He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni

He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni

He Whakaputanga — The Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, 1835 — has often been regarded as no more than a minor prelude on the journey to the Treaty of Waitangi.

But this undersells the significance of this “taonga”, by which Māori leaders declared their mana and sovereignty to the world — and without which, as Vincent O’Malley writes in his introduction to the history of Te Whakaputanga: The Declaration of Independence, 1835’, there might not have been a Treaty.


He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni was debated, agreed upon, and ultimately signed by thirty-four rangatira at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands, on 28 October 1835, and later by a further eighteen chiefs from the north and elsewhere, through until 22 July 1839.

Also known as the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, this Māori-language document is often called by its shortened name, He Whakaputanga.

That can mean “an emergence”, referring to the birth of a new nation, Nu Tireni — New Zealand — but also marking steps towards unified forms of governance among the many different rangatira and their hapū and iwi.

This new sense of nationhood was still in its infancy at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Yet for many Māori, the Treaty did not, and could not, erase the clear assertion of rangatiratanga — chiefly authority or sovereignty — made through He Whakaputanga.

For that reason and others, He Whakaputanga remains a taonga of great significance today.

New encounters

To understand why He Whakaputanga matters, we need to know the kind of world into which it emerged.

After the ancestors of Māori arrived from the Pacific in the thirteenth century, distinctive new cultural practices emerged in response to the unfamiliar climate and environment. At some point in the next century or so, all contact with the ancestral homelands of Hawaiki was lost. Uniquely Māori patterns of identity developed that were free from outside influences.

Māori organised themselves primarily as hapū, consisting of multiple whānau (extended families) whose members could trace descent from a common ancestor; they were more loosely affiliated through iwi and waka.

The term “tāngata māori” referred simply to human beings — “Māori” was not in use as a stand-alone noun for a distinct group of people. Even in the 1830s Māori still continued to frame their thoughts and actions mainly in terms of their own immediate hapū. It was this that made He Whakaputanga such a potentially far-reaching and radical measure.

In 1642, Māori in Te Tau Ihu (the northern South Island) had a fleeting encounter with Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who named the lands he departed abruptly from soon after arriving — when matters turned violent — Staten Landt.

Later, a cartographer back in the Netherlands changed this to Nieuw Zeeland or, in Latin, Nova Zeelandia. The anglicised version of this was New Zealand (literally meaning “New Sea-land”). By the early nineteenth century, Māori had adopted the transliteration Nū Tīreni (or later Niu Tīreni).

But that was no more than a geographical description. It did not mark a nation or state. If sovereignty (a purely European concept) rested anywhere then it was with the assorted hapū and their rangatira. In Māori terms, it was with them that mana and rangatiratanga resided.

Māori society was barely touched by the brief and bloody encounter with Europeans in 1642. But after Captain James Cook’s more significant 1769 journey around New Zealand and the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales in 1788, tangata whenua were increasingly drawn into engagement with the outside world.

By the early nineteenth century, Māori at the Bay of Islands and elsewhere had developed a lucrative trade in supplying pork, potatoes and other provisions to visiting whalers and sealers.

Māori had also begun to travel to far-off lands, at first often against their will. In 1793 two young men from the north, Tuki Tahua and Huru Kokoti, were lured aboard a vessel visiting Doubtless Bay, kidnapped and taken (via Sydney) to Norfolk Island, where an offshoot of the New South Wales penal colony had been established. There, they were asked to teach convicts the secrets of cultivating and dressing flax. They were unable to help: this was women’s work, they explained.

Yet during their time on the island the pair struck up an unlikely friendship with the Lieutenant-Governor, Philip Gidley King, even living in his home and dining at the same table as his family. King later escorted the pair home, complete with ample supplies of potatoes for cultivation.

One of many young Māori to work their way to Sydney on board a whaler was Matara, son of important northern rangatira Te Pahi. Matara returned to New Zealand in 1805 laden with gifts from King, by this time Governor of New South Wales.

