The Treaty of Waitangi has two texts. The Māori version is not an exact translation of the English. There has been much debate over the differences – how they came to be and what they mean. Some people argue that there are two treaties: te Tiriti, the Māori version, and the Treaty, the English version. At the time the Treaty was signed, it is not clear how much notice was taken of the precise wording.
Some people argue that the Treaty was prepared hastily and by amateurs who, intentionally or otherwise, used language that conveyed a particular meaning in Māori. Others say that the instructions that Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson received from the British were careful, especially concerning land; Hobson and his advisors knew exactly what they were doing when they drafted the English text of the Treaty, and they had previous treaties to guide them.
The Māori text was translated quickly but by men who were familiar with the language. The missionary Māori they used was known to the chiefs, and it conveyed key words and meanings. Henry Williams and the chiefs had spent much of the night of 5 February talking about the Treaty and its meanings. Williams did not suggest any changes to the text, so some people see this as a sign that he did not think the Māori text was seriously misleading. Perhaps he chose certain words to gain Māori agreement, however ambiguous they might appear as a translation of English concepts. Like many others, he believed that Māori welfare would be best served under the British.
Many people now focus on the differences between the English and Māori texts, especially with regard to the crucial question of sovereignty. At the time, the oral discussion and Williams's explanation may have mattered more than differences between the written texts.
The English version states the British intentions were to protect Māori interests from the encroaching British settlement, provide for British settlement and establish a government to maintain peace and order.
The Māori text suggests that the Queen's main promises to Māori were to provide a government while securing tribal rangatiratanga (chiefly autonomy or authority over their own area) and Māori land ownership for as long as they wished to retain it.
In the English text, Māori leaders gave the Queen 'all the rights and powers of sovereignty' over their land. In the Māori text, Māori leaders gave the Queen 'te kawanatanga katoa' or the complete government over their land.
The word 'sovereignty' had no direct translation in Māori. Chiefs had authority over their own areas, but there was no central ruler over the country. The translators of the English text used the Māori word 'kawanatanga', a transliteration of the word 'governance', which was in current use. Māori knew this word from the Bible and from the 'kawana' or governor of New South Wales. Māori believe that they kept their authority to manage their own affairs and ceded a right of governance to the Queen in return for the promise of protection.
It is widely accepted that the use of the words 'kawanatanga' and 'tino rangatiratanga' (in Article 2) contributed to later differences of view between the Crown and Māori over how much authority the chiefs would retain and how much the governor would have. There can be little doubt that the chiefs who signed the Treaty expected to enter into some kind of partnership and power sharing in the new system.
In the English text, Māori leaders and people, collectively and individually, were confirmed and guaranteed 'exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties'. Māori also agreed to the Crown's exclusive right to purchase their land. Some Māori (and British) later stated that they understood the Crown to have a first option rather than an exclusive right to buy.
In the Māori text, Māori were guaranteed 'te tino rangatiratanga' or the unqualified exercise of their chieftainship over their lands, villages, and all their property and treasures. Māori also agreed to give the Crown the right to buy their land if they wished to sell it. It is not certain if the Maori text clearly conveyed the implications of exclusive Crown purchase.
In the Māori text, the Crown gave an assurance that Māori would have the Queen's protection and all rights (tikanga) accorded to British subjects. This is considered a fair translation of the English. The Queen’s protection of Māori was emphasised here as it was in the preamble.
Both parties note that they have entered into the full spirit of the Treaty.
Legally there is just one Treaty, despite the differences between the two texts. The Waitangi Tribunal has exclusive authority to determine the meaning of the Treaty in the two texts and to decide issues raised by the differences between them. References to the Treaty in law try to bridge the differences by referring to the 'principles' of the Treaty, or the core concepts or spirit that underpin both texts.
As is often noted now, it is the spirit of the Treaty that matters most. It was meant to be a broad-brush agreement in which various principles or understandings were implied. The Treaty was mainly a diplomatic and political instrument to support or reflect an agreement between the Crown and Māori to create a nation state. In that sense, the Treaty embodied a partnership in which the Crown, chiefs and tribes would all have a place.