About 40 chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. By the end of the year, about 500 other Maori, including 13 women, had put their names or moko to the document; all but 39 signed the Maori text. While some had clear expectations about what their agreement would bring, others chose not to sign the Treaty at all.
Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson expected the chiefs to mull over the Maori text of the Treaty for three days. He was surprised to be called to the meeting on 6 February, so he arrived at Waitangi alone and in plain clothes except for his plumed hat. Former British Resident James Busby called up the chiefs, starting with Hone Heke. Each signing was followed by a handshake and greeting from Hobson: 'He iwi tahi tatou' (We are [now] one people). About half of the chiefs had also signed the Declaration of Independence.
Around 6 February, Henry Williams translated a copy of the Maori text back into English. This became the official text of the Treaty in English. It was presumed that the Maori text and translation back into English had the same meaning, but Williams added a note on the copy of the official text that Hobson sent to Governor Gipps, which said 'I certify that the above is as literal a translation of the Treaty of Waitangi as the idiom of the language will allow.'
For several months in 1840 the Treaty circulated around the country for Maori to sign. Missionaries, traders or officials explained the terms of the Treaty at 50 or so signing meetings between February and September 1840, from the far north of the North Island to Ruapuke Island in Fouveaux Strait.
Communication between one area and another was difficult, so rather than risk losing the Treaty, copies were made. Some were made by hand, and 200 copies of the Maori text were printed on 17 February. Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson suffered a stroke on 1 March 1840, and Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland took up the task of getting agreement to the Treaty. There is no record of the number of copies he had made.
There are nine copies of the Treaty at Archives New Zealand: the Treaty signed on 6 February 1840, and eight copies. The original drafts of the English and Maori texts have been lost; the original copy of the Treaty at Archives New Zealand was made by missionary Richard Taylor because the Maori draft had marks on it, and a clean copy was wanted for the signing meeting on 6 February.
All but one of these copies are in the Maori language, and all but one are written in longhand. Several people made the copies by hand. While the original Treaty and the copies differ from each other in appearance, the texts are the same in each document. Some copies have the government seal, and one was signed by Willoughby Shortland instead of William Hobson. Some signatures and moko are readable, but others are not. The names of some chiefs do not have a mark of any kind beside them, or they are mixed with the names of hapu.
In October 1840 a copy of the Treaty – the Maori text and the official English text, authenticated by a Hobson signature – was sent to the Colonial Office in London. The dispatch was simply to record that both official texts were being sent as fair copies, authenticated by the lieutenant-governor, for filing. This is the only copy of the Treaty that has the words 'Treaty of Waitangi' at its head.
In 1989 an English-language text of the Treaty was discovered in the papers of the Littlewood family. Henry Littlewood was a solicitor who was in the Bay of Islands and Auckland in the 1830s and 1840s. Some people argue that this Littlewood treaty is a translation back into English from the Maori text and that it was prepared after the Treaty signing on 6 February 1840. Others claim it is the final English draft of the Treaty that was thought to be lost. The document is now held at Archives New Zealand in Wellington.
In either case, the version signed at Waitangi and copied to London in 1840 is the official Treaty, and, legally, there is only one Treaty. Under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, which sets out the Treaty in both languages, the Waitangi Tribunal has exclusive authority to determine the meaning and effect of the Treaty.
Chiefs based their decision to sign or not on many things, and reasons varied from one region to another. Many who signed were fearful or uncertain of the outcome.
Many chiefs were confused about the issue of Crown pre-emption (Article 2), which the government interpreted as a strict rule that land held under customary title could be sold only to the Crown or not at all. It seems that this was discussed in detail only on one occasion. It is possible that those who explained the Treaty to Maori did not themselves fully understand the implications of this legal doctrine. Some Maori believed that they had agreed only to a right of first refusal: if the Crown was unable or unwilling to buy a particular piece of land at a price the Maori owners regarded as fair, it could be sold freely to private buyers.
Those who explained the Treaty to Maori generally stressed the advantages of bringing British residents under the control of the Crown, which some chiefs had been asking for since 1831. They played down the impact of the British acquisition of sovereignty and its likely consequences for Maori. Missionary assurances that the Treaty would be of benefit to Maori probably helped to overcome the caution of many chiefs. Some chiefs, especially of Northland iwi, saw the Treaty as a sacred bond or covenant directly between themselves and Queen Victoria. Many who signed were devout Christians who saw no difference between the Crown and the teachings of Christianity.
Maori had clear expectations of how the benefits would occur. There would be a sharing of authority, and this would enhance chiefly mana. The country would be protected from acquisition by other foreign powers. A kawana (governor) would control Europeans, especially those buying land, who were causing difficulties in some areas. The Treaty would bring settlement and more markets for Maori services that were essential to settlement, and Maori could obtain more goods and take advantage of benefits brought by Europeans. Some chiefs saw that change was inevitable. The clock could not be turned back to the period before 1840, so the Treaty was seen as a way into the future.