Waitangi Day (Māori: Te Rā o Waitangi), the national day of New Zealand, marks the anniversary of the initial signing – on 6 February 1840 – of the Treaty of Waitangi, which is regarded as the founding document of the nation. The first Waitangi Day was not celebrated until 1934, and it was made a national public holiday in 1974.
In present-day New Zealand, the anniversary is observed annually on 6 February and the day is usually recognised as a public holiday (unless the date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, when the Monday that immediately follows becomes the public holiday). Ceremonies take place at Waitangi and elsewhere to commemorate the signing of the treaty. A variety of events are staged, including parties, Māori hui (social gatherings), reflections on New Zealand history, official awards and citizenship ceremonies. The commemoration has also been the focus of protest by Māori activists, and is often marred by controversy.
Treaty House and grounds at Waitangi, where the treaty was first signed. The first Waitangi Day was celebrated in the grounds on 6 February 1934.
The Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on 6 February 1840 on the grounds of James Busby’s house—now known as Treaty House—at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands. The treaty was signed by representatives acting on behalf of the British Crown and, initially, about 45 Māori chiefs.Over the course of the next seven months, copies of the treaty were toured around the country to give other chiefs the opportunity to sign. The signing had the effect of securing British sovereignty over the islands of New Zealand, which was officially proclaimed on 21 May 1840.
Prior to 1934, most celebrations of New Zealand’s founding as a colony were held on 29 January, the date on which William Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands to issue the proclamation of his appointment, which had been prepared by colonial office officials in England. Hobson had no draft treaty. From the British perspective the proclamation was the key legal document, “what the treaty said was less important”.
In 1932, Governor-General Lord Bledisloe and his wife purchased and presented to the nation the run-down house of James Busby, where the treaty was initially signed. They subsequently donated GB£500 to restore the building. The Treaty House and grounds were made a public reserve, which was dedicated on 6 February 1934. This event is considered to be the first Waitangi Day.
In 1940, another event was held at the grounds, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the treaty signing. The event was a success and helped raise the profile of the treaty and its day of observance in the national consciousness.
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 pōwhiri, a ceremonial welcome), and speeches from a range of Māori and Pākehā dignitaries.
Proposed as 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
Norman Kirk and a Māori boy on Waitangi Day, 1973
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.