Across the Ditch: New Zealand’s Treaty

Across the Ditch: New Zealand’s Treaty
by Maggy Liu


Ever since I moved to Australia for university, I’ve really had to embrace my Kiwi identity. Despite spending most of my life in New Zealand, I never really had to consider what that actually means, or how I’d measure up to other people’s expectations.

Unfortunately, I could never say ‘fush n chups’, nor have I ever felt any attraction to sheep, but one thing that did manage to impress my friends was how I could sing my national anthem in English and in Maori. Actually, what’s more impressive is that so can almost everyone back home in New Zealand no matter their age, race or creed.

For those who aren’t aware, the Maori are the tangata whenua (indigenous people) of New Zealand, much like how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the original inhabitants of Australia.

Within the last two years in Melbourne, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a little more about Australia’s history, from the Stolen Generations to Australia/Invasion Day, as well as contemporary systems and structures in place that reinforce inequality.

I’m not suggesting that we’ve got it all figured out on the other side of the Tasman Sea, but there are certain things I’ve taken for granted that Australian friends have informed me are not really ‘how things are done’ here.

For example, in New Zealand the Maori language and culture is everywhere. In primary school, our teachers would tell us the story of Tāne Mahuta and say ka pai when we could count tahi, rua, toru, pha.

From humble community events to the prime minister welcoming guests to our country, you will hear the phrase tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

With all that being said, there are many entrenched issues in New Zealand society surrounding equality that need to be addressed, and reconciliation is far from over. Thankfully, at my high school and many others across the country, it is compulsory to give students a basic overview of New Zealand history focusing on the Treaty of Waitangi, a central document that still influences government decision-making to this day.

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on February 6, 1840 was a pivotal moment in New Zealand history. The founding document of our country was created as a result of increasing European influence in New Zealand, with notable causes being trade, lawlessness and most importantly, Christianity. Tensions resulted from the differences between the English and Maori interpretations of the Treaty, with the most significant consequences being the marginalisation of Maori, followed by the Kingitanga movement and the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal.

The opportunities for trade that accompanied European arrival is an important socio-economic cause of the Treaty of Waitangi’s signing, due to the economic interdependence created between Maori and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent). Maori women and goods such as flax, ropes and vegetables were exchanged for European commodities such as tobacco, blankets and axes. This gave British capitalists strong economic reasoning to pressure the government for a treaty which would give them easier access to New Zealand’s copious resources. The Maori chiefs were additionally eager to increase trade for foreign items that improved living standards, equally believing a closer partnership would be achieved through signing the Treaty.

However, mutual economic benefit was not the entire reason why trade was such a significant cause of the Treaty. Humanitarian ideology was emerging in Britain, resulting in increased concern for the welfare of indigenous people in British colonies, including the Maori. A widely held concept at the time was of fatal impact, where Maori contact with the ‘superior’ European race would inevitably lead to “gradual extinction.” Harrison Wright supports the idea of fatal impact and sees trade as one way the Maori were being overwhelmed by European culture, as eight large pigs and 150 baskets of potatoes were considered reasonable exchange for merely one musket.

The introduction of European weaponry escalated conflicts by creating power imbalances between tribes and increasing the fatality of war. A series of violent disputes ensued, resulting in torture, rape, cannibalism and approximately 20,000 deaths now collectively known as Musket Wars. This is another significant cause to the signing, as war-weariness made many tribes open to the prospect of peace and protection associated with the Treaty. The horrors of war additionally compelled British humanitarians to urge the government to take responsibility for the devastation that they helped cause.

The increasing number of settlers and resulting lawlessness in New Zealand during the early nineteenth-century was an additional socio-political cause behind the signing of the Treaty. After New Zealand earned the reputation of ‘Hell-hole of the Pacific’ due to uncontrollable drunkenness, prostitution, and violence of some Pakeha, the missionaries within New Zealand urged the British government to help regulate the situation. Consequently, James Busby was appointed as British Resident in 1832 to impose British law. Unfortunately, he had no powers of arrest as the police from New South Wales only visited occasionally, so he lacked the military backing to command any sort of authority. His ineffectiveness became a large reason why further action was necessary.

Arguably, however, Christianity is the most significant cause of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Introduced by missionaries that visited New Zealand shores, Christian beliefs slowly became accepted and integrated into Maori society due to the practical benefits such as medicine provided by the missionaries as well as their messages of hope and love. Judith Binney believes that Maori war-weariness and disease were important factors in persuading their conversion. By earning the trust and respect from Maori, the missionaries were able to clarify points about the Treaty and alleviate Maori worries, bridging the gap between British authorities and the Maori chiefs in a manner no other group could. As the Maori’s limited understanding of English was formed on Biblical terminology, the missionaries explained the Treaty as a document that would bring union between the two races. William Hobson – later to become New Zealand’s first Governor – reinforced this belief when he told the Maori “he iwi tahi tatoou”, that they were now one people at the Treaty’s signing.  These instances, along with missionary Henry Williams’ decision to alter key words in his translation of the Treaty to be more acceptable to the Maori, meant the Treaty earnt Maori support. Williams knew the Maori would not cede their sovereignty to Queen Victoria, so in the Maori translation the understanding was that they were giving governorship of the land, kawanatanga, to the British, so the two races could co-exist while the British governed their own people. Every element of Maori tradition and behaviour indicates that they would never have signed the Treaty if they knew they were giving up their sovereignty. No matter how beneficial the Treaty would have been, the majority of Maori chiefs have spiritual ties to their land and giving that up would be against their entire culture and tradition.

