In 1831, 13 Ngāpuhi chiefs petitioned King William IV of the United Kingdom to protect them from other powers. On 28 October 1835 James Busby took this a step further at a hui (meeting) he had called at Waitangi. By the end of the day 34 northern chiefs, the ‘Confederation of United Tribes’, had signed ‘A Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand’. They also asked William to become their ‘parent’ and ‘Protector’ and thanked him for acknowledging their flag.
Busby had acted partly in response to Frenchman Charles Philippe de Thierry, who had announced plans to proclaim an independent state in Hokianga. The self-declared nobleman’s claims were in the end easily dismissed, but the fact remained that if Britain did not intervene in New Zealand, another country might do so.
The handwritten Declaration (it was later printed by the missionary press) consisted of four articles. It asserted the independence of Nu Tirene (New Zealand) under the rule of the ‘United Tribes of New Zealand’. All sovereign power and authority in the land (‘Ko te Kingitanga ko te mana i te w[h]enua’) resided with the chiefs ‘in their collective capacity’. The chiefs present agreed to meet annually at Waitangi to make laws. In return for the ‘friendship and protection’ that Māori were to give British subjects in New Zealand, the chiefs entreated King William IV ‘to continue to be the parent [matua] of their infant State’, and asked him to ‘become its Protector from all attempts upon its independence’. Thirty-four northern chiefs signed the declaration on 28 October 1835. Busby sent it to the King, and it was formally acknowledged by the Crown in 1836. By 22 July 1839 another 18 chiefs had signed, including Te Wherowhero, the Waikato Tainui ariki who was to become the first Māori king in 1858.
Busby saw the declaration as a step towards making New Zealand a British possession. It was also an opportunity for him to boost his reputation with Māori. He had not enjoyed great success as the British Resident. While capable, he was argumentative and had few friends. The Sydney press mocked him as ‘Mr Borer Busby Junior’ and maintained that he was not up to the task. In 1835 Busby’s superiors decided to appoint Hokianga-based Thomas McDonnell, as Honorary Additional British Resident. They felt that McDonnell, a trader, would have greater influence with Māori. He succeeded in banning liquor sales in the Hokianga, something Busby had been unable to achieve in the Bay of Islands. For Busby, the Declaration was an opportunity to reassert himself at the expense of McDonnell.
Māori who signed saw the Declaration as a guarantee of their independence. They believed it strengthened their relationship with the British and welcomed the promise of protection.
Governor Bourke of New South Wales referred to the Declaration as ‘a paper pellet fired off at Baron de Thierry’. Although a Colonial Office official called it ‘silly and unauthorised’, Lord Glenelg, the secretary of state for the colonies, was more enthusiastic, advising the King that it showed ‘a due regard to the just rights of others and to the interests of His Majesty’s subjects’.
The significance of the Declaration of Independence as a step towards the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 has been widely debated by historians in recent years. Its signatories did not speak for all Māori. Gavin McLean described New Zealand at the time as ‘a fragmented, war-weary land where tiny hapu, as often as iwi, claimed most people’s loyalties’. Claudia Orange noted that ‘there was no indigenous political structure upon which to base a united congress’. This interpretation was echoed by another historian, Michael King, who maintained that the Declaration ‘had no reality, since there was … no national indigenous power structure within New Zealand’.
Despite these drawbacks, the Declaration became a foundation for the assertion of indigenous rights and was another step towards a formal constitutional relationship with Britain. Tom Brooking argued that the Colonial Office accepted the Confederation of United Tribes as bestowing ‘indisputable’ Māori ‘title to the soil and the sovereignty of New Zealand’. For many, though, the Declaration was primarily a matter for Ngāpuhi. Paul Moon saw it as a ‘regional goodwill agreement rather than a national document of truly constitutional significance’.
The Declaration seems to have had very little practical effect at the time. The chiefs who attended the hui told Busby not to expect any chief to subordinate his mana to that of the United Tribes. Indeed, as Michael King pointed out, some of the ‘United’ Tribes were at war with one another within a year of signing the document. There is no evidence that the confederation of chiefs was ever reconvened, except at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1840.
No functioning New Zealand-wide government came into existence as a result of the Declaration. Effective sovereignty lay not with the United Tribes but with the chiefs of individual iwi and hapū. Local law enforcement, such as it was, was in the hands of the Kororareka Association, a group of local settlers that worked with Busby and some of the local chiefs.
Some historians suggest that the Declaration was taken seriously only in 1840, when it proved to be an impediment to the annexation of New Zealand. Before sovereignty could be transferred to the British crown via the Treaty of Waitangi, the Declaration had to be revoked. This is why the chiefs who had signed the Declaration, or their successors, were the first men to be called up to sign the Treaty.