Some brief notes on Christianity and te Tiriti o Waitangi

3 February 2023

A mission vessel Karere accompanies waka taua during the 1820s, Alexander Turnbull Library, PUBL-0031-1835-1

Christian (Protestant Evangelical) missions to New Zealand began with Samuel Marsden and chief Ruatara in 1814. By the late 1830s, Europeans were trying to purchase large tracts of land, and colonization companies were sending ships of settlers to the country. The British Government stepped in, with James Stephen at the Colonial Office – who was a Christian – drafting the instructions for the treaty that Hobson received. Missionaries in New Zealand translated the English draft into the Māori text that most chiefs signed. Was it an honourable agreement? And what happened afterwards?

  1. If we focus on the Māori text (often called Te Tiriti):

Article 1: the Crown was given the right to govern (‘kawanatanga’). However, that government would look different for European settlers and tribes because while Europeans would be governed by English law, …

Article 2: the Crown promised to protect Māori ownership of lands, and tribal self-government and custom (‘tino rangatiratanga’).

Article 3: the Crown guaranteed to Māori the rights of British subjects – sometimes seen as a right of equal citizenship.

Article 4 (oral article): not a part of the formal treaty, it resulted from a discussion at the Waitangi signing. The Crown guaranteed religious freedom for various Christian denominations and Māori practices or ritenga.

Some recent and older scholarship supports this understanding of British intent: that Crown government or ‘sovereignty’ was not inconsistent with ongoing tribal government and custom (the exceptions being inter-tribal warfare and inhumane custom). And this intent means that, fundamentally, the English draft text was not inconsistent with the Māori text, and that there was no mistranslation or deception involved. The treaty was an honourable agreement.

The main point here is that British Crown was intervening to (i) protect Māori rights and (ii) control the nature and extent of European settlement – principally by controlling the land trade. Under the treaty, the Crown became the sole or monopoly purchaser of land that Māori wished to sell.

2. Missionaries as mediators between the Crown and iwi/hapū

Missionaries mediated this relationship between Crown and Māori, in translation of the treaty and afterwards. They supported the treaty believing it would be the best chance of protecting Māori by introducing order and law into an emerging colonial situation. They in effect stood between Crown (and later settler authority) and Māori. This was often an uncomfortable position to be in. Missionaries such as Octavius Hadfield were called ‘philo-Māori’ (Māori lovers) during the 1860s by settlers who did not like the fact they were standing up for Māori rights, especially over land. Later on, the Māori King movement and its role in the land wars caused European missionaries to have divided loyalties, but many recognized the injustice of confiscations after the wars.

3. Missions and colonization

Missionaries were in Aotearoa New Zealand working for both the spiritual salvation and material welfare of their Māori congregations. As Evangelicals, they stood in a chain of connection (or whakapapa) to the Clapham group of activists who campaigned against slavery and other social evils. Missionaries were involved in peace-making in the tribal wars of the 1820s-40s, while some later became ‘protectors of aborigines’ in 1840s New Zealand. Eventually, the tide of European settlement made honouring treaty promises increasingly difficult.

We should not forget too that, by the 1840s, most of the Christian missionaries or teachers among Māori hapū and iwi were Māori themselves. These Christian believers faced immense challenges to their faith during the 1860s wars and afterwards.

2 responses to “Some brief notes on Christianity and te Tiriti o Waitangi”

  1. Well put and shame that the confiscations ever happened – i guess Governor Gray was under pressure from England and the settler society organizers in Britain who pre-sold the promise of land to the settlers.


  2. Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Wakefield plan and its mechanism of colonization, the NZ Company.


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