Later that same year, Te Pahi travelled to Sydney to personally thank King. Te Pahi had already earned a reputation for his warm hospitality to whalers visiting the Bay of Islands, and King once more reciprocated this, handing over yet more gifts and even having a special medal struck to mark the occasion of Te Pahi’s time in Sydney.

Through his actions, which were entirely consistent with the way a great chief visiting another might expect to be treated, King had gone a considerable way to establishing a positive relationship between the British Crown, via its New South Wales “Kāwana” (governor), and northern rangatira.

Te Pahi and King talked over a great many pressing matters, including the behaviour of whalers visiting New Zealand; the rangatira’s journey had all the hallmarks of a high-level political mission aimed at forging an ongoing relationship with the British that would benefit both parties.

That relationship would take a huge step forward in 1820, when Hongi Hika and his young relative Waikato travelled to England in the company of missionary Thomas Kendall. There, the two chiefs worked with linguist Samuel Lee to help develop a written Māori language. They also met with King George IV and, according to Ngāpuhi tradition, established an alliance and relationship of lasting significance with the British royal family.

Back in New Zealand, missionaries had established a permanent presence at the Bay of Islands in 1814, and whalers returned that same year after a five-year hiatus following the 1809 Boyd episode, when over sixty Europeans had been killed at Whangaroa Harbour as utu (compensation or reciprocity) for the mistreatment of a Māori sailor aboard the vessel.

It was a learning experience for both parties. After 1814, a tiny resident European population had to rub along with a much larger and more powerful Māori one. In the process, both parties learnt something of each other and themselves.

A deepening alliance with the British

Notwithstanding the Boyd affair, early Māori encounters with the British in northern New Zealand remained generally positive. This contrasted with a more fraught history of contacts between Māori and the French, dating back to Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne’s disastrous 1772 visit to the Bay of Islands, which had resulted in the deaths of as many as 300 local Māori.

By the early 1830s, the French continued to be actively interested in the Pacific and were great rivals of Britain. In 1831, a French naval vessel, La Favorite, was en route to the Bay of Islands, amidst rumours that the French were intent on annexing New Zealand and seeking utu for Marion du Fresne’s death in 1772.

Alarmed by these reports (which proved to be false), thirteen senior northern rangatira decided to write to the new British monarch, King William IV. They sought his protection from the “tribe of Marian” (the French — “Marian” was a reference to Marion du Fresne) and asked him to be their friend, in this way renewing the old alliance between King George IV and Hongi (by this time both dead).

As it happened, authorities in both London and Sydney had long been vexed by the problem of how to control wayward British subjects in a land in which they had no official presence or ability to impose British law.

By the time the chiefs’ letter reached London, earlier proposals for a formal British Resident in New Zealand had been revived and approved in an attempt to address this problem.

The inability to control British subjects in New Zealand had been graphically highlighted in 1830 when the captain and crew of a British ship, the Elizabeth, had conspired to assist in the killing of hundreds of Ngāi Tahu by secretly ferrying a large Ngāti Toa war party south to Akaroa from their Kapiti base.

Gruesome scenes of torture followed for those not immediately killed, but John Stewart and his crew escaped punishment after an abortive attempt to try them for murder in Sydney.

The New South Wales Governor had suggested the appointment of a Resident when forwarding information of the affair to the Colonial Office in London. The British government had previously received similar proposals, but this time agreed to appoint such an official, not just to protect Māori from mistreatment but also to guard British imperial interests in the region against rival powers.

James Busby, a Scottish settler in New South Wales, was offered the position of official British Resident in March 1832, and arrived at the Bay of Islands fourteen months later.

Busby was not provided with troops and notoriously came to be known as a “man-of-war without guns”. In the circumstances, his only option was to work with — and through — the rangatira, mediating matters where he could and seeking their voluntary consent to his plans.

