Treaty of Waitangi and the Navy

Learn about the Navy’s involvement in Treaty of Waitangi events including the Charter that was presented to the RNZN On February 6 1990 at the 150th centennial for the Treaty of Waitangi.


Captain William Hobson RN was appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand in 1840, with the task of negotiating for British sovereignty over the territory.  He arrived in the Bay of Islands on 30th January 1840 in the frigate HMS Herald, commanded by Captain Joseph Nias, RN.  One of Hobson’s first duties was to conclude a treaty with Maori, the indigenous people.  Using the HMS Herald as his initial base, Hobson consulted with the British Resident, James Busby, and resident missionaries.  Busby’s proposed changes were accepted with some modifications, and the English language version of the treaty was drafted.  The Reverend Henry Williams translated it into Maori. Hobson was chosen it seems because of his experience with NZ in 1836. By the time the huihuienga began in front of Busby’s residence at Waitangi on 5th February, HMS Herald’s ship’s company had raised a large marquee ashore made from sails and decorated it with international flags.  HMS Herald‘s officers accompanied Hobson during the negotiations.  The first signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi were affixed on 6th February 1840.  Bad weather intervened, so it was the 8th before HMS Herald could dress ship and fire a 21-gun salute.  Hobson went south to the Waitemata Harbour on HMS Herald to negotiate with tribal leaders further south.

Marking the Event

The first national observance of the Treaty of Waitangi marked the 50th Anniversary, on 6th February 1890.  There was a gathering at Waitangi and on the Te Tii Marae, and a Grand Ball in Russell that night.  The band from HMS Opal supplied the music.  The Navy has played an important role at all Treaty of Waitangi commemorations since then. This event also reinforces and reminds us of the intimate link between the Royal Navy and New Zealand. Captain Bob Price RNR supervised the rigging and erection of a 93-foot flagstaff for the Treaty ground prior to the ceremonies on 6th February 1934, when Lord Bledisloe officially gifted the land to the nation.  Lord and Lady Bledisloe, the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. G.W. Forbes, 60 members of both Houses of Parliament, and two Australian representatives were present.  King Koroki Te Rata Mahuta, 5000 Maori from local and southern tribes, and a delegation of ariki from Rarotonga attended the occasion. HMS Dunedin and Diomede arrived on the morning of the 5th February and provided shore parties.  The Parliamentary delegation was received on to the marae on the morning of the 5th.  Their Excellencies followed at 1430, landing by boat at Tii Point to the accompaniment of a 21-gun salute from HMS Dunedin.

On the 6th, Their Excellencies arrived at the Treaty House at 1415, ‘[p]receded by the bands of HMS Ships Dunedin and Diomede playing a stirring tune and leading a company of sailors marching with fixed bayonets …’ After meeting members of the Waitangi Trust Board ‘Lord Bledisloe immediately proceeded to the flagstaff, where the naval guard, now drawn up in parade order, presented arms, and the band played the time-honoured National Anthem.  A brisk inspection of the guard followed, after which His Excellency … released the Union Jack at the masthead’. In 1937 a party from HMS Achilles affected ‘certain repairs to the flagpole’, but no other maintenance was done over following years. The Centenary celebration in 1940 was a subdued affair because of the war, but the Governor-General Lord Galway was present and the ship’s company of HMS Leander participated in a simple ceremony.  A detachment from the Maori Battalion attended, shortly before their departure overseas.  This is the only time an Army unit has paraded at Waitangi. In 1946, after the Navy took responsibility for erecting and maintaining a replacement flagstaff, the Waitangi National Trust resolved that the Navy ‘be invited to carry out any naval ceremonies at the flagpole which it deems’. A team from the Naval Base erected the flagstaff and rigged it naval style with a gaff of 12 feet.  The crown from the ensign staff of the veteran cruiser HMNZS Philomel was placed at the truck, 112 feet high.  The mast has been maintained annually by the RNZN from that time.

The Navy inaugurated a ceremony on 6th February 1947 that was not intended to commemorate the signing of the Treaty, but instead the service of New Zealand’s first Naval Governor.  There was no Maori ceremonial and no government presence.  In a simple ceremony, sailors raised the Union Flag before some 1,200 spectators.  The Chief of Naval Staff made an address; this practice continued until 1959.

The most important charter given to the RNZN is at Waitangi. On February 6 1990 at the 150th centennial for the Treaty of Waitangi, a Charter was presented to the RNZN that conferred on it ‘… the right and privilege, without further permission being obtained, of marching at all times with drums beating, bands playing, colours flying, bayonets fixed and swords drawn through the lands of the Tai Tokerau, especially the Treaty Grounds’. It cemented a relationship between the Navy and the Tai Tokerau which pre-dated nationhood. This honour was bestowed upon the Navy at a special ceremony conducted in 1990 which extends special privileges to naval visitors in the Far North. Then the ceremony has changed from 1960 to the present sequence of events that the RNZN participates in today.  In the past 70 years Governor Generals, HM Queen Elizabeth, Prime Ministers and Minister of the Crown have enjoyed the hospitality of the RNZN. The RNZN has sent many different vessels from its fleet over the years from Motor Launches, Diving tenders to our frigates, and the MRV HMNZS Canterbury. In 2015 the RNZN will mark the 175th commemoration of the Treaty signing. The RNZN will be represented by the Anzac-class frigate HMNZS Te Mana.