealand; James Busby.

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. 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. However, overseas interests continued to arrive, with the United States and France competing for influence in New Zealand, as well as private British and French companies planning settlements.

Over time, British ties proved to be stronger than all others, with Māori and British becoming interdependent through business, marriage, children and religion.

The Treaty

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)