Waitangi Day 101: The Founding of New Zealand

Waitangi Day 101: The Founding of New Zealand

Today in New Zealand, on this 175th Waitangi Day, we commemorate the signing of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi - the Treaty of Waitangi - in 1840, the founding document of our nation. 

For some it’s a day to celebrate Kiwi culture, for some it’s a day of reflecting upon our nation’s history, and for some it’s simply a day to hit the beach during New Zealand’s hottest summer month. 

Inside the wharenui (meeting house) on the treaty grounds at Waitangi. Photo: Phil Whitehouse  [CC BY 2.0]

Inside the wharenui (meeting house) on the treaty grounds at Waitangi. Photo: Phil Whitehouse  [CC BY 2.0]

The Treaty of Waitangi established British Crown sovereignty over New Zealand, giving the Governor the right to govern the country. In exchange, it granted Māori ownership over their lands, and extended the rights and protections of Māori as British subjects. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by representatives of the British Crown and by over 500 Māori Chiefs throughout 1940. Many signed on the original day at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, and the Treaty subsequently traveled around the country to be signed by other Chiefs. For the most part, signings took place in the North Island, with only a few locations visited in the South Island. 

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark being welcomed onto the Hoani Waititi Marae in Auckland on Waitangi Day, 2006. Photo: Avenue  [CC BY 2.5]

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark being welcomed onto the Hoani Waititi Marae in Auckland on Waitangi Day, 2006. Photo: Avenue  [CC BY 2.5]

Interpretations of the Treaty varied, and differences in the wording of the Māori and English versions have been a source of contention over the years. Following the signing, the Treaty was never ratified and was effectively ignored by authorities for more than a century. Waitangi Day was first commemorated in 1934, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the NZ Government finally legally recognised the Treaty, with the establishment of the Treaty of Waitangi Act and the Waitangi Tribunal to help settle land claims. The following year, Waitangi Day became a public holiday. 

These days, to mark the signing of the Treaty,  there are annual celebrations at Waitangi, including a three-day festival of music,  food,  and dancing. The day is also marked by Māori cultural activites, a naval salute and addresses from Māori and Pākehā (European) dignitaries. The Ngātokimatawhaorua waka, one of the world’s largest Māori ceremonial waka (war canoe), sits on the grounds at Waitangi after being launched there in 1940 for the centenary celebration event. The 70-year-old waka was later refurbished and relaunched for the 2010 celebrations. With room for 80 paddlers and 55 passengers, this impressive waka was re-modelled on the 13th Century original, which was captained by Nukutawhiti, grandson of Kupe, the first Māori chief to discover New Zealand.

Figurehead of the Ngātokimatawhaorua  waka, representing Nukutawhiti. Photo: Kahuroa.

Figurehead of the Ngātokimatawhaorua  waka, representing Nukutawhiti. Photo: Kahuroa.

While there are still some sensitivities surrounding Waitangi Day, today we can celebrate the fact that New Zealand observes our national day as the anniversary of an agreement between two parties, rather than a celebration of colonial discovery alone

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