180 years ago today the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in Wellington, although Wellington wouldn’t find its name until a few months later and the town was referred to as Port Nicholson.
The original Treaty, between Lieutenant Governor William Hobson representing the British Crown and northern Māori rangatira, had been signed in Waitangi on 6th February 1840, and copies were made to carry around the country to obtain signatures from other iwi. Hobson planned to do this himself, but got no further than Waitemata when on March 1st he suffered apoplexy — caused by ‘violent mental excitement’ according to his surgeon — which paralysed his right side and left him temporarily speechless. He had recently been informed that the Wakefield’s New Zealand Company men were ‘a turbulent set of rebels, who were establishing a republic at Port Nicholson’. The news was an exaggeration. Fake news, we’d call it today. But Hobson needed to lay his authority down fast.
He sent his emissaries out and, on 19th April, missionaries Henry Williams and Octavius Hadfield arrived with a Māori language version of the Treaty in Port Nicholson.
Company Agent William Wakefield writes home in scathing terms of Henry Williams and his claim of a personal interest in the land around the harbour, for which the New Zealand Company had a deed of purchase signed by local rangatira and dated from the previous year. Wakefield claimed Williams confessed to wanting a ‘slice for himself’ and was hardly a disinterested representative of the crown. Jerningham Wakefield, William’s nephew and the colony’s energetic journalist, says the deals were conducted in great privacy and mystery and for a long time they were unable to discover what the local iwi had been required to sign. It ‘oozed out’ later, he says, that Henry Williams was getting consent of the Cook Strait chiefs to sign a cession of their sovereignty in order to make the Treaty of Waitangi stick and give the Queen power to ‘protect and restrain’ them. These are Jerningham’s words.
Henry Williams was a passionate and charismatic man and spoke te reo fluently. No one has documented what arguments he used to convince the iwi that it was in their interests to sign and the korero lasted ten days. However, on 29th April, thirty-two rangatira from Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Toa signed the Cook Strait Sheet of the Treaty of Waitangi on board the schooner Ariel in Port Nicholson. Williams and Hadfield then continued on their way across the strait and up the coast to obtain more signatures for their document, with no one really understanding what it meant for them then, or for the future.
The only clear thing was that Hobson, the New Zealand Company, the Māori and the missionaries all had very different interpretations of what was going on.
In May Hobson proclaimed British sovereignty over all of New Zealand and sent his boys to Port Nicholson to pull down the New Zealand Company’s flags and bring the ‘rebel colony’ under his authority. In theory, Wellington then became united, Māori and bellicose New Zealand Company immigrants, under the British crown. Of course that wasn’t quite the end of the story.