Today we celebrate Waitangi Day in New Zealand. Every 6th February we get a public holiday to mark the day on which the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between Captain Hobson RN and about 500 Maori chiefs (not all at once – the first signing ceremony was held in Waitangi in the Bay of Islands in the north of the North Island and about 40 chiefs signed there, but the treaty was later taken around the country so that more chiefs could sign). It should be noted that New Zealand at the time was not a nation, there were a number of Maori tribes (or iwi) here but no nation in the European sense.

The treaty was short, only three articles long, and sought to regulate the relationship between the Crown of Great Britain and the Maori people. Although there were, and are, differences in interpretation between the Maori and English versions of the Treaty, in essence it guaranteed Maori their possessions, lands, estates, forestries, fisheries and gave the Crown an exclusive right to deal with Maori over land transactions. It also gave Maori all protections and rights afforded all other British citizens and in return, the British Crown gained governance or sovereignty over the whole land.

Although reluctant at first to acquire New Zealand as a colony (the land was not well-endowed with resources, was as far away as possible from Great Britain, and Australia was already a great penal colony) the British government eventually dispatched Hobson to obtain a treaty with the local Maori. THe aim was to gain greater control over the growing number of whalers, ex-convicts and human flotsam proving troublesome in the small European settlements on the fringes of the North Island. The government also wished to regulate the private colonial companies that would eventually establish the towns of Wanganui and Nelson.

Furthermore, the French were nosing around the South Island; the Treaty was a way of pre-empting Britain’s great rival. (If you ever visit New Zealand, Banks Peninsula near Christchurch is the location of Akaroa, a small town with a very noticeable French influence – the only vestige of Gallic interest in Nouvelle Zelande.)

The Treaty did not guarantee smooth sailing between the British colonists and local Maori. Although vastly outnumbering the colonists in 1840 (about 100,000 to perhaps 4,000) Maori were quickly overtaken by the large numbers of Britons escaping the industrial cities of the Mother Country for the untamed spaces of New Zealand. (Not just Brits either: my hometown of Dannevirke is one of a number of towns in the southern Hawkes Bay with a Scandinavian heritage.)

There were a number of wars from the 1840s to the 1870s in the North Island. These Land Wars were fought between Crown forces and loyal Maori on one hand, and Maori tribes which either rebelled against Crown sovereignty or which had never acceded to the Treaty in the first place. There were large confiscations of land in the aftermath of these wars and the colonial government was not always scrupulous in ensuring they were taking land belonging to the tribes which had been defeated. Further, there were issues with the transfer of land from tribal ownership to private ownership, even if the sales had been carried out in good faith. Maori and British notions of land ownership were just not compatible.

However, overall and despite what many might say, I think that New Zealand’s history is a relatively benign one when it comes to a colony being established over the top of a native population. Certainly New Zealand compares favourably with what happened in South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States. Nowadays there is a Waitangi Tribunal which hears accusations of historical breaches of the Treaty and then recommends that the Government makes redress (this happens frequently).

The Maori language is heavily pushed by the media and governmental agencies (not to the extent of French in Quebec!). There are seven seats in the House of Representatives (out of 120) that are set aside for Maori voters only. (Maori can choose whether or not they wish to vote for those seats – they do not have to.) The number of those identifying as Maori is a sizeable minority: 15 per cent of the population is Maori according to the latest census.

However, the country is not bicultural anymore. Increasingly New Zealand is multicultural – soon there will be more people with an Asian heritage than Maori, while Pacific Islanders are a rapidly growing demographic group. How that will impact upon the Treaty and future Waitangi Days remains to be seen. Every years there are calls for another day to be chosen as our unofficial national day – ANZAC day on 25 April would probably be a popular choice.

At the moment, however, the 6th of February is still our national day and we will enjoy a day off in the beautiful sunshine as we give thanks for living in New Zealand. Warts and all, it is still the best country to live in. Now, about that cricket team…

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...