New Zealand's founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was prepared over just a few days in February 1840. On the day that it was first signed, there were versions in English and Maori. Was the Treaty drafted too quickly? Did the Crown officials know what they were doing? Was the translation into Maori rushed, ambiguous or misleading? These and other questions have been debated since 1840.
William Hobson arrived in New Zealand on 29 January 1840. As lieutenant-governor of a colony that did not yet exist and the extent of which had not been decided, his task was to take possession of it with the consent of the Maori chiefs.
Hobson had no draft treaty to guide him, but the colonial secretary, Lord Normanby, had given him instructions that James Stephen of the Colonial Office had prepared:
All dealings with the Aborigines for their Lands must be conducted on the same principles of sincerity, justice, and good faith as must govern your transactions with them for the recognition of Her Majesty's Sovereignty in the Islands. Nor is this all. They must not be permitted to enter into any Contracts in which they might be ignorant and unintentional authors of injuries to themselves. You will not, for example, purchase from them any Territory the retention of which by them would be essential, or highly conducive, to their own comfort, safety or subsistence. The acquisition of Land by the Crown for the future Settlement of British Subjects must be confined to such Districts as the Natives can alienate without distress or serious inconvenience to themselves. To secure the observance of this rule will be one of the first duties of their official protector.
Hobson had to rely on other British treaties and any advice that he could get. He consulted Governor George Gipps of New South Wales en route to New Zealand and, in New Zealand, his secretary, James Freeman; several missionaries; and James Busby who, as British Resident, had been the formal representative of the Crown until Hobson's arrival.
Hobson asked for Busby's help in preparing formal proclamations in English: that Hobson had taken over as consul and lieutenant-governor, that land claims would need to be approved by the new authorities and that no new transactions after the date of the proclamations would be recognised. Mission printer William Colenso was asked to prepare these and a printed circular letter in Maori to the high chiefs of the United Tribes announcing that a 'rangatira' from the Queen of England had arrived 'hei Kawana hoki mo tatou' (to be a Governor for us). The chiefs were invited to meet Hobson on 5 February at Busby's house at Waitangi.
Hobson and Freeman prepared notes for a treaty of cession to be signed by these chiefs. Busby did not think the notes were suitable. On 3 February he provided a draft treaty with a long and cumbersome explanation of what it meant. He covered all the points that Britain wanted: the chiefs would give up 'sovereignty', Britain would take over all land purchasing, Maori would have the protection and all rights and privileges of British subjects and would be guaranteed possession of their lands, forests, fisheries and other properties so long as they wanted them. These points were expressed in three clauses or articles. Hobson retained these but added a different explanatory preamble.
Missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward, both of whom knew the Maori language, had the job of translating the document. It was an important task, but it had to be rushed. They received the document on the evening of 4 February, and it was needed for the meeting of the chiefs on the next day.
Henry Williams realised that his role was critical. Like many others, he thought that Maori would be better off under British sovereignty. He knew that the chiefs would not agree if a treaty took too much power from them. The translation was key to getting Maori agreement. This may be why the words used in the translation had certain emphases and were not a mirror of the English but a particular type of missionary Maori language that would be familiar to the chiefs.
The Maori translation was presented to some 500 Maori on 5 February. For several hours chiefs spoke for and against it. They debated the document late into the night, with Henry Williams on hand to explain and clarify points. He told Maori that they would be 'one people with the English, in the suppression of wars, and of every lawless act; under one Sovereign, and one Law, human and divine'. The newly arrived surveyor general, Felton Mathew, who only spoke English, gathered that Maori would have ‘full power over their own people – remaining perfectly independent’. These reassurances, along with tiredness and a shortage of food, probably helped convince some chiefs. By the morning of 6 February, most chiefs just wanted to sign and return home.
Next page: Signing the Treaty