Treaty signatories and signing locations

Page 5 – Signing the treaty

Gathering signatures from around the country

About 40 chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. By the end of the year, about 500 other Māori, including 13 women, had put their names or moko to the document; all but 39 signed the Māori text. While some had clear expectations about what their agreement would bring, others chose not to sign the treaty.

The first signing

Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson expected the chiefs to take three days to mull over the Māori text of the treaty. He was surprised to be called to the meeting on 6 February, so he arrived at Waitangi alone and wearing plain clothes apart from his plumed hat. Former British Resident James Busby called up the chiefs, starting with Hōne Heke Pōkai. Each signing was followed by a handshake and greeting from Hobson: 'He iwi tahi tatou' (We are [now] one people). About half of the signatories on 6 February had also signed the Declaration of Independence.

Around 6 February, Henry Williams translated a copy of the Māori text back into English. This became the official text of the treaty in English. It was presumed that the Māori text and the retranslation into English had the same meaning, but Williams added a cautionary note on the copy of the official text that Hobson sent to Governor Gipps: 'I certify that the above is as literal a translation of the Treaty of Waitangi as the idiom of the language will allow.'

Later signings

Following the meeting at Waitangi, the treaty circulated around the country for Māori to sign. Between February and September 1840, missionaries, traders and officials explained its terms at 50 or so signing meetings from the far north of the North Island to Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait.

Travel was difficult and sometimes risky, so the treaty was copied to ensure it was not lost. Some copies were made by hand, while 200 copies of the Māori text were printed on 17 February. After Lieutenant-Governor Hobson suffered a stroke on 1 March 1840, Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland took up the task of getting agreement to the treaty. There is no record of the number of copies he had made.

There are nine copies of the Treaty at Archives New Zealand: the treaty signed on 6 February 1840, and eight copies. The original drafts of the English and Māori texts have been lost; the original copy of the treaty at Archives New Zealand was made by missionary Richard Taylor because the Māori draft had marks on it, and a clean copy was wanted for the signing meeting on 6 February.

All but one of these copies are in the Māori language, and all but one are handwritten. Several people made these copies. While the original treaty and the copies differ in appearance, the texts are the same. Some copies have the government seal, and one was signed by Willoughby Shortland in place of William Hobson. Some signatures and moko are readable, but others are not. The names of some chiefs have no mark of any kind beside them, and some are mixed up with the names of hapū.

In October 1840 a copy of the treaty – both the Māori text and the official English text, authenticated by Hobson’s signature – was sent to the Colonial Office in London. Described as a fair copy for the record, it was authenticated by the lieutenant-governor. This is the only copy of the treaty that has the words 'Treaty of Waitangi' at its head.

In 1989 an English-language text of the treaty was discovered in the papers of the Littlewood family. Solicitor Henry Littlewood was in the Bay of Islands and Auckland in the 1830s and 1840s. Some people argue that this Littlewood treaty is a translation back into English from Māori and that it was prepared after the treaty signing on 6 February 1840. Others claim it is the final English draft of the treaty that was thought to have been lost. The document is now held at Archives New Zealand in Wellington.

In any case, the version signed at Waitangi and copied to London in 1840 is the official treaty, and legally there is only one treaty. Under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, which reproduces the treaty in both languages, the Waitangi Tribunal has exclusive authority to determine the meaning and effect of the treaty.

The decision to sign

Chiefs had many reasons for deciding to sign or not, and these reasons varied between regions. Many of those who signed were fearful or uncertain of the outcome.

Many chiefs were confused about the issue of Crown pre-emption (Article 2), which the government interpreted as a strict rule that land held under customary title could be sold only to the Crown. It seems that this was discussed in detail on only one occasion. It is possible that those who explained the treaty to Māori did not themselves fully understand the implications of this legal doctrine. Some Māori believed that they had agreed only to a right of first refusal: if the Crown was unable or unwilling to buy a particular piece of land at a price the owners regarded as fair, it could be sold freely to private buyers.

Those who explained the treaty to Māori generally stressed the advantages of bringing British settlers under the control of the Crown, which some chiefs had been asking for since 1831. They played down the impact of the British acquisition of sovereignty and its likely consequences for Māori. Missionary assurances that the treaty would be of benefit to Māori probably helped to overcome the caution of many chiefs. Some chiefs, especially in Northland, saw the treaty as a sacred bond or covenant directly between themselves and Queen Victoria. Many who signed were devout Christians who made no distinction between the Crown and the teachings of Christianity.

Many Māori had clear expectations of how they would benefit. A sharing of authority would enhance chiefly mana. The country would be protected from acquisition by other foreign powers. A kawana (governor) would control Europeans, especially those buying land, who were causing trouble in some areas. The treaty would bring settlement, and with it both more markets for essential Māori services and desired trade goods. Some chiefs realised that change was inevitable. The clock could not be turned back; the treaty was a way into the future.

How to cite this page

'Signing the treaty', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Jul-2016