The Treaty of Waitangi - an introduction

The Treaty of Waitangi was an agreement made in 1840 between the British Crown and over five hundred Maori chiefs of New Zealand. The wording of the treaty in English indicated that the chiefs were ceding to Britain the sovereignty of New Zealand and were giving the Crown an exclusive right of pre-emption of such lands as the Maori wished to sell. In return, the Maori were guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other prized possessions. In addition, the treaty promised them the rights and privileges of British subjects, together with assurances of Crown protection.

However, most chiefs signed the treaty in the Maori language, hastily translated from the English text by the missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward. This Maori treaty was first signed on 6 February 1840 at Waitangi (from which the treaty takes its name) in the Bay of Islands. Subsequently it was taken for meetings elsewhere in the north and at Auckland, and was then copied several times for additional signing meetings round the country.

The treaty in Maori was deemed to convey the meaning of the English version (only 39 chiefs signed the treaty in the English language). Williams said he had done his best to translate the English but for some words there was no exact Maori equivalent. Explanations might have clarified the intent and likely outcomes of the treaty, but it appears they did not do so. Maori understanding, therefore, was at odds with that of those negotiating the treaty.

The responsibility for securing British sovereignty through the treaty-making fell on William Hobson, a naval captain who was appointed Lieutenant Governor. He relied on the advice and support of a number of missionaries working in New Zealand; they belonged to either the Church Missionary Society (CMS), or to the Wesleyan Missionary Society (WMS). In drafting the English text Hobson was assisted by his secretary, James Freeman, and by James Busby, the British Resident, who had arrived to take up his appointment in 1833 and had been located at Waitangi since then.

Busby and local missionaries supported Hobson with the meeting at Waitangi, which commenced on 5 February with the signing on 6 February. Over a six-month period in 1840 additional signatures of chiefs in various places around New Zealand were obtained. In addition to Hobson, negotiators included some of his officials, CMS and WMS missionaries, military men, and a trader.

Copies of the Treaty sent in reports

Governor Hobson sent four copies of the treaty to his superiors; it was customary to send duplicates too. Some of these dispatches, which included reports of treaty meetings, were later printed in the British Parliamentary Papers (BPP). Copies of dispatches were kept in New Zealand and are now in Archives New Zealand files (G). The Colonial Office records relevant to New Zealand (CO 209) are held on microfilm at several repositories.

The copies sent by Hobson appear to be as follows:

1. An English-language copy in Hobson to Gipps (N.S.W.), 5-6 February 1840, CO 209/6, 46-54.

2. An English-language copy in Hobson to Gipps (N.S.W.), 16 February 1840, CO 209/7, 13-15.

3. English and Maori treaties enclosed in Hobson to Russell, 15 October 1840, CO 209/7 , 178. The treaty spans two pages with the Maori on the left and the English on the right. A title at the top simply reads 'Treaty' and seems to apply to both. At the foot on the left it says 'signatures taken off' and on the right notes that there were 512 signatures. It is not clear how the figure of 512 treaty adherents was arrived at; it is now certain that the total signing was close to 540. The dispatch says that it was a 'certified' copy. When it was printed in BPP,1841 (311), pp. 98-99, 'Treaty' was placed over the Maori text and '(Translation)' over the English.

4. Hobson to the Secretary of State for Colonies, 26 May 1841, enclosed the treaty in Maori and signatures of the Manukau-Kawhia treaty copy. This was printed in BPP, 1841 (569), pp. 110-11.

The original Treaty copies

The original treaty signed first at Waitangi and another eight signed copies are held at Archives New Zealand, Wellington. All are in the Maori language except for the copy that went to Manukau harbour and Waikato Heads. With one exception - a printed copy - all sheets are in long-hand. All contain the names of chiefs (together with their signatures, moko or marks) who wished to signify their agreement to the treaty.

The original in Maori and the copies differ from each other in various ways: some have slight variations in the text; one was signed by the Colonial Secretary, Willoughby Shortland, and not by William Hobson; some have the government seal and others have no seal.

Some treaty negotiators took care to collect signatures and moko in an orderly fashion; their copies are fairly readily decipherable. Other copies are not so easy to read. In some cases the names of chiefs appear on a copy but do not have a mark of any kind beside them. In many instances, names of chiefs are interspersed with names of hapu, but the distinction is not always clear.

How to cite this page

'Introduction', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012