In effect, Busby set about establishing a system of indirect rule through the chiefs, and for this reason developed an early interest in encouraging platforms for their wider cooperation. Yet as the 1831 letter to the British monarch indicated, rangatira were already capable of acting in concert when it came to matters of common interest.

When northern rangatira received Busby on 17 May 1833, they were presented with the King’s response to their 1831 petition, reassuring the tribes that Busby had been sent to afford them “protection” as part of a lasting “friendship and alliance”, and soliciting their assistance and support.

The rangatira received Busby warmly and he was later allowed to live among them at Waitangi. One of his first important tasks was to encourage rangatira to select a national flag. The absence of one had caused the New Zealand-built ship Sir George Murray to be seized by customs authorities when it reached Sydney in 1830. Two northern rangatira, Patuone and Te Taonui, had been on the vessel at the time of its impounding — an act seen as insulting to their mana.

In Ngāpuhi tradition, rangatira visiting Sydney in 1831 had taken the initiative themselves, asking the authorities for a flag. Māori had been quick to embrace flags as markers of communal identity and expression.

On 20 March 1834, rangatira assembled at Waitangi to make the selection, opting for a white flag with a red cross through its centre and a blue square in the top left corner featuring a smaller red cross and four white stars.

Red was a colour associated with rangatiratanga. Busby had caused considerable discontent through his efforts to confine the decision to the most senior rangatira alone, without first having the opportunity to consult their hapū members.

But the flag itself later became a potent symbol of rangatiratanga and mana. It was used on board many trading vessels and displayed at various locations throughout the north. Known as Te Kara, the flag of the united tribes was much later paraded by supporters of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) during the Paetai hui of May 1857.

British motives

Hopes that the process of coming together to choose a flag might encourage wider cooperation received a setback weeks later, when a group of Māori broke into Busby’s storehouse, wounding him and causing ructions that played out over many months among those accused of the attack.

Meanwhile, events elsewhere cast a considerable shadow.

In 1820 Charles de Thierry, an English resident of French ancestry, had met with Hongi Hika and Waikato during their time in Cambridge. Thierry later arranged for missionary Thomas Kendall to purchase 40,000 acres (more than 16,000 hectares) at Hokianga in exchange for thirty-six axes. Kendall had the deed — which was likely little understood by its Māori signatories and was later disputed by them when Thierry’s intentions became clear — signed upon his return to New Zealand.

In 1835, Thierry travelled to the Pacific, stopping at the Marquesas Islands long enough to declare himself King of Nuku Hiva before travelling on to Tahiti, where he announced that he was on his way to New Zealand to forcibly establish a sovereign government under his own rule.

Busby was inclined to dismiss Thierry as a “madman”, but at the same time warned authorities in New South Wales that there was “sufficient method in the madness of such a man, to be productive of much mischief”. The perceived threat provided a chance for Busby to further his own agenda of a unified body of chiefs through whom he could rule.

There were further motivations. At the same time, Busby was locked in a bitter rivalry with the Additional British Resident at Hokianga, Thomas McDonnell, who had encouraged rangatira to pass a ban on the importation of “ardent spirits” in defiance of Busby’s wishes.

Busby announced his intention to call a meeting of the chiefs as soon as possible “in order that they may declare the Independence of their Country, and assert as a collective body their entire and exclusive right to its Sovereignty”.

He proceeded to draft an English-language Declaration of Independence consisting of four articles, which was then sent to the Paihia missionary Henry Williams for translation. Eruera Pare Hongi, a young relative of Hongi Hika, wrote the full text out in Māori and this version was subsequently signed.

The only detailed documentary account of the hui to consider the Declaration comes from Busby himself. He claimed that the assembled rangatira had unanimously agreed to the document, although he again encountered resistance to his efforts to separate the leading rangatira from their followers.

Although Busby emphasised to the rangatira that He Whakaputanga would guarantee and ensure their independence, he placed a different spin on events when writing to his superior in New South Wales. The agreement would, he wrote, “be the most effectual mode of making the Country a dependency of the British Empire in everything but the name”.

