Governor William Hobson was caught by surprise. Summoned ashore late in the morning of February 6, he arrived in plain clothes but having snatched up his plumed hat. Several hundred Māori were waiting for him in the marquee, and several hundred others stood around outside. Many had arrived since the meeting the previous day, including some high-ranking women. Only James Busby and about a dozen Europeans had turned up, among them the Catholic Bishop Pompallier. Hobson, nervous and uneasy, more than once expressed concern that the meeting could not be considered a “regular public meeting” since the proper notice had not been given. He would not allow discussion, but would be prepared to take signatures.

On the table lay a tidily written treaty in te reo Māori – Te Tiriti o Waitangi – copied overnight on parchment by one of the missionaries, Richard Taylor. Rangatira were invited to come forward and sign. Just as Hone Heke was about to do so, William Colenso asked Hobson if he thought that the chiefs really understood what they were signing. “If the Native chiefs do not know the contents of this treaty it is no fault of mine,” replied Hobson. “I have done all that I could . . . They have heard the treaty read by Mr. Williams.”

Colenso agreed, but pointed out that it had not been explained adequately; he was afraid that they had not been made fully aware of the situation in which they would by their so signing be placed. Later the chiefs would hold the missionaries accountable, whereas their agreement needed to be “their very own act and deed”. Impatiently, Hobson brushed the protest aside, saying, “I think that the people under your care will be peaceable enough: I’m sure you will endeavour to make them so.”

The signing went ahead, while two rangatira kept up a running challenge in the traditional manner. Busby called each rangatira by name, probably from a list of those who had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence. When each had signed, Hobson shook his hand, saying “He iwi tahi tātou.” According to Colenso this meant “We are [now] one people”, but Felton Mathew thought it meant “We are brethren and countrymen.” The expression greatly pleased the rangatira, who also shook hands with each of the official party; it was probably either Williams or Busby who told Hobson to express himself in this way. Both men must have known that the words would have a special meaning, especially for those who were Christian: Māori and British would be linked, under the guardianship of the Queen and as followers of Christ.

That afternoon, over 40 rangatira put their names or their moko on the parchment, affirming the agreement known as the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi. As the signing was drawing to an end, someone gave a signal for three thundering cheers for the Governor and Queen Wikitoria (Victoria). Patuone presented Hobson with a greenstone mere “expressly” for the Queen, and the meeting closed with Hobson retiring to the Herald, taking Patuone with him to dine. Colenso was left to distribute gifts – two blankets and some tobacco – to each person who had signed.


Several hundred New Zealand Company settlers had arrived in the Cook Strait region in January and February 1840. In March they had set up a form of government at Port Nicholson (Wellington) which, they claimed, derived its legality from authority granted by the local “sovereign chiefs”. The flag of an independent New Zealand, made on the company’s ship Tory, flew above the settlement, and a provisional constitution had been drawn up.

The chiefs at the left of this lithograph from the 1840s are Mananui Te Heuheu and his brother Iwikau. Mananui objected to Iwikau’s signing the Treaty. To the right is Apihai Te Kawau, who invited Hobson to set up his capital in Auckland. The image is taken from the Illustrated History by Claudia Orange.

Hearing of these moves, Hobson reasoned that the settlers were assuming powers of government that were the prerogative of the Crown. On May 21, he proclaimed sovereignty over the whole of the country: over the North Island on the basis of cession by chiefs who had signed the Treaty of Waitangi, and over the South Island and Stewart Island on the basis that Cook had “discovered” them. At this stage, Hobson held only the copy of Te Tiriti signed in the north, and one signed at Waikato Heads and Manukau Harbour. As for the South Island, he doubted that its “uncivilised” Māori were capable of signing any treaty. He had taken measures he deemed necessary under the circumstances, using Cook’s “discovery”, which his instructions had allowed him to use, if necessary.

Unaware of Hobson’s actions, Bunbury also proclaimed sovereignty: on June 5 at Stewart Island, by right of Cook’s discovery; and on June 17 at Cloudy Bay, by right of cession of the South Island by several ‘independent’ chiefs. The Colonial Office approved Hobson’s proclamations, which were published in the London Gazette on October 2, 1840. This was the only requirement at the time to validate sovereignty being acquired. Treaty meetings had continued after the proclamations; on September 3, the last signature was put on a copy of Te Tiriti, somewhere near Kāwhia, the copy not arriving back to Hobson until April 1841. 542 rangatira, among them 12 or more women of rank, had signed at about 50 meetings.

The differences between the two texts were crucial to a full Māori understanding – or the lack of it

Hobson had kept British officials informed throughout the signing process and had sent them copies of the Treaty. In October, he dispatched a final report, together with ‘certified’ copies of Te Tiriti and one English Treaty copy which was headed ‘translation’. He said nothing about any variations between the two texts, although it had already become apparent in April that there were differences in meaning, and therefore in Māori understanding of what they had agreed to. Hobson was aware of this.

The differences that affected the meaning were important:

By the Treaty in English, Māori leaders gave the Queen “absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess . . . over their respective Territories as the sole sovereigns thereof.”

By Te Tiriti in te reo, they gave the Queen “te Kawanatanga katoa o ratou wenua” – the governance or government of their land.

By the Treaty in English, Māori leaders and people, collectively and individually, were confirmed in and guaranteed “the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries, and other properties . . . so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession.”

By Te Tiriti in te reo, they were confirmed and guaranteed “te tino Rangatiratanga o o ratou wenua o ratou kainga me o ratou taonga katoa” – the unqualified exercise of their chieftainship – over their lands, settlements, and all their valued possessions.

The Treaty in English extended to Māori the Queen’s “royal protection and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.”

By Te Tiriti in te reo, in consideration of the agreement to the government of the Queen, the rights and privileges of British subjects – “nga tikanga katoa rite tahi ki ana mea ki nga tangata o Ingarani” – were extended to all the Māori of New Zealand.

The differences between the two texts were crucial to a full Māori understanding – or the lack of it. Only 39  chiefs signed a copy of the Treaty in English, which almost certainly had a copy of the printed Tiriti in te reo with it to enable the missionary at Waikato Heads to read it to Māori. Apart from that, all Māori leaders signed a copy of the Māori language Tiriti, which did not convey the full meaning of the English text, especially the extent of sovereign powers. Only some would have been able to read Te Tiriti, even if they had been given the chance. Explanations at meetings with potential signatories might have helped, given that discussion was essential to Māori in the customary building of relationships; but the records that exist show negotiators did not comment on differences in meaning. Their aim was to secure rangatira agreement. The complexities of sovereignty, as they were increasingly being recognised under international law, were not brought up.

Thus the differences between the Māori and English texts laid the basis for different British (and later colonial) and Māori understandings of the agreement, and for the debate over interpretation that was to continue.

This is an edited extract from the newly published The Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi: An Illustrated History by Claudia Orange (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99 ) available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom has two copies of this beautiful book to give away. To go in the draw, email literary editor Steve Braunias at and name the book you most admire by a Māori author.


Dame Claudia Orange is a distinguished historian, and the author of The Treaty of Waitangi (1987) and An Illustrated History of the Treaty (2021). Her latest book is The Story of a Treaty | He Kōrero...

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