The 1940 Centennial

Page 5 – The Treaty of Waitangi

The Centennial and Māori

When the Centennial Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1938, the MP for Stratford declared that it provided for the celebration

of one hundred years of progress in this wonderful Dominion....the history of those hundred years is amazing, and one which has never been outshone in any other country. Ours is one of the brightest gems in the Pacific: a real pacific haven away from the troubles of a distracted older world.

This 'one hundred years of progress' was clearly the celebration of European progress in New Zealand; the Labour government used the opportunity to proclaim and reinforce a national value system. Despite all the talk of the 'birth of a nation', the place of the Treaty of Waitangi or Māori in these celebrations was less obvious.

Heavily directed by the National Centennial Committee, the key Māori contribution to the Centennial centred around the completion of the Whare Runanga on the Waitangi Estate. This was to be a celebration of Māori integration into modern New Zealand. The fact that Māori were 'loyally working to the end of having the Whare Runanga on the Waitangi Estate completed in time for 1940', commented Minister of Internal Affairs William Parry in 1936, 'shows that to them the centennial will be no occasion for mourning an alien conquest, but an occasion for rejoicing.'

Many Europeans saw the Whare Runanga as complementing the Treaty House; together jointly symbolised the apparent strength of New Zealand's race relations. The previous Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, had seen the Māori decision to build the whare as their testimony to the sincerity of British honour and integrity, but in fact Māori saw it as a reminder to Pākehā that the agreement they had entered into had not been honoured.

Protest at Waitangi

In 1940 many Pākehā shared the views of Parry and Bledisloe. Many Māori, however, including leaders such as Te Puea and the Māori King, Korokī, boycotted the 1940 Waitangi commemorations because of the raupatu, or land confiscations of the 19th century, which had not been settled. The celebrations were, one Waikato leader said, but 'an occasion for rejoicing on the part of the pakehas and those tribes who have not suffered any injustices during the past 100 years'.

Ngāpuhi attended the 1940 ceremony, but displayed red blankets in protest at the compulsory acquisition of what had been deemed 'surplus lands' in Northland. As Sir Apirana Ngata reflected - many Pākehā considered him as a Māori voice of reason and evidence of Māori progress – 'I do not know of any year the Māori people have approached with so much misgiving as this Centennial Year... In retrospect what does the Māori see? Lands gone, the power of chiefs humbled in the dust, Māori culture scattered and broken.'

The protests were largely ignored. Only the positive aspects of Ngata's speech had much interest to the press. For most Pākehā the Treaty was not about obligations not met, but the vehicle for British settlement and government. Cheviot Bell, president of the New Zealand Founders' Society, chose Waitangi Day 1940 to declare that 'What we seek to mark today is the free entry one hundred years ago of the Māori race into the great privilege of membership of the Commonwealth of peoples that we are proud to call the British Empire.' Māori, it seemed, should be grateful, and not dampen Pākehā self congratulation.

Official response was equally clear. Speaking at the official ceremony at Waitangi, Governor-General Lord Galway advised Māori to 'look to the sun and the shadows will fall behind you by way of acknowledging the need to move forward together'. Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser also maintained that now was not the time for brooding over ancient wrongs. 'It is more sensible and efficient to try to put them right, and endeavours are repeatedly made to that end. At the close of 100 years we see signs of great progress.'

The tone of centennial-year celebrations was to reinforce the sense of pride in the success of the country's race relations. The Treaty, in the words of Prime Minister Michael Savage, symbolised friendship and the desire of two widely different races to live together in peace. Great effort was made to avoid reference to racial conflict. A proposed centennial survey volume on war was rejected principally because it was not possible to undertake without reference to the New Zealand Wars, and James Cowan's discussion of the Waikato War was cut from the volume on ‘settlers and pioneers’ for the same reason.

Representations of Māori in the centenary celebrations

Overall, three main representations of Māori were employed during the Centennial, all of which supported the theme of progress and the success of European colonisation of New Zealand.

First, the romanticised 'Old-time Māori' was used to give some sense of tradition and mystery to New Zealand's otherwise short history. This ploy was especially marked in the pictorial survey Making New Zealand, in which the sole issue about Māori was confined to pre-European Māori. At worst, Māori culture was employed in a principally decorative sense, highlighting the superficial character of Pākehā attitudes to Māori culture.

The second theme presented Māori as great explorers, pioneers in their own right. This supposedly gave them kinship with their Anglo-Saxon countrymen while validating European colonisation as simply a second wave.

The third and most significant theme explained the progress of Māori from a ‘Stone Age’ people to modern New Zealanders. This view presented the Treaty and European colonisation as the saviour of Māori, rescuing them from destructive tribal warfare, uniting them and restoring their population through the introduction of European 'civilisation' and 'fair and equitable treatment' by early administrators. Pākehā, not Māori, could claim responsibility for Māori recovery and progress.

Māori were expected to participate in the Centennial on European terms. While the signing of the Treaty was made a national celebration, it was mostly a Pākehā affair. So too were the Waitangi celebrations, with Māori guests limited to 500 people and their role confined largely to entertainment.

Months before, Ngata had complained that 'the centennial year looked easy for the Māori, who could join in … singing the national anthem, but the spectacle of whole tribes stripping for the haka as their ancestors had done seemed to be deprecated'. He joked that 'the only way to show the progress of the Māori in the century was to provide a place at the exhibition where the influence of civilization could be shown by the spectacle of gentlemen in plus fours with a bag of iron sticks going out to fool around acres of grass paddocks'.

How to cite this page

'The Treaty of Waitangi', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jul-2020