However, Busby’s assumption that the rangatira could be easily manipulated proved far from accurate. The chiefs had their own reasons for asserting their mana and rangatiratanga through He Whakaputanga.

The agreement and later responses

The text of He Whakaputanga further signalled the intended closer cooperation among rangatira and with the British Crown. In its first article, the hereditary chiefs of northern New Zealand declared their country to be an independent state (whenua rangatira) under the designation of “The United Tribes of New Zealand”.

Article two declared all sovereign power (kīngitanga) and authority in the land (mana i te whenua) to be held by the chiefs in their collective capacity. There was to be no other legislative authority, except by persons they appointed, acting under the authority of laws they had enacted in congress.

In the third article the rangatira committed to meeting in congress at Waitangi each autumn for the purposes of framing laws, and invited southern tribes to set aside their animosities by joining the confederation of united tribes.

In the final article the chiefs agreed to send a copy of their agreement to the English King. They asked that he be a parent (matua) to their infant state and protect it from all attempts on its independence.

All but two of the fifty-two signatories to He Whakaputanga came from Northland. They represented a diverse range of communities, including rival hapū and tribal alliances that had recently been at war with one another.

However, the final two rangatira to sign extended its reach considerably. Firstly, Te Hāpuku of Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti in Hawke’s Bay signed the agreement during a visit to the Bay of Islands in September 1838. He was one of the most senior rangatira from his region.

Te Wherowhero (later known as Pōtatau Te Wherowhero), a leading Waikato–Tainui rangatira and future Māori King, also signed through his kaituhi (scribe), Kahawai; the circumstances under which this took place (including the location) are unknown. However, following earlier intertribal fighting, Te Wherowhero’s brother Kati had married Matire Toha, the daughter of powerful Ngāpuhi rangatira Rewa, thereby sealing a tatau pounamu (peace agreement) between the tribes.

Authorities in New South Wales were lukewarm in response to news of the document signed by the northern chiefs. However, in May 1836 the British government acknowledged receipt of an English translation of He Whakaputanga, promising “those Chiefs such Support and Protection as may be consistent with a due Regard to the just Rights of others and to the Interests of His Majesty’s Subjects”.

Although this stopped short of being a formal acceptance of He Whakaputanga, it did constitute a form of recognition, which would prove crucial in the longer run. The acknowledgement was duly noted by rival powers France and the United States.

Yet by the time that British recognition of the agreement reached New Zealand, warfare had again broken out in the north between rival alliances of hapū, dashing hopes for an annual congress of chiefs.

Any attempt at convening such a gathering was fraught under the circumstances, and Busby became increasingly convinced that further British intervention in New Zealand would become necessary.

The significance of He Whakaputanga

Busby’s role in drafting the document, his obvious ulterior motives in doing so, and the apparent failure to convene any gatherings of the “united tribes” before 1840 have all contributed to a tendency on the part of scholars to dismiss He Whakaputanga as of little importance. It has often been considered no more than a minor prelude on the journey to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Yet such a viewpoint considerably undersells He Whakaputanga.

For one thing, it was British acknowledgement of the validity of the Declaration of Independence that made it necessary to seek a cession of sovereignty when the British government decided to intervene further in New Zealand in 1839. The Crown had recognised the sovereign authority of the United Tribes of New Zealand and would need the agreement of those rangatira in order to alter that situation.

For this reason, the text of the Treaty explicitly refers to the “Chiefs of the United Tribes of New Zealand” (“nga Rangatira o te wakaminenga”). Considerable efforts were made to gain the signatures, marks or moko of those who had signed He Whakaputanga when it came time to secure agreement to the Treaty. Officials tried — and failed — multiple times, for example, to gain Te Wherowhero’s signature.

Without He Whakaputanga there might have been no Treaty of Waitangi.

But there is much more to the story than that.

