Today we begin a series of short articles on aspects of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi: Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We start with the rapidly changing scene in the 1830s and what the Treaty did for the Maori way of life at the time.
By Roger Childs
New Zealand in the 1830s had no government or political structure either Polynesian or British. The native tribes were frequently at war with one another and there was no concept of a united Pacific nation. This was despite the fact that in 1835 there was a Declaration of Independence cobbled together by British Resident, James Busby.
Although signed by a number of chiefs, mostly from Northland, and accepted by the British government, it did not set up a unified Maori nation.
Up until 1838. the British government had no desire to get involved in New Zealand and establish another expensive colony. It was well aware that British settlement was increasing, but was reluctant to interfere. In the meantime, it was happy to let the Governor of New South Wales monitor the changing New Zealand scene from across the Tasman.
However, ultimately it was the expanding European (mainly British) economic activity, trading and settlement, and concerns over the impact of these developments on the native peoples that forced the British government’s hand.
Also influencing London were the concerns expressed by missionaries and the entreaties of some chiefs.
The Maori Dark Age
The scattered native tribes (variously called indigenous people, Aborigines, savages, natives, New Zealanders, but not Maori at this stage), had been rapidly killing each other off since the 1800s in devastating inter-tribal conflicts, sometimes called the Musket Wars.
In over 500 battles prior to 1840, tens of thousands of indigenous people had been killed or wounded and many innocent men, women and children had been senselessly slaughtered and often eaten. Hundreds of others had been taken into slavery.
Furthermore unfamiliar diseases, like smallpox, were decimating the population in many areas, notably among Ngai Tahu in the South Island.
European influences on the native peoples increased as the 1830s proceeded, but the degree of interaction varied enormously. The tribal groups of the north, especially in Northland, had the greatest contact with white missionaries, traders, settlers, escaped convicts from Australia and travellers.
Inevitably there was inter-marriage, and this would ultimately mean that today all Maori are in fact part-Maori, and most have more ancestors of European origin than Polynesian.
A beneficial and farsighted treaty
The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi (Tiriti o Waitangi), brought an end to the worst features of Maori life:
- inter-tribal warfare which threatened to wipe out the population
- “war crimes” such as the slaughter of prisoners and killing of innocent civilians
- slavery, torture, cannibalism and female infanticide.
With the establishment of peace in 1840, the best features of Maori culture could flourish:
- economic ingenuity and initiative
- communal cooperation
- close whanau ties.
Furthermore, all Maori were given the status of citizens, on an equal footing with the European settlers, a situation unheard of in other colonial agreements made between the British and native inhabitants.
The next article will look at British intentions and the sovereignty issue.