Waitangi Day – 6th February 2020

waitangi day

It has not been often in the last 30 years of living abroad that I have been home at the same time as my homeland of New Zealand celebrates its National Day, Waitangi Day on the 6th of February.  I can only think of a handful of times.  When I make my biennial summer visits, I have usually left NZ before then for Australia and have thus probably participated in Straya Day (Australia’s National) on the 26th of January more times than Waitangi Day.  On this visit Waitangi Day was right in the middle of all the flood chaos and slid by without much celebration.

So why is NZ’s National day called Waitangi Day and celebrated on the 6th of February?  Many wonder why we don’t call it New Zealand Day.  Quite simply, it was the day the British Crown signed a treaty between the indigenous Maori folk of Aotearoa (NZ) at a place called Waitangi on the 6th of February 1840.  The document received the name the Waitangi Treaty (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) and hence the name given to our National Day.  It is considered the founding document of our nation.  For most it is an extra day off in late summer before the reality of winter arrives.

The Treaty was written at a time when NZ was being settled by the British and when some Māori leaders were seeking protection from the British against incursions by the French trying to establish a colony.  It was drafted with the intention of establishing a British Governor of New Zealand; recognising Māori ownership of their lands, forests and other possessions; and, giving Māori the rights of British subjects.  Approximately 530 Māori chiefs (at least 13 of them women) signed the Māori language version of the Treaty, despite some Māori leaders in the Waikato cautioning against it.  An immediate result of the Treaty was that Queen Victoria’s government gained the sole right to purchase land.  In total there are nine signed copies of the Treaty of Waitangi, including the sheet signed on 6 February 1840 at Waitangi.

The text of the Treaty includes three articles:

  • Article one of the Māori text grants governance rights to the Crown while the English text cedes “all rights and powers of sovereignty” to the Crown.
  • Article two of the Māori text establishes that Māori will retain full chieftainship over their lands, villages and all their treasures while the English text establishes the continued ownership of the Māori over their lands and establishes the exclusive right of purchase of the Crown.
  • Article three gives Māori people full rights and protections as British subjects.

It is bilingual, with the Māori text inaccurately translated from the English.  The Māori text and the English text differ in meaning significantly, particularly in relation to the meaning of having and ceding sovereignty.  These discrepancies led to disagreements in the decades following the signing, eventually contributing to the New Zealand Land Wars of 1845 to 1872.

During the second half of the 19th century Māori generally lost control of much of the land they had owned, sometimes through legitimate sale, but often due to unfair land-deals, settlers occupying land that had not been sold, or through outright confiscations in the aftermath of the New Zealand Land Wars.  In the period following the Land Wars, the New Zealand Government mostly ignored the Treaty, and a court-case judgement in 1877 declared it to be “a simple nullity”.  Beginning in the 1950s, Māori increasingly sought to use the Treaty as a platform for claiming back rights to sovereignty and to reclaim lost land, and governments in the 1960s and 1970s responded to these arguments, giving the Treaty an increasingly central role in the interpretation of land rights and relations between Māori people and the state.  In 1975 the New Zealand Parliament passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act, establishing the Waitangi Tribunal as a permanent commission of inquiry tasked with interpreting the Treaty, researching breaches of the Treaty by the Crown or its agents, and suggesting means of redress.  In most cases, recommendations of the Tribunal are not binding on the Crown, but settlements totaling almost $1 billion have been awarded to various Māori groups. Various legislation passed in the latter part of the 20th century has made reference to the Treaty, but the Treaty has never been ratified and made part of New Zealand municipal law.  Nonetheless, the Treaty has become widely regarded as the founding document of New Zealand.

The day is usually celebrated with Maori and European activities on the Marae (Maori meeting grounds) and on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi with representatives for Maori, the Government and the Crown participating.  It begins at dawn with Maori welcoming the guests onto the Marae, then later moves down on to the Treaty Grounds in front of the house where the treaty was signed in 1840.  This is followed by the arrival of the great whakas (Maori canoes holding up to 80 persons) and the NZ Navy.  Once again Maori challenges and speeches by the Government and the Crown are given to mark the occasion.  At the conclusion of formalities it usually turns into a day in the sun with lots of food.  For the average New Zealander, it can be a day at the beach followed by a good old Kiwi BBQ.

My celebration this year was drying out from the floods and enjoying some home grown fresh fruit – apricots, peaches, cherries, & nectarines.

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