The making of the Treaty of Waitangi

The British government appointed William Hobson as consul to an independent New Zealand. It sent him here with one goal – to get Māori to sign over sovereignty of all or part of New Zealand to Britain. Hobson would then become lieutenant governor over those areas.

Hobson sailed into the Bay of Islands on Wednesday 29 January 1840. James Busby, British Resident, met him, and the two began planning a treaty that would carry out their government’s intentions.

Kao, kao, e hoki!
No, no, go back!

E noho, noho mai, Kawana!
Stay, remain here, Governor!

Invitations to rangatira

Invitation to the Waitangi treaty meeting sent by James Busby to Tamati Waka Nene, 30 January 1840. Printed by William Colenso, the CMS printer, at Paihia, Bay of Islands, typescript. Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira (MS-93-116)

Busby sent these invitations to local rangatira to come to his house at Waitangi on 5 February. Meanwhile, Hobson, with no legal training, struggled to write the treaty he wanted the rangatira to sign.

Unimpressed with Hobson's efforts, Busby redrafted the treaty, adding an all-important promise – that Māori would retain possession of their lands, forests, fisheries, and other property.

Finally, the missionary Henry Williams translated the treaty into Māori. However, it wasn't an exact translation.

Invitation translation

30 January 1840

My dear friend, I make contact with you again. A war ship has arrived with a chief on board sent by the Queen of England to be a Governor for us both. Now he suggests that all the chiefs of the Confederation of New Zealand, on Wednesday of this holy week coming should gather to meet him. So I ask you my friend to come to this meeting here at Waitangi, at my home. You are a chief of that Confederation.

And so, to conclude.

From your dear friend, Busby

The first meeting, 5 February 1840

Early on Wednesday 5 February, waka streamed across the bay to Waitangi. Settler vessels joined them, flags flying. A marquee was set up on Busby’s lawn, while stalls sold refreshments – pork, bread, pies, ale, and spirits – to the gathering crowds.

Talks begin

James Ingram McDonald, Captain William Hobson, 1913, oil painting. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (G-826-1)

Hobson explained the Treaty and urged the rangatira to sign it. He stressed that it would give the British Queen the authority to control British subjects and protect Māori and their lands.

Throughout the day, the rangatira debated. Some saw the Treaty as the best way forward. Others said the Treaty was unnecessary. Still others thought it was dangerous. By nightfall no one had signed. The meeting was adjourned for two days.

The scene in the marquee

Marcus King, Reconstruction of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 1840, 1939, photograph of painting. Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

‘In front of the platform ... were the principal ... chiefs ... some clothed with dog-skin mats made of ... stripes of black and white hair; others ... in ... new woollen cloaks ... of crimson, blue, brown, and plaid, and, indeed, of every shade of striking colour ... while some were dressed in plain European and some in common Native dresses ... here and there a ... taiaha ... was seen erected, adorned with the long flowing white hair of the tails of the New Zealand dog and crimson cloth and red feathers.’

– William Colenso, The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Government Printer, Wellington, 1890 (reprinted Capper, 1971)

The words of the rangatira

‘Let the Governor return to his own country ... We are not whites, nor foreigners ... This country is ours ... we are the Governor – we, the chiefs of this our fathers’ land.’

– Rewa of Ngāi Tawake from Kororareka

‘We are free. We will not have a Governor ... go back, return, walk away.’

– Hakiro of Ngāi Tawake

‘O Governor! Remain for us – a father, a judge, a peacemaker.’

– Tamati Waka Nene of Ngāti Hao

The signing – 6 February 1840

Māori groups camped nearby and continued talking into the night. No one knows just what was said, but by morning most rangatira had decided they should sign the Treaty after all. And they didn’t want to wait until the meeting was reconvened in a day’s time.

Caught by surprise, Hobson said he could not discuss the Treaty that day, but would accept signatures. Over forty rangatira signed with their names, mark, or moko. But this was just the beginning.

Page from William Colenso’s notebook, about 1889, New Zealand. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi. MTG Hawke's Bay Tai Ahuriri (45/8)

Felton Mathew, Acting Surveyor-General, described the Waitangi meetings in his journal. Mathew noted that among the chiefs were ‘many female chiefs of importance, who were distinguished by white feathers in their hair and ears, sometimes by the entire wing of a bird suspended from the ear.'


This content was originally written for the Treaty2U website in partnership with National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa and Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o Te Kāwanatanga in 2008, and reviewed in 2020.