On 6 February 1840, amidst conflict between the British colonists and sovereign Māori peoples on Māori land, officials on behalf of the British crown and 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs) struck an accord – a treaty – and signed it in an attempt to create unity.
What was happening in Australia?
During this time, to the west in neighbouring Australia, British colonisation was fast expanding without discussion or debate with the Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal people resisted against the theft of the land and the violence and dispossession of their people, and during this decade, conflict and violence between British settlers and First Nations' people peaked. This conflict is known as the Frontier Wars.
During this decade, Australia had also stopped transporting British convicts to New South Wales and significantly changed the status of the colony from a penal colony into a 'free society'.
What is The Treaty of Waitangi?
New Zealand's 'The Treaty of Waitangi' is named after the location that it was signed, and 6 February now marks the anniversary of its signing and has since become a New Zealand national holiday known as 'Waitangi Day'.
Written in both Māori and English and containing three articles, the Treaty is a set of broad principles in which the Māori and British founded a nation state and agreed to build a government in New Zealand. The Treaty itself does not form part of New Zealand domestic law, except where it is inserted into specific legislation. It is instead looked at as a set of principles rather than an agreement, despite being the founding agreement of the New Zealand as a nation state.
Treaty: The English version and the Māori version
History tells us, however, that there was not a meeting of the minds in forming this agreement. The English version of the Treaty stipulates that the Māori people ceded sovereignty, gave the Crown exclusive rights to buy land that the Māori people wished to sell and in return are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their traditional lands, forests, fisheries and possessions and granted all the rights and privileges as British subjects.
The Māori version, however, contains nuanced differences that carry a significant meaning, for example, in the Māori version sovereignty is replaced by ‘kawanatanga’ which means governance. It has been argued that the Māori believed they remained a sovereign people free to handle their own affairs but gave up governing the lands. The Māori version also guaranteed full authority over ‘taonga’ which means treasures that may be intangible.
The British encroached upon the Māori understood terms of the Treaty and this led to countless disputes, particularly in the 1960s/70s when the Māori political movement was gaining traction and increasing its push to enforce the Treaty.
As a result of the Māori push, the Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 to consider claims made by individuals or groups and upon considering the evidence issues a report with recommendations. The Office of Treaty Settlements, established at the same time as the Tribunal, negotiates with the claimants on behalf of the Crown. Since establishment, there have been over 2,000 claims registered, giving an indication of the level of dispute between the Māori people and the New Zealand government.
A further area of dispute is the fact that claims negotiated by the Crown are settled on a large group scale and once settlement legislation is enacted, there are no further rights for that group to make any historical claims which completely ignores any (sub-tribe) and whanau (extended family) claims.
The Treaty of Waitangi on Waitangi Day is often reflected upon by many Māori people that that the ‘spirit of the treaty’ has not been honoured, such as retaining the right to govern their lands.
In Australia, despite last year's attempt to supervise a process toward a treaty, or treaties, Indigenous people still do not have a treaty (and remain the only Indigenous peoples in the world to not have one with their colonists). However, if there were a move forward, the Waitangi example demonstrates the importance of linguistic nuances, ensuring that both parties understand exactly what is being agreed and neither party has an unfair advantage to the other when enforcing the terms of a treaty and the necessity of prescribed set of consequences for breach of terms of any Treaty.
Today we can reflect on the good intentions of the Māori people who signed the Treaty of Waitangi and honour our neighbouring brothers and sisters of New Zealand, by shining a light on the injustice of their people having a continued fight to uphold the Treaty.
Copies of the Treaty sheets can be seen on the Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga Archives New Zealand website. The original Treaty is on display in the He Tohu exhibition at the Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa National Library of New Zealand in Wellington.