The World Around Us

Learning about the Waitangi Treaty in Paihia

Country: New Zealand by Lisette


77-Hole-in-the-RockWPaihia in the Bay of Islands was an interesting place to visit, especially as I was there during the commemoration of the Waitangi Treaty. I could ramble about the awesome dolphins we saw, the murky Hole in the Rock and the famous Kauri forest. However, my interest was to learn more about the Waitangi Treaty and its implementation after learning about Native Treaties in Canada and Aboriginal issues in Australia during former travels.

OK, hold on… let’s do this place justice and speak a little about the cute little town that Paihia is. Be prepared to mingle with tourists, because the place is overrun with travelers from around the world. Seeing the dolphins was amazing, despite the bad weather and in spite of having to stay on deck because the group of cetaceans included a little calve.

Very impressive on land was my visit to the Waipoua Valley. Local tribes, named Te Roroa, thrived in early days with fishing, foresting and agriculture. Soon after the first Europeans (mostly whalers) arrived, sailors and settlers alike realized the worth of the huge Kauri trees for ship masts and timber. This resulted in massive exploitation of the forests, but due to its remoteness, Waipoua Valley was spared.


Here I visited the amazing Tane Mahuta (“Lord of the Forest”), the largest Kauri tree that is approximately 2000 years old. The tree is 4,5 meters wide and so tall you feel lost. The tree is almost 18 meters to the first branch (not sure if it is measured till the top).

With this in mind, I would like to take my dear blog readers to the treaty that was signed on February 6, 1840 between the English and the Māori rangatira (chiefs). My interest was sparked when I saw the annual demonstration and wondered about its reason. In a (very small) nutshell, the English and Māori version differ significantly leading to a variety of interpretations.

The British interpreted the Treaty as in getting complete sovereignty over New Zealand whereas the Māori interpreted the Treaty as giving the Crown the right to govern and develop British settlement on their land without giving up their authority. More than 500 rangatira signed a copy of the translated Treaty.



But let’s go back a little further. In 1832, James Busby was appointed to protect British commerce and he got 25 northern chiefs and Europeans together at Waitangi and chose New Zealand’s first flag. The flag didn’t keep others away from this fertile area and Busby organized 35 chiefs to sign a declaration of independence to prevent further intrusion. This may have helped keeping newcomers from landing in New Zealand but did not end land disputes between settlers and Māori.

Lieutenant Governor William Hobson and Busby drafted the Waitangi Treaty in a day at Busby’s house (now named “Treaty House” and a national memorial). Overnight, the Reverend Williams translated this into Māori. Hobson addressed a gathering of Māori rangatira and the chiefs continued their debate throughout the night. The following day Hone Heke was the first to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.

Back to 2005. Close to the Treaty House is the Māori Meeting House, a monument to the nation, its people and its ancestors. I visited this amazing carved and unique Whare Runanga that is not built to commemorate a particular tribe as usual, but has carvings representing tribes from all over the country. It was originally built for the centennial anniversary in 1940 of the Treaty.

Imagine yourself in this house in 1840 knowing the English kept coming, land was fertile and your community (whether British or Māori) could be threatened. Here is a chance to agree peacefully how to live together. Neither party speaks each other’s language perfectly and hence there is some confusion, imbedded in cultural differences about laws, respect and traditions.

Meaning was lost in translation of the word ‘sovereignty’ to ‘kawanatanga’ without the understanding of a supreme rule of the whole country. As a result, Māori believe they gave governing rights to the Queen in return for protection, while retaining the authority to manage their own affairs. Another difference is the emphasis in the English text on property and rights while the Māori text emphasized status and authority.


Each year, the ‘waka’, a 35-meter long war canoe, is launched to commemorate the Treaty. Let me disclose here I have never known much about canoes, but nonetheless I claim this particular canoe is impressive! Unfortunately I missed the launch, but I did hear and saw Māori perform the ‘haka’, the traditional war dance. The war dance is mesmerizing with the men slapping their hands against their chest, stamping their feet and poking out their tongues. Click here for a short video.