Waitangi Weekend History

Located 3 km north-west of Paihia

At its centre is one of the country’s most spectacular and historic places. James Busby, British Resident, took up residence on the north side of the entrance to the Waitangi River in 1833.

In 1834 Māori chiefs gathered at Waitangi to select a national flag, and in 1835 to sign a declaration of the country’s independence.

On 6 February 1840 Waitangi was the site for the signing of a treaty between Māori and William Hobson, representing the British Crown. The Waitangi Treaty House and grounds, together with an additional 1,000-acre land block, were gifted to the nation in 1932 by the governor general, Lord Bledisloe, and his wife.

His intention was to create a national historic site to mark the country’s foundation document.

Waitangi Day

Celebrations were held in 1934 to acknowledge the gift, and in 1940 to mark the treaty’s 100th anniversary. In the Treaty House grounds a whare rūnanga (meeting house) representing all tribes was built for the 1940 celebration. The commemorations led to a recognition of the historic significance of Te Tii marae at the Waitangi River mouth. Māori had erected a treaty monument there in 1880. Both commemorations brought thousands of visitors to the quiet Northland area, and established an annual tradition to mark the birth of the nation. The date of 6 February was first observed as a national holiday in 1974.

Traditional maori Waitangi Day celebrations at Waitangi, Paihia.
Traditional maori Waitangi Day celebrations at Waitangi, Paihia.

Annual commemorations

Annual commemorations of the treaty signing began in 1947. The 1947 event was a Royal New Zealand Navy ceremony centring on a flagpole which the Navy had paid to erect in the grounds. The ceremony was brief and featured no Māori. The following year, a Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori cultural performance (now usually a ceremonial welcome), and speeches from a range of Māori and Pākehā dignitaries.

Proposed as a public holiday

The Labour Party stated in its 1957 election manifesto that it would make Waitangi Day a public holiday. After winning that year’s election, the party said that the country could not afford another public holiday. The Waitangi Day Act of 1960 allowed localities to transfer the holiday from their existing regional public holiday to Waitangi Day.

In 1963, after a change of government, the passing of the Waitangi Day Amendment Act transferred the holiday observed in Northland on Auckland Anniversary Day (the Monday closest to 29 January) to Waitangi Day, 6 February. This made Waitangi Day a holiday in Northland only.

Transition to public holiday

Waitangi Day became a nationwide public holiday on its observance in 1974 by first undergoing a name change. In 1971 the Labour shadow minister of Māori Affairs, Matiu Rata, introduced a private member’s bill to make Waitangi Day a national holiday, to be called New Zealand Day. This was not passed into law.

After the 1972 election of the third Labour government under Prime Minister Norman Kirk, it was announced that from 1974, Waitangi Day would be a national holiday known as New Zealand Day. The New Zealand Day Act legislation was passed in 1973. For Kirk, the change was simply an acceptance that New Zealand was ready to move towards a broader concept of nationhood. Diplomatic posts had for some years marked the day, and it seemed timely in view of the country’s increasing role on the international stage that the national day be known as New Zealand Day. At the 1974 commemorations, the Flag of New Zealand was flown for the first time at the top of the flagstaff at Waitangi, rather than the Union Flag, and a replica of the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand was also flown.

The election of the third National government in 1975 led to the day being renamed Waitangi Day because the new prime minister, Robert Muldoon, did not like the name “New Zealand Day” and many Māori felt that it debased the treaty. Another Waitangi Day Act was passed in 1976 to change the name back to Waitangi Day and restore Northland’s anniversary day holiday to that of Auckland.

Waitangi Day underwent ‘Mondayisation’ in legislation enacted in 2013, shifting the public holiday to Monday if 6 February falls on a Saturday or Sunday.

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