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Waitangi, home of the Treaty - roadside stories

The Treaty of Waitangi, considered to be New Zealand’s founding document, was signed at Waitangi on 6 February 1840 by Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. However, within five years Māori were at war with the British over land loss and infringements of the Treaty. Since the 1970s the Waitangi Tribunal has investigated breaches of the Treaty.


Archival audio: Waitangi Celebration 1940 RNZ Sound archives.

Actor’s voice: Her Majesty the Queen asks you to sign this treaty. I ask you for this publicly; I do not go from one chief to another. You yourselves have often asked the King of England to extend his protection unto you. Her Majesty now offers you that protection in this treaty.

Narrator: The Treaty of Waitangi, signed at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands on the 6th of February 1840, is considered New Zealand’s founding document.

At the time, there were about 100,000 Māori living in New Zealand, and only 2000 Europeans, or Pākehā. The Europeans felt it was necessary to have a formal acceptance of their settlement. Māori were interested in having European setters because they provided trading opportunities. On the 5th of February 1840, the day before the Treaty was signed, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson explained the purpose of a proposed agreement between the British government and Māori to a large gathering of chiefs assembled at Waitangi.

The meeting took place in front of the house of the British Resident, James Busby. [This would become known as the Treaty House.] Chiefs from a number of northern tribes had come to Waitangi by canoe and assembled on a clearing near the Resident’s house. The newly appointed governor, Captain William Hobson, had arrived a week earlier from Sydney. Anglican, Catholic and Wesleyan missionaries also attended, with the Reverend Henry Williams, who spoke Māori, interpreting the speeches of the governor and the chiefs. 

After Hobson had spoken, Williams read out the text of the Treaty in Māori. Then the chiefs rose one by one to offer their responses. That evening they retired to nearby Te Tii Marae on the banks of the Waitangi River to continue discussing the document. The next day, the chiefs reassembled in front of the [Treaty] house and 45 of them signed the Treaty. Some chose not to.

In essence, the Treaty formally extended British rule over New Zealand and required Māori recognition of the Governor’s authority. In return, the British government guaranteed Māori their lands, forests and fisheries, and gave them the legal rights of British subjects. It also stipulated that only the Crown could buy Māori land.

However, within five years, Māori and the British government were at war in northern New Zealand over the ongoing loss of Māori land and resources.

To some, the Treaty seemed to be simply a device to help spread European settlement. Others argued it was a sincere attempt to create a society that protected Māori interests as well as the Crown’s. But by the end of the 19th century, Māori had been told by the Chief Justice that the Treaty was ‘a nullity’ with no standing in law. 

Waitangi, where the Treaty negotiations took place, was also ignored. The [Treaty] house lay in disrepair and the Treaty itself was so neglected that parts of it were eaten by rats.

But in 1932, the Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, bought the land at Waitangi and gifted it to the nation, as well as organising the restoration of the [Treaty] house. This prompted the construction of a beautiful Māori meeting house nearby. Its carvings represented many of the country’s tribes and commemorated the Treaty’s centenary in 1940. A large waka, or canoe, was also built.

While the centenary was a great occasion, the Treaty itself continued to be largely ignored. Not until 1975, when the Waitangi Tribunal was established to investigate grievances, did the Treaty begin to be taken seriously. Since then, it has helped determine government policy and is recognised in the law courts.

At Waitangi today, the Treaty house and the flagstaff stand on extensive manicured lawns. The grounds also include the centennial meeting house and the great waka, which is housed close to the beach where the chiefs landed in 1840.

The Treaty grounds are now visited by around 180,000 people a year. On Waitangi Day itself, the 6th of February, large numbers attend the celebrations.

Since this video was made, errors have been brought to our attention. Corrections to the transcript are indicated by the use of square brackets.


Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number D4129a sa-d-04129-s01-pm).

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Waitangi, home of the Treaty - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated