Why did Māori sign the Treaty? In this extract from the recently published third edition of The Story of a Treaty/He Kōrero Tiriti, which tells the story of the Treaty from its signing in 1840, historian Dame Claudia Orange looks at the reasons that convinced so many rangatira to sign. 


Almost everywhere, Māori leaders were extremely cautious about giving their agreement to Te Tiriti. Why, then, did so many sign? From what Māori said, at the time and later, it seems that they thought they were gaining rather than losing any power.

Māori expected Te Tiriti to be the start of a new relationship with Britain — one in which they would have an equal role. They expected that the kāwanatanga of the first article would enable officials in New Zealand to control troublesome Europeans.

Rangatira would look after their own people. Their rangatiratanga — authority and autonomy (in effect, collective Māori sovereignty) — was safely confirmed in the second article of Te Tiriti.

The mana of the land would still be held by the Māori people. There would have to be a sharing of authority, but this would boost chiefly mana, because the agreement was with the world’s major naval power, Britain, which would also defend the country against France or other nations.

Most Māori also believed that the Queen had a personal authority, and that Te Tiriti was a very personal agreement between the Queen herself and the rangatira.

Negotiators had explained it this way to get Māori agreement.

It seems that the possibility of conflict arising from having two forms of authority recognised in Te Tiriti and the Treaty was not apparent to Hobson at the signings in the north. But tensions would be evident as early as April 1840.

The issue of land and rangatira rights undoubtedly influenced some leaders to sign, but the situation varied regionally. Some areas needed support against aggressive European land buyers. Other areas were not opposed to offering or selling land to the

Crown. Some iwi possibly saw a new way of fighting old enemies: if they sold disputed land, they would no longer have to fight their rivals for it.

Some leaders hoped that the new agreement would bring peace to the country. For instance, Ngāti Whātua leaders had travelled to the Bay of Islands shortly after the Waitangi signing to ask Hobson for his protection against their old enemies, Ngāpuhi.

They offered him land on the Waitematā Harbour for his government, and the administration started to prepare for the move in August 1840.

All who signed no doubt hoped for a share of the benefits that settlers would bring: more markets for produce, more goods to buy, and a demand for Māori services of all kinds. The complexities of sovereignty and the restrictions that the kāwanatanga (government administration) would set up would prove challenging to Māori, especially in the north, but were hard to predict.

Above all, many Māori leaders believed that missionary advice was wise and could probably be trusted; while some missionaries urged caution, they generally saw Te Tiriti as good for the country and the people. Rangatira were certainly influenced, too, by the way the missionaries had explained the agreement as the personal wish of the Queen — her “act of love”.

Missionaries, at least at Waitangi, had also presented Te Tiriti as a covenant between Māori and the Queen as head of the English church and state. Many Māori would look on the Treaty/Te Tiriti as a bond similar to the covenants of the Bible. This was very important to them, because by 1840 many in the Māori population were following Christian beliefs and ways.

But for Hobson, this religious understanding, if he grasped it at all, was just part of the business of getting Māori agreement to a transfer of the country’s independent status. Britain needed the Treaty to win Māori cooperation so that British settlement could begin in earnest. But this was a fish-hook that he kept concealed.

In 1840, however, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi provided a basis for a working relationship between Māori and the British Crown. How that would pan out remained to be seen.


The third edition of The Story of a Treaty/He Kōrero Tiriti, written by Dame Claudia Orange, was published by Bridget Williams Books.

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