Recent Waitangi Tribunal hearings in Northland have highlighted a different narrative about He Whakaputanga, one that was previously little known or appreciated beyond the descendants of those involved.

Claimants told the Tribunal that Te Whakaminenga — Busby’s intended congress of chiefs — was not an abstract concept but a concrete reality in the north from as early as 1808.

Māori communities in the north were already experimenting with new ways of managing their own affairs, meeting regularly to discuss and debate common concerns (such as how best to manage the newcomers in their midst). According to this narrative, a process of nation-building had been under way for decades before Busby even arrived on the scene.

Ngāpuhi witnesses before the Tribunal also maintained that their ancestors had direct input into the drafting of He Whakaputanga, which reflected local idiom and dialect, and that young Eruera Pare Hongi was not merely a scribe but was influential in formulating the wording.

He Whakaputanga, from this perspective, was not just Busby’s creation but also the product of substantial Māori involvement. And the document itself reflected trends and developments that were already apparent in the Māori world. The rangatira who assented to He Whakaputanga were, in the words of the Tribunal, “not mere passive recipients of a declaration conceived and created by agents of Britain”.

He Whakaputanga had deepened Ngāpuhi’s existing alliance with the British Crown — something that northern Māori had consciously entered into, firstly through the relationship with Philip Gidley King on Norfolk Island, and later through Te Pahi’s trip to Sydney, and Hongi and Waikato’s meeting with King George IV in London.

At the same time, He Whakaputanga had announced their mana and sovereignty to the world. For all of Busby’s efforts at indirect rule, rangatira and their communities remained in control of their own affairs. And although Busby never convened the congress of chiefs after 1835, Ngāpuhi witnesses before the Tribunal maintained that Te Whakaminenga had continued to meet after that date.

That process of diverse Māori communities coming together to consider how best to manage their own affairs was one that continued long after 1840. It could be seen, for example, in the Kīngitanga, or later in the Kotahitanga movement, which sought unity under a Māori Parliament.

Many of those later movements looked to He Whakaputanga as a source of rights for Māori in the post-1840 world. The text of the document was published in Māori newspapers such as Te Wananga, was read aloud during gatherings of iwi at Ōrākei and Waitangi in the early 1880s, and cited by the Māori MPs and in petitions to Parliament as a basis for Māori claims to self-determination. Hōne Heke Ngāpua, the MP for Northern Māori, read the full text of He Whakaputanga in Parliament in 1894, for example, when introducing the second reading of his Native Rights Bill, an unsuccessful attempt to secure constitutional rights for Māori to administer their own affairs.

He Whakaputanga was — and remains — proof that the rangatiratanga and mana of Māori had been clearly articulated and asserted. New Zealand had been a sovereign land under the authority of the united tribes before 1840; and, according to the Waitangi Tribunal, that sovereignty was not extinguished by the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Treaty itself was another step in the ever-deepening alliance or covenant with Britain. And as later events made clear, Ngāpuhi expected that relationship to be maintained and reciprocated by the Crown after 1840. Instead, matters in the north quickly turned sour.

Like the Treaty, the physical document that is He Whakaputanga has had an interesting and at times severely testing life. It had been nibbled by rats and threatened by fire prior to being transferred to the National Archives (now Archives New Zealand).

In 2017, it is finally taking its rightful place alongside Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition, in the He Tohu exhibition housed at the National Library of New Zealand.

The exhibition and associated publications like this one provide an opportunity to learn more about the rich history of a document that in the past has, at least in non-Māori circles, been much misunderstood and neglected.

Signed 112 years before the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act saw New Zealand gain full sovereign status in 1947, He Whakaputanga serves as a powerful reminder of a much earlier assertion of independence and mana.


Dr Vincent O’Malley, Wellington, April 2017

This extract is from He Whakaputanga: The Declaration of Independence, 2017, Archives New Zealand, National Library of New Zealand, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, pp.8-14.

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