British sailors, whalers and missionaries settled in New Zealand from the early 19th century, but the British government became formally involved in its colonisation only in the 1830s. A British-appointed Resident, James Busby (1801–71), set about negotiating with indigenous leaders and attempting to control white immigrants and land speculators. On 6 February 1840, the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi with a group of Maori leaders from the North Island. The Treaty ceded New Zealand to Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901), who promised the Maori her protection and the same rights as ‘the people of England’, and established William Hobson (1792–1842) as Governor. It also gave the Crown the exclusive right to buy any lands the Maori wished to sell, while recognising their full ownership of lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions.

The Treaty was prepared in English, but the vast majority of the more than 500 chiefs who ultimately signed it put their name to the Maori translation, copies of which circulated through New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Henry Williams (1792–1867), the missionary who prepared the translation, referred to the Treaty as the ‘Magna Charta’ of the Maoris, which would secure for them ‘their Lands, Rights and Privileges’. The English and Maori versions differed in key aspects, however, especially in relation to the nature of the sovereignty surrendered by the chiefs to Queen Victoria, and in practice Maori rights were routinely breached and ignored.

Interpretations of the Treaty since the 1840s underline the complexities of colonialism: some see it as an expression of the British government’s humanitarian concern for Maori welfare and rights; others as an attempt by the imperial authorities to control private speculators such as the New Zealand Company. Maori interpretations of the Treaty have predominated since the 1980s, and the Maori translation is now accepted as the authoritative version.