The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are New Zealand’s most important historic site. It was here that the Waitangi Treaty was first signed on 6 February 1840. This treaty was the founding document of the New Zealand nation, a collaborative venture between the British and the Maori. And the grounds themselves seem to symbolise this partnership, bringing together these two very different cultures.
Why are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds Important?
The Waitangi Treaty was signed at several different places throughout New Zealand. However James Busby, the British government’s representative in New Zealand, lived at Waitangi, and it was here that the terms of the Treaty were negotiated. The final document was the result of five years’ discussion between Busby and Maori tribal leaders. In 1840 William Hobson landed on Waitangi Beach to sign the treaty on behalf of Queen Victoria. Today a tall flagpole marks the spot where the Treaty was first signed.
The Treaty officially recognised British settlement. It also confirmed the authority of the Maori chiefs, formalising their right to land and resources. For the first time New Zealand was brought together as a country with a common government.
It may seem surprising that the Maori chiefs were willing to sign the Treaty. In fact there were a number of chiefs who refused to do so, but the majority (about 500) agreed to co‑operate. There were a number of reasons for this. For one thing, the country was full of traders and other settlers who were not subject to any regulation. New Zealand was a lawless place at that time, and land disputes were common. The Treaty was seen as a way of subjecting unruly Britons (and others) to British law. It was also hoped that it would bring peace to the Maori themselves, who had always suffered a certain amount of inter-tribal conflict. More pragmatically, change was probably seen as inevitable. It was better to negotiate the terms of government than to have them imposed.
A Partnership Between the Maori and the British
As you walk around the Treaty Grounds you will see a symbolic harmony between British and Maori elements. The grounds themselves are laid out in the European style, with formal lawns and gardens. But you enter the site along a boardwalk passing a whole range of native plants and trees. And James Busby’s colonial house stands opposite the Maori Meeting Hall. Interestingly, James Busby made a point of filling his garden with a mixture of native and European species.
Although Waitangi was the home of the British Residency, it also has long associations with the Maori people. In particular, the beach was once known as Te Ana o Maikuku (Maikuku’s Cave). The legend is that a chief’s daughter once lived in a cave on this beach, and that her son, Te Ra, became an important ancestor of the local people. In recognition of the continuing importance of Waitangi to the Maori a ceremonial canoe was built in 1940 to commemorate the Treaty’s centenary. The canoe is launched every year on 6 February, Waitangi Day.
There are still those who feel, like the original dissenting Maori chiefs, that the Treaty was misguided, and that it has not always been implemented in the way it was intended. However, for many New Zealanders, at home and abroad, Waitangi Day is an important national festival. And this year, as always, there will be celebrations at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.