Waitangi, A Beginning.

Kia Ora adventurers!

Today is the 6th of February, and in New Zealand that means Waitangi day. A celebration marking the founding of this mad, crazy adventurous country, that is the home of legendary mountain climbers, the best lamb and honey you’re likely to taste, championship Rugby teams who do enviously cool haka’s that make everyone else look lame, small furry creatures with long noses and bird feet, scenery that reminds you of mythical worlds and the home of Bungee Jumping. So here’s a little history to the event starting with a few New Zealand dates.

6th October 1769, Nicholas Young, the surgeon’s boy, sighted the coastline of New Zealand from the masthead of The Endeavour. Cook then maps the islands that earlier explorers had found in the 17th century.

The Endeavour left New Zealand on 31st March 1770. Cook had just chartered 2,400 miles of coastline, in under 6 months.

1815 first European baby Thomas King is born.

1819 Kerikeri settlement founded.

1823 Bluff settlement established.

1830s Maori population in a sorry state due to disease and the availability of firearms to feud with.

1834 Chiefs of the United Tribes of New Zealnd select the country’s first flag.

1835 Chiefs of the United Tribes sign a Declaration of Independence.

1837 Edward Gibbon Wakefield forms the New Zealand Company and begins establishing settlements and buying land.

5th-6th February 1840 Maori cede sovereignty to Queen Victoria, Cpt William Hobson accepts the Signature of Maori chiefs becoming New Zealand’s first colonial governor.

So yeah, this is the story of the treaty Waitangi, the document that founded the country of New Zealand. This is a short overview of a pretty complex issue, the legalities of which I am in no position to debate, so I’ve tried to gather the bare facts of this little known but vital part of the history of British Colonialism, which essentially lead to the often forgotten Maori wars, and the foundation of a modern country.

Captain William Hobson New Zealand's first Governor.
Captain William Hobson New Zealand’s first Governor.

On the 5th of February 1840 in the bay of islands on New Zealand’s north island. Captain William Hobson of the Royal Navy and new Lt Governor of the would be colony, walked the short distance from the Residents house at Waitangi to the sailcloth marquee that had been erected on the lawn outside. He joined other commissioners behind the table draped with the Union Jack to address the ranks of assembled Maori chiefs sitting on the ground before him. They had come to discuss a treaty that would prove to have the greatest effect on their country since Captain Cooks voyage around New Zealand in 1769.

Hobson told them that the benefits of colonial rule would be great, that their native customs will be upheld by British law and that they would be guaranteed the possession of all their lands and forests with the understanding that the Crown shall have the right to purchase any lands that they chose to sell and in return Her Majesty Queen Victoria would afford them the protection and rights of British subjects. It was Pax Britannica in action.

Chief Hone Heke and his wife Hariata 1845
Chief Hone Heke and his wife Hariata 1845

The reaction was, predictably stale but a lengthy and oftentimes loud debate followed. A surprise came after Henry Williams, in charge of the mission station at Paihia, had read out the translated version of the treaty and the imposing chief Hone Heke, nephew of a great Ngapuhi leader called Hongi Hika stood up. The Reverend Williams interpreted easily, he had been in New Zealand for 17 years and he spoke the Maori language almost like a native, though some critics said he didn’t understand some of the words.

Missionary Henry Williams who translated the treaty into Maori.
Missionary Henry Williams who translated the treaty into Maori. Taken in 1860s

Heke so Hobson had been told, would be against the treaty, but amazingly he said that he was in favour of it because the alternatives were the French or the Rum Sellers. After Heke had said his piece, Williams warned that he mistrusted Heke’s motives, Heke’s uncle had warned his people on his deathbed to beware selling land to white men.

For six hours the talk continued. Inside the crowded tent the temperature rose & Hobson sweltered in his full dress blue uniform. Then Chief Tamati Waaka Nene, a heavily tattooed man with wise strong face, spoke up. He was the leader of the Hokianga tribe and a Christian convert like Hone Heke.

Hobson listened intently as the Reverend haltingly interpreted the waterfall of tumbling staccato Maori that flowed to his ears. Tamati said that their families had suffered enough from their tribal feuds, that he was tired listening to the women crying over the dead. Would it not be better to live in peace? Trading with the white men and safe in their protection? But he warned and pleaded that their ancient customs and lands from be protected and that Hobson should remain their friend, their father and their Governor.

Chief Tamati Waka Nene the chief who made the treaty successful, 1870s
Chief Tamati Waka Nene the chief who made the treaty successful, 1870s

His impassioned words carried all who heard them. The next day, the 6th of February 1840, after being fed and having slept on the questions put before them, those chiefs still present signed on the treaty. Once it had been sent around the country it was finally ratified with 500 signatures to its credit. On the 21st of May 1840 New Zealand was formally annexed to the crown.

Good modern painting of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Fairly good modern painting of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

That’s the bear bones of it. Controversies abound however. Despite arguments for the treaty being made to protect the natives from exploitation by Independent commercial enterprises, there are indications that more practical and cold blooded motives were at play. There are accusations that the Maori translation was slightly different to the original English version and left out vital clauses, that the chiefs didn’t actually know what they were signing, that some of the chiefs only signed it as a political move to out manoeuvre rivals, and that many chiefs were not present or left before the paper was signed, thus voiding it’s legitimacy. Nevertheless no matter how you look on it, this is New Zealand’s founding document, and it is why their national day is called Waitangi day.

Hope everyone in Kiwi land enjoys the Hui and all the expats across the world too. With thanks to New Zealand experts; the guys at Hikoi Tahi Walks & R Tucker Thompson Tall Ship, & Stuart Parks for help with the dates.

See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.


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