The Queen at Waitangi in 1990 for the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, with then PM Geoffrey Palmer to her left, listening to the speech by the Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, Whakahuihui Vercoe. (Photo: Getty Images)

In 1990, Queen Elizabeth II made her final visit to Waitangi.

Fresh from the excitement that had surrounded the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh headed north on February 6 for the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty.

In an atmosphere charged by protesters calling for the Crown to honour the Treaty, the Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe, stood to speak. Unexpectedly, the Bishop went off-script and, in front of the Queen, began to speak his mind.

In an interview some years later in the Anglican Taonga magazine, Bishop Vercoe recalled: “I’d been seeing what a lot of our people in the North had to endure, living in derelict houses and milking sheds and so on. It was terrible. Something came upon me and I knew I had to say something.”

Here’s what the Bishop told the Queen that day. 

Whakahuihui Vercoe, the Bishop of Aotearoa, at Waitangi in 1990. (Screenshot)

Some of us have come here to celebrate, some to commemorate, some to commiserate, and some to remember what happened on this sacred ground.

We come to the sacred ground because our tūpuna left us this ground. One hundred and fifty years ago, a compact was signed and a covenant was made between two people . . . to give birth to a nation. A unique and an unusual circumstance.

Our tūpuna said on this ground that the Treaty was a compact between two people. Since the signing of that treaty 150 years ago, I want to remind our partner that you have marginalised us.

You have not honoured the Treaty. We have not honoured each other in the promises that we made on this sacred ground. Since 1840, the partner that has been marginalised is me.

The language of this land is yours. The custom is yours. The media by which we tell the world who we are, are yours.

The needs and tastes of one partner is addressed in all our advertisements. And it makes me sad when we sing “Give me a taste of Kiwi” with a red lion can.

What I have come here for is to renew the ties that made us a nation in 1840. I don’t want to debate the Treaty. I don’t want to renegotiate the Treaty. I want the Treaty to stand firmly . . . as the means by which we are made one nation.

The 1990 Commission has been bombarding me for 18 months about how I should behave, how I should celebrate and commemorate, and how I should do things.

They did not tell by what process, and why, I do these things. But the Treaty is what we are celebrating. It is what we are trying to establish, so that my tino rangatiratanga is the same as your tino rangatiratanga.

And so I have come to Waitangi to cry for the promises that you made and for the expectations that our tūpuna had 150 years ago, as I look at the tranquil waters of Pewhairangi, as I remember the words that were spoken on this land, on this ground, as I remember the history of my people . . .

So I come to the waters of Waitangi to weep for what could have been a unique document in the history of the world of Indigenous people against the Pākehā. And I still have the hope that we can do it. Let us sit and listen to one another.

I want to say to the government: “Don’t produce principles of the Treaty. The Treaty is already there.”

As I remember the songs of our land, as I remember the history of our land, I weep here on the shores of the Bay of Islands.

May God give us the courage to be honest with one another, to be sincere with one another, and, above all, to love one another in the strength of God.


According to Anglican Taonga magazine, the Queen leaned forward after the speech and asked Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves: “Is this a radical bishop?” He replied: “No, Ma’am. But he’s doing pretty well.”

The response to the speech from then Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer was swift. In an interview with RNZ the next day, he said:

“I don’t believe Māori have been marginalised in New Zealand, quite the contrary. There were about 100,000 Māoris in New Zealand in 1840. There are probably 300,000 people who call themselves Māori now — there may be more. There is very much a cultural renaissance going on. I simply don’t agree with the way those arguments were put. And I don’t think there’s much substance to them.

Protesters at the Waitangi Day celebrations on 6 February 1990, asking Queen Elizabeth II to honour the Treaty. (Photo: MANUEL CENETA/AFP via Getty Images)

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