It is one of the most serene parts of New Zealand we saw in our short visit.Situated on the mainland of the beautiful Bay of Islands the Waitangi Treaty grounds is where in 1840 the Maori tribal leaders ceded sovereignty to the British.
The agreement has been disputed ever since through mistranslation. The Maoris thought they had ceded sovereignty, the British thought they had agreed that they would govern them and be able to take over their lands.Since Maoris had no written language it was an easy and useful mistake by the British.
The signing led to the seizure and purchase of the vast majority of Maori lands and like many of the people who inhabited the land in Australia and North America before the arrival of European settlers they became marginalised.
Since the 1940’s there has been a huge migration of Maoris from rural to urban areas. In 1926 84 percent of Maoris lived in rural settlements by 2006 it was down to 15 per cent. This added to marginalisation as many lost touch with their roots and some drifted into crime.
However since the 1970s there has been revival of Maori culture and nowhere does this show more than in Waitangi.The treaty grounds are run by a trust which receives no government money. Even the purchase of the land in the 1930’s depression relied on a well off white family rather than state aid. But the enthusiasm of the people who run the trust reflects the revival.
It was best illustrated by our Maori guide at Waitangi called John. He had a Maori name but that was too difficult to pronounce or remember for a European like me. He loved his job and spoke eloquently about Maori culture, traditions,language and history.
What came over is Maori fascination with ancestry. He could trace his own back 15 Maori generations and discovered in the process he was part Scottish and one per cent Native American.
The role of tattoos in Maori culture is also fascinating.John had got married and instead of exchanging rings with his bride he had a tattoo on his chest to celebrate his marriage. Marriage must be forever for Maoris.
The treaty grounds include the house where the treaty was signed, a Maori meeting house and a replica of a 150 man war canoe, a museum and a woodcarving centre where the
ancient Maori craft has been revived.
Princess Diana stirred up controversy on a Royal visit to Waitangi when she became the only woman to sit in the canoe breaking the sacred Maori rule that only men can sit in war canoes. But she was never one to follow tradition.
It also has a flagstaff with three flags,one created after the crew of trading boat were jailed in Australia for trading without a flag,the Union Jack, and the modern New Zealand flag.
The Treaty House is no grand building for such a momentous event. It is just a small homestead which later had an extension added. The room where the treaty was signed is simply furnished with bare boards and a wooden table.
For anyone visiting New Zealand this is well worth the trip.Allow a full three hours to include a display of Maori dancing.