a christian perspective on the world today

The Treaty of Waitangi

The story of the establishment of New Zealand as a nation is a long and convoluted tale. And it begins long before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on February 6, 1840 and involves many people with varying agendas.

Historian Paul Moon, a professor at the Auckland University of Technology specialising in Maori history, the Treaty of Waitangi and the early period of British Crown rule, describes the settlement of New Zealand in his book, The Treaty and Its Times: “The ancestors of today’s Maori . . . arrived in the island group of today’s New Zealand approximately a thousand years ago. Then from 1642, the first of the explorers from the northern hemisphere civilisation in Europe sailed into the waters around New Zealand and reported their find. And in 1769 the first of the British seafarers set foot on these isolated shores in the South Pacific and claimed the country for Britain.

“By the end of that century, sealers and whalers from Great Britain, New South Wales, France and the United States of America were active in small and isolated ventures around the coast of New Zealand.”

New Zealand was fast becoming a country where profiteers brought their rackets. Prostitution was rife. There was no law, no order. Even the Maori people had no overall governance. If something wasn’t done, there was going to be huge trouble.

“In 1814 the first Christian missionaries arrived, and with them, a new religion, written language, European dress and customs, and the first missionary schools.”

Yet even a moral, ethical missionary presence did little to improve the character of this untamed land.


To curb the high degree of lawlessness in the area, British naval officer Captain William Hobson was sent to New Zealand in 1839 with the intention of finalising a treaty in order that New Zealand might be formally added to the British Empire.

The man behind Hobson’s appointment was Sir James Stephen. Not only was Stephen a lawyer, and in a position of authority in the Colonial Office, he was also a committed evangelical Christian with a strong involvement in the Christian Missionary Society, which fought a long crusade against the slave trade. Stephen’s brother-in-law was the well-known slave reformer William Wilberforce.

“Stephen was a lawyer and his shrewd judgment, powerful intellect, exceptional attention to the details of his work and strong humanitarian ideals combined to make him one of the most influential people directing the British Empire for a decade, earning him the title ‘King Stephen’ by one of his colleagues,” says Moon.

Stephen’s anti-slavery stance is reflected in the instructions he gave, Hobson when he set sail for New Zealand.

Britain, however, was careful to point out that the arrangement was made with reluctance on its part. It offered protection to the Maori from profiteering immigration syndicates. It recognised the loutish behaviour of the European settlers who had put the British Government in the position where it had to take a more active role, including protecting the Maori. Most of all, it emphasised that the British Government did not wish to seize New Zealand, but would seek free and intelligent consent from the Maori chiefs.

“It was left to Hobson himself to formulate a treaty based on these instructions,” Moon says.

Hobson’s experience

Hobson soon discovered himself to be under pressure when he sailed into Sydney Harbour on Christmas Eve, 1839. He learned the notorious New Zealand Company was claiming to have purchased vast tracts of land from the Maori and was now asserting private “sovereignty” rights over it. In addition, speculators in Sydney were feverishly investing in New Zealand land.

As a result, Hobson lost any confidence he had by the time he arrived in Kororareka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands on Wednesday, January 29.

He spent the next day drafting an invitation to the Maori chiefs to a meeting at Waitangi the following Wednesday.

On the Friday, runners dispatched the invitations and Hobson settled down to write the structure of a treaty. More difficulties were ahead, however, when Hobson fell seriously ill on Saturday afternoon. There was no time for illness!

James Busby, the British Resident, rescued the situation, taking Hobson’s notes ashore and adding some ideas of his own. The document was returned to Hobson, who still lay ill in bed, and more changes were made. Meetings and discussions took place until finally, at 4 pm on Tuesday, the Treaty of Waitangi was considered complete.

On Wednesday, February 5, Hobson read aloud the English version of the Treaty, followed by Henry Williams, who read the Maori translation. And then the debate began.

At the end of the day, not one chief had signed the treaty. It must have been a galling moment. Heavy rain was forecast and the chiefs would soon return to their homes. It would be impossible to get them all together again for a long time. But all was not yet lost. The next day, Hobson was summoned and 43 chiefs put their names or moko onto the Treaty parchment. And the rest, as we know, is history.

a fair document?

Today, the Treaty, while generally considered the founding document of New Zealand as a nation, is often the subject of fierce debate. Moon, however, considers the Treaty to be a fair document that gives a fair deal.

“There was no intent to deceive,” he says. “The man who gave the instructions for our Treaty, Sir James Stephen, was not a man who would attempt to colonise a country using unfair tactics.”

It sometimes appears, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, that the Treaty of Waitangi upon which this little country at the bottom of the world is built, promotes division rather than unity. Moon has firm ideas on that view too.

“The Treaty itself has a fundamental flaw in that it is not a contract,” Moon says. “It was intended to grow and evolve over time, and was more an expression of intent than a contract. Just like a marriage, the Treaty and its interpretation are susceptible to vagaries of circumstance.”

If Sir James Stephen, William Hobson, Busby and all the chiefs sat around a table today, what would they say about those heady days? What would they say about the events of the twentieth century? And what would they say about our attitudes toward the Treaty today?

Share this story

Before you go!

Get more Signs goodness every month! For less than the price of a hot beverage, you’ll get 8 amazing articles every month, as well as our popular columns What in the World, Ask Pr Jesse, a Crossword and Sudoku puzzle—and more!