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Waitangi Day

Every year on 6 February, New Zealand marks the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. In that year, representatives of the British Crown and over 500 Maori chiefs signed what is New Zealand's founding document. The day was first officially commemorated in 1934, and it has been a public holiday since 1974.  
This day is also now recognised as New Zealand's national day.


The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6, 1840, in a marquee erected in the grounds of James Busby's house (now known as the Treaty house) at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. The Treaty made New Zealand a part of the British Empire, guaranteed Maori rights to their land and gave Maori the rights of British citizens. There are significant differences between the Maori and English language versions of the Treaty, and virtually since 1840 this has led to debate over exactly what was agreed to at Waitangi. Maori have generally seen the Treaty as a sacred pact, while for many years Pakeha (white New Zealanders) ignored it. By the early twentieth century, however, some Pakeha were beginning to see the Treaty as their nation's founding document and a symbol of British humanitarianism. Unlike Maori, few Pakeha saw the Treaty as a valid legal document which needed to be strictly adhered to.

Early celebrations

The signing of the treaty was not commemorated until 1934. Prior to that date, most celebrations of New Zealand's founding as a colony were marked on January 29, the date on which William Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands. In 1932, Governor-General Lord Bledisloe and his wife had purchased and gifted to the nation the run-down house of James Busby, where the treaty was signed. The Treaty house and grounds were made a public reserve, which was dedicated on February 6, 1934. This event is considered by some to be the first Waitangi Day, although celebrations were not yet held annually. At the time, it was the most representative meeting of Maori ever held. Attendees included the Maori King and thousands of Pakeha. Some Maori may have also been commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, but there is little evidence of this.

In 1940, another major event was held at the grounds, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the treaty signing. This was less well attended, partially because of the outbreak of World War Two and partially because the government had recently offended the Maori King. However the event was still a success and helped raise the profile of the treaty.

Annual celebrations

Annual commemorations of the treaty signing began in 1947. The 1947 event was a Royal New Zealand Navy ceremony centering on a flagpole which the Navy had paid to erect in the grounds. The ceremony was brief and featured no Maori. The following year, a Maori speaker was added to the line-up, and subsequent additions to the ceremony were made nearly every year. From 1952, the Governor General attended, and from 1958 the Prime Minister also attended, although not every year. From the mid-1950s, a Maori cultural performance was usually given as part of the ceremony. Many of these early features remain a part of Waitangi Day ceremonies, including a naval salute, the Maori cultural performance (now usually a ceremonial welcome), and speeches from a range of Maori and Pakeha dignitaries.

Public holiday

Waitangi Day was proposed as a public holiday by the New Zealand Labour Party in their 1957 party manifesto. After Labour won the election they were reluctant to create a new public holiday, so the Waitangi Day Act was passed in 1960 making it possible for a locality to substitute Waitangi Day as an alternative to an existing public holiday. In 1963, after a change in government, Waitangi Day was substituted for Auckland Anniversary Day as the provincial holiday in Northland.

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