The main long-term political consequence of the Treaty of Waitangi is the marginalisation of Maori people in society which began immediately after the signing and increased over time. A clause in the Treaty stated that Maori were only allowed to sell their land to the British government and the governors immediately capitalised on this right, buying land at a cheap price and reselling to European settlers to make a profit. However, the British soon wanted more and went against the Treaty to enact the Land Claims Ordinance in 1841. The ordinance stated that land not used or occupied by Maori belonged to the crown. These actions deprived Maori, especially the nomadic tribes in the South, of the ability to carry out important cultural practises tied into the ancestral land and essentially forced them to assimilate into British culture against their will. The focus on colonisation above “native welfare” caused what Claudia Orange describes as a shift in the political climate from humanitarian concerns to prioritising “settler development.”

The Protectorate Department, established to address Maori interests, was also abolished. This resulted in sales occurring that were technically legal but not fair to Maori in order to accommodate more British settlers. As a result, the Pakeha population of 2,050 in 1840 rose exponentially to 22,108 in 1850 and has continued to increase, rendering the Maori into a minority in their own country. The accumulation of years of Maori land loss and the build-up of grievances has caused the breakdown of European-Maori relations which has significantly impacted New Zealand.

Recent statistics show that Maori make up 56.3% of New Zealand’s prison population despite only being 15% of the country’s total population. This is linked to how they experience disproportionately high ‘drivers of crime’ such as poor health, family breakdown and low rates of economic and social participation, inevitably tied to the consequences of British colonisation which have reduced the prosperity of Maori culture in an irreversible way.

The Kingitanga movement is another significant socio-political consequence of the Treaty of Waitangi as a Maori response to land disputes and the sovereignty that the Pakeha felt entitled to. The Maori chiefs from Waikato and Central North Island gave Potatau Te Wherowhero their mana, in order to create Maori unity. The aim was never to oppose the crown, instead, the appointment of a ‘Maori King’ in June 1858 was to create a support system to regulate the amount of Maori land being surrendered to Europeans. Unfortunately, the British Government did not see it that way. To them, the Kingitanga movement was a challenge to British authority and consequently, they attempted to destroy the movement in the 1860s. Governor Grey invaded the Waikato in 1863 with 10,000 British troops and battle ensued for the next two years. The strong British response as well as the existence of the movement to this day illustrates the significance of the Kingitanga movement, as a Maori response creating solidarity between tribes that traditional Maori culture prior to the Treaty would not have allowed.

The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal is another long-term political and social consequence of the Treaty of Waitangi. Established in 1975, its purpose is to investigate Maori claims of breaches to the Treaty. This is a secondary reaction to the unfair confiscation of land and execution without trial that occurred after the signing of the Treaty. The tribunal was an opportunity for reconciliation as formal apologies and reparations were given out and justice was finally served. For some, there is no monetary value that can right past wrongs, however, for those who had faith in a more unified future, it did allow the first steps to be taken in creating better race relations. The first Treaty settlement in 1989 saw the return of land at the Waitomo caves. As a tourist attraction, it was decided that the management of operations were to be shared between the hapu and Department of Conservation. This is a more significant consequence of the Treaty of Waitangi compared to the Kingitanga movement because it is an admittance of wrongdoing from the Pakeha, and requires both parties to come together to overcome their history of grievances. This demonstrates active effort from those that currently hold power to create a more inclusive future for all New Zealanders by speaking with, not on behalf, of the Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi has indisputably changed the landscape of New Zealand. Ever since the arrival of Europeans, the trade between the races, lawlessness, and influence of Christianity had been leading to the signing of the Treaty. With the different versions of the Treaty in Maori and English, tension resulted especially due to Maori loss of land. The Kingitanga movement and Waitangi Tribunal demonstrate significant Maori and Pakeha attempts to mitigate the effects of the numerous occasions where Maori have been unfairly treated and have helped pave the path to reconciliation and self-determination. Unfortunately, the grievances of the past still hold the most significance as it negatively impacts Maori to this day, however I strongly believe that the preconditions for creating a better, more equal future for all lies in teaching young people about the past, how it influences the present, and that anything’s possible in an unwritten future.




Basil Keane, ‘Musket wars’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 June 2018)

Belich, James. “European ideas about Māori – The dying Māori and Social Darwinism”, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 June 2018)

Binney, Judith. “Christianity and the Maoris to 1840: A Comment.” New Zealand Journal of History 3.2 (1969): 143-165.

Brooking, Roger.

Orange, Claudia. The Treaty of Waitangi. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1987.

‘POPULATION, POPULATION TRENDS, AND THE CENSUS’, from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966.
Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
URL: (accessed 27 Jun 2018)

Robin Fisher. ‘Williams, Henry’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 June 2018)

‘William Hobson’, URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 8-Nov-2017

Wright, Harrison. New Zealand 1769-1840: Early Years of Western Contact. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.


1 thought on “Across the Ditch: New Zealand’s Treaty”

  1. This is a fascinating and detailed article. Well worth looking at New Zealand history to see how Australian Indigenous relations could have gone differently – though the New Zealand example was clearly not perfect – and how we can move forward e.g. recognising the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Particularly topical at the moment.


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