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Meaning of the Treaty

The information given below is intended as a general guide only, and should not necessarily be read as a statement of the views or findings of the Waitangi Tribunal. Readers interested in the tribunal's interpretation of the Treaty and its principles are directed to the reports of the tribunal.


The Treaty of Waitangi has two texts, one Māori and one English. The English text is not an exact translation of the Māori text. Despite the problems caused by the different versions, both represent an agreement in which Māori gave the Crown rights to govern and to develop British settlement, while the Crown guaranteed Māori full protection of their interests and status, and full citizenship rights.


The preamble to the English version states that the British intentions were to:

  • protect Māori interests from the encroaching British settlement;
  • provide for British settlement; and
  • establish a government to maintain peace and order.

The Maori text has a different emphasis. It suggests that the Queen's main promises to Māori were to:

  • secure tribal rangatiratanga; and
  • secure Māori land ownership.

Article 1

In the Māori text of article 1, Māori gave the British a right of governance, kawanatanga, whereas in the English text, Maori ceded ‘sovereignty’.

One of the problems that faced the original translators of the English draft of the Treaty was that 'sovereignty' in the British understanding of the word had no direct translation in the context of Māori society. Rangatira (chiefs) held the autonomy and authority, ‘rangatiratanga’, over their own domains but there was no supreme ruler of the whole country. In the Māori version, the translators used the inadequate term ‘kawanatanga’, a transliteration of the word ‘governance’, which was then in current use. Māori understanding of this word came from familiar use in the New Testament of the Bible when refering to the likes of Pontious Pilate, and from their knowledge of the role of the ‘Kawana’, or Governor of New South Wales, whose jurisdiction then extended to British subjects in New Zealand.

As a result, in this article, Māori believe they ceded to the Queen a right of governance in return for the promise of protection, while retaining the authority they always had to manage their own affairs.

Article 2

The Māori version of article 2 uses the word ‘rangatiratanga’ in promising to uphold the authority that tribes had always had over their lands and taonga. This choice of wording emphasises status and authority.

In the English text, the Queen guaranteed to Māori the undisturbed possession of their properties, including their lands, forests, and fisheries, for as long as they wished to retain them. This text emphasises property and ownership rights.

Article 2 provides for land sales to be effected through the Crown. This gave the Crown the right of pre-emption in land sales. The Waitangi Tribunal, after reading the instructions for the Treaty provided by Lord Normanby, concluded that the purpose of this provision was not just to regulate settlement but to ensure that each tribe retained sufficient land for its own purposes and needs.

Article 3

In article 3, the Crown promised to Māori the benefits of royal protection and full citizenship. This text emphasises equality.


In the epilogue, the signatories acknowledge that they have entered into the full spirit of the Treaty. These words are important, for it is the Treaty’s principles, rather than the meaning of its strict terms, that the Waitangi Tribunal must determine today.

In doing this, the Tribunal must have regard to cultural meanings of words, the surrounding circumstances, comments made at the time, and the parties' objectives, as far as these can be gathered from other sources. The variations between the two texts become less problematic if these other factors are taken into consideration.

Information kindly provided by the Waitangi Tribunal.