The fate of indigenous people in the face of British settlement is always fascinating and nearly always horrifying. Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians were virtually annihilated by war and disease brought to their countries by colonists who had little regard for the rights of the people who lived there first. The history in New Zealand is more subtle, and one of the few examples of a (mostly) peaceful agreement between the indigenous people and the settlers.
The signing of this contract took place in what is now known as the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, four hours’ drive from Auckland in the small town of Paihia in the Bay of Islands. The bus winds North from Auckland through green fields and hills, often hugging the Eastern coast of New Zealand’s Northland Peninsula (the bit that sticks up the furthest on a map). I see sheep for the first time since arriving in New Zealand, and plenty of them.
Paihia is a small beachfront town of fewer than 2,000 people in the aptly named “Far North District” of the country. Despite its small size, it’s a good base for exploring the Bay of Islands, and tourists are plentiful. A cruise around the islands reveals stunning scenery as well as numerous playful dolphins. There are often orcas and seals to be spotted, although not on the day I’m on the water. Our tour guide tells us that the most recent possum census (what a great census) puts the number of New Zealand possums at around 70 million. That’s over 15 possums to take on each New Zealander if they ever decide to go to war.
At one point, we stop off on a small island to climb a hill. The sun is blazing hot, the sky a perfect cloudless blue and the water clear and turquoise. It looks for all the world like a remote Thai paradise. Yet as the boat docks and we step onto land, everything is green grass and rural farms: the sound of lawnmowers hums over the still air and the smell of cows is ubiquitous. This isn’t Thailand so much as Wales. The weird dichotomy persists as we climb the hill and look out over the bay: the sea belongs to South-East Asia, and the land is rural Britain.
A short walk from Paihia are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a historic location for the country of New Zealand and arguably the birthplace of the nation. It was here that representatives of the British government signed a treaty with the Māori people, a treaty that is now generally regarded as the founding document of New Zealand.
The Māori people had been in New Zealand since the 13th century, arriving in canoes from Polynesian islands. The Europeans began to arrive from the 17th century. The Dutchman Abel Tasman was the first known European explorer to discover New Zealand in 1642, and the famous British sailor, Captain James Cook, reached the islands in 1769. Early contact between the Māori and the European settlers was fraught, but the arrival of missionaries led to better relationships and trade.
In the 19th century, the British government decided to act in the face of increasing violence on the islands, as well as increasing claims over the land (particularly from the French). James Hobson was dispatched to become the first governor of New Zealand, but to achieve this peacefully required the agreement of the Māori tribes. Representatives from numerous tribes across the North Island rowed canoes up to the Bay of Islands to meet British representatives and settlers at Waitangi in 1842. Here they debated a document that essentially gave Britain ownership over the land, while preserving Māori authority and guaranteeing the Māoris citizenship and protection. The debate was fierce, with many Māori chiefs sceptical or outright hostile. In the end, the treaty was signed, and the British colonisation of New Zealand was official and peaceful.
The treaty was not an immediate success. A serious issue was that the document had not been translated literally. The English version was complex and legalistic; it was rendered into the Māori language by missionaries who could translate only what they perceived to be the spirit of the treaty. In essence, each side signed a different document. Over the years and decades, Māori goodwill was eroded by what they saw as persistent breaches of the treaty by the British government. Fighting broke out on more than one occasion, and grievances are still being addressed to this day. Although not as severe as in either America or Australia, the impact of British settlement was a decline in Māori culture and land that may never fully be resolved.
The Waitangi Treaty is both celebrated and protested across the country on Waitangi Day. The document was and is an important part of New Zealand’s history, and the spirit of it continues to invite and expect Māori and New Zealanders to work together as one people for the future of the country. In English, that country is New Zealand. In Māori, it is Aotearoa: land of the long white cloud.
Snapshots of New Zealand