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Treaty of Waitangi - the question of New Zealand sovereignty

On 6 February 1840 a new document was signed that would complicate the status New Zealand ‘sovereignty’ from then on.

Maori Waka Waitangi New Zealand

At the far north end of New Zealand’s North Island, between Cape Brett and Purerua Peninsula, 144 islands dot the turquoise waters. Lightly forested and with pristine beaches they sit largely uninhabited in a subtropical climate.

This is the Bay of Islands. Where dolphins outnumber people in what was once the colonial capital and the first Maori capital long before that. And it was here, in 1840, the Maori and British leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi, now considered as a founding document of the nation.

On 6 February 1840 a document was signed that would complicate the status of the English government, Maori chiefs, and New Zealand ‘sovereignty’ from then on. That document was the Treaty of Waitangi.

During the 19th century, in the years before the signing of the Treaty, New Zealand was going through some turbulent and confusing times. New Zealand was not a ‘colony’, it belonged to the Maori. Various Maori chiefs sold land to foreign settlers but were having trouble getting those foreigners to submit to their rule afterwards, in part because the Maori were not completely united themselves. The local chiefs were also aware that, in France, there were moves to colonise New Zealand.

These complications led to the signing of a Declaration of Independence by the Maori in 1835. Drafted by an Englishman, James Busby, it ensured Maori chiefs sovereignty over New Zealand as ‘The United Tribes of New Zealand’. They then sought the English King to be their ‘protectorate’. Over the following years, more Maori chiefs signed on and prepared to draft the laws of their new constitution.

However, on 6 February 1840, a new document was signed that would complicate the status of the English government, Maori chiefs, and New Zealand ‘sovereignty’ from then on. That document was the Treaty of Waitangi.

One of the more powerful chiefs, Hone Heke, who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, became disillusioned with how it was playing out. Supposedly fuelled by stories of the American Revolution, Hone Heke and several other Maori chiefs attacked the English at the seaside town of Russell and symbolically cut down their flagstaff. The pole was re-erected and promptly cut down again by Hone Heke. In total it was brought to the ground – even the steel banded one – 4 times before peace was negotiated.

Waitangi Treaty & Independence @frmelsewhere

For the English, arguably, the treaty was little more than a means of getting their hands on a country without going to the effort of a full-blown war. It wasn’t until the later 20th Century that the document was considered a ‘founding’ document of New Zealand and the Maori got some real traction on enforcing it with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal.

But enforcing what exactly?

The Maori version (and what they verbally agreed) was different from the version held by their English counterparts. Importantly, it differed on the issue of sovereignty. Under the Maori translation, the Maori retained full authority (rangatiratanga) over (taonga) all property, tangible and intangible, only giving up governance (kawanatanga) to the Crown. A sort of management agreement. The English version took it all.

It’s not surprising many New Zealanders see the treaty of Waitangi, held up by some as a human rights breakthrough in European colonisation, as a sham.

The “Principles of Waitangi”, drafted in the 1980s, are considered to override the original treaty(ies) as a means of gaining certainty. It recognises both sovereignty and governance fall to the Crown, not the Maori chiefs. However, the Crown must actively protect the Maori ‘rangatiratanga’ over ‘taonga’, redress any treaty-related issues; extend legal equality and all rights of citizenship to Maori and act in good faith and consult with them on issues.

Interpretation of these principles has its problems. The meaning of ‘rangatiratanga’ remains at the heart of the matter. Its translation has been argued differently over time. The current interpretation relied on by the tribunal, is an authority less than sovereignty, a sort of chieftainship. This allows the Anglo-based government of New Zealand to retain sovereignty but with a duty to consult with chiefs over the exercise of that sovereignty. It’s unclear how well that works in practice.

In October 2015, the NZ government scored a win with environmental groups when it extended marine protection zones around the New Zealand coast. This affected many Maori’s right to exploit fishing in the area and they argued there was a failure by the government to fully consult with the proper chiefs before they made the declaration.

​Attachment to country and a right to rule over it is a trait of many societies. Even in this globalised world, we are territorial. Sovereignty is often cited by individuals, political parties and nations in everything from domestic immigration policy to participation in the EU to being lectured to on human rights abuses by the UN. Yet we are quick to quash that same right being claimed by indigenous populations unjustly diddled out of their right by colonising powers.


VISIT: Treaty Grounds and MuseumThe (open daily except Christmas day) are a 20 minute walk on the Waterfront Rd out of Paihia in the Bay of Islands region of New Zealand (about 3 hours north of Auckland). From Paihia you can also catch the Ferry to the village of Russell (Koroareka) where the first European settlement and old Maori capital (Okiato) was located. There, retrace Hone Heke's history and walk up Flagstaff Hill. While in the area take advantage of the tourism options to experience the gorgeous scenery. The beautiful bay is filled with islands, and dolphins and is a great spot to sail, cruise, kayak, fly and parasail - take your pick!

FIND OUT MORE: You can find out more about the treaty and read it in English and Maori here:




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