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Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) was signed on February 6, 1840 at Waitangi[?] in the Bay of Islands[?], New Zealand. The United Kingdom British Crown on the one side, and representative Maori leaders, the Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand, on the other, agreed to its Articles.

"The Treaty" (as New Zealanders often now call it) made New Zealand a British colony and is considered the founding point of modern New Zealand. Ostensibly, in return for signing away all "rights and powers of sovereignty", the Maori were accorded the status of British subjects, and were guaranteed "full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries and other properties" (taonga).

The British signatories were headed by Captain William Hobson, the Lieutenant-Governor. Of the forty or so Maori chiefs, the Ngapuhi[?] rangatira Hone Heke[?] was the first to sign the treaty. To enhance the authority of the treaty eight copies were made and then sent around the country to gather further signatures:

Around fifty meetings were held to discuss and sign the copies from February to September, 1840 and a further 500 signatures were added to the treaty. Several chiefs, equally, declined to sign. New Zealand was constituted as a colony separate from New South Wales on November 16, 1840.

The treaty document was put into storage in 1877 and largely forgotten until it was found in poor condition in 1911. The document was restored and then preserved more carefully by the Department of Internal Affairs. The treaty was passed to the National Archives in 1957 and since 1990 has been on permanent display in the Constitution Room at Archives New Zealand's headquarters in Wellington.

The anniversary of the signing of the treaty is commemorated in New Zealand as a public holiday, Waitangi day, on February 6th. The first Waitangi Day was not celebrated until 1934 and the day was not made a public holiday until 1974. The commemoration has often been the focus of protest by Maori activists, and has frequently attracted controversy. For a time it was renamed "New Zealand Day" and the official celebrations were shifted from Waitangi to Wellington. However today the anniversary is officially commemorated at the treaty house at Waitangi where the treaty was first signed.

A Waitangi Tribunal[?] was established in 1975 to hear claims of official violations of the Treaty of Waitangi. Originally its mandate was limited to recent claims, however in 1985 this was extended to allow it to consider Crown actions dating back to 1840, including the period covered by the Maori Wars.

Meaning of the Treaty

The treaty itself is short consisting of only three articles. The first article grants the Queen of England governorship over New Zealand. The second article guarantees to the chiefs, their continued chieftainship, and ownership of their lands and treasures (taonga). It also specifies that maori will sell land only to the Crown. The third article guarantees to all Maori the same rights as all other British subjects. Unfortunately the English and Maori versions are not quite identical. This has caused difficulty in interpreting the treaty.

The most critical difference revolves around the interpretation of two maori words, kawanatanga (literally governorship) which is ceded to the queen in the first article, and rangatiratanga (literally chieftainship) which is retained by the chiefs in the second. Depending on how these words are interpreted the treaty can be anything from a ceding of absolute sovereignty to a simple management contract employing the queen to look after maori lands on their behalf.

Because of the short length and limited scope of the treaty it is not a suitable document to be a constitution. However it is the basis of New Zealand's founding myth and is a vitally important document because of this. Often people speak of the spirit of the treaty. Unfortunately there is no clear consensus as to the nature of this spirit. For some people the spirit is one of the joining of two peoples to become one, or as Hobson himself said on the day of the first signing, "Now we are one people". For others the spirit is one of a partnership between the Crown and Maori, a philosophy in New Zealand known as biculturalism.

Regardless of the political controversy which continues to swirl around the meaning of the treaty, it remains an extraordinary document when viewed in historical context of the time. The contrast between the treaty and the treatment accorded indigenous people by European colonisers in most other parts of the world is striking. While the path has been far from smooth (see the Maori Wars), most New Zealanders remain proud that their nation at least started with the best of intentions.

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