Waitangi Treaty Grounds historic precinct
Waitangi Treaty Grounds is part of the Tentative list of New Zealand in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds historic precinct is New Zealand’s pre-eminent historic site, and commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori and the British Crown in 1840. The British components of the site consist of the Treaty House, New Zealand’s first pre-cut building, and a flagpole marking where the treaty was signed. The Maori components consist of Te Whare Runanga, a traditionally carved meeting house, and Ngatoki Matawhaorua, a 35-meter canoe, both constructed for the centennial observation of the signing of the treaty.
Map of Waitangi Treaty Grounds historic precinctLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 at what is now called Te Pitowhenua Waitangi Treaty Grounds, perhaps Aotearoa New Zealand’s most important historical site. How the principles of this document are acknowledged and even embedded in schools, public offices, and workplaces reflects its fundamental importance. It is also registered in UNESCO Memory of the World. I visited the site in April 2022, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to write a quick review since the last and only review was written a decade ago.
I took a 3-hour InterCity bus from Auckland to Paihia. This town is also an ideal base for exploring the Bay of Islands and the neighboring Kerikeri Basin Historic Precinct, another tentative UNESCO WHS site. Across Paihia is the town of Russell, the country's first capital. I visited the site on a sunny afternoon, and it was a pleasant 30-minute stroll from Paihia Wharf. Visitors may buy the ticket online (currently NZ$60 for international adult visitors, free for kids), though I chose to just buy at the visitor center. The ticket includes a guided tour of the site and a Māori cultural show, both of which have fixed schedules per day.
To the left of the visitor center is the Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi, a small but gorgeous building that provides visitors with the historical background of the site. Visitors walk through bushes and canopies before arriving at an open shelter that contains the Ngātokimatawhaorua ceremonial waka. This canoe was built to commemorate the centenary of the document’s signing. A track leads to the main grounds, which have a wonderful view of the bay and the islands. The following structures are found on the main grounds:
- Te Whare Rūnanga – a building resembling a marae (gathering place) where cultural shows are performed and the guided tours start. I recommend visitors to see the show to get the most out of the expensive ticket, and attend the guided tour as it was very informative (my favorite part of the visit)! Note the elaborate Māori wood carvings in and out of the building. At the time of my visit, our tour started right after the cultural show.
- Pou Haki flagstaff – considered the very spot where the Treaty was signed.
- Te Whare Tiriti (see photo) – known as the Treaty House, this was the British Governor’s official residence at the time. If my notes serve me right, several furniture and decorative items are original despite undergoing major restoration and renovation work over the years.
- Te Rau Aroha Museum of the Price of Citizenship – a museum that I was not able to visit, unfortunately.
The guided tour ended at the waka, and we were given the option to either continue roaming around the grounds or take the Camelia walking track back to the visitor center. I finished what turned out to be a fun and informative visit just before the site closed at 5pm.
In certain aspects (and from a non-expert opinion), I cannot help but compare Waitangi Treaty Grounds with the following sites:
- Independence Hall – both sites are places where documents of national importance were signed. But does the Treaty of Waitangi have substantial and/or profound influence beyond the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand, just like the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution did?
- Landscape of Grand Pré – both sites erected monuments to mark the spot of historical events, and many built structures were either constructed after the event or significantly altered over time, though Waitangi reasons that it has a high degree of authenticity and integrity.
With these, I think that Waitangi Treaty Grounds would have a hard time satisfying even criterion 6. However, one may remain hopeful given that the site has been recently recognized as the country’s first national historical landmark, augmenting its already solid management and protection plans.
As for the pricing that Solivagant raised, it's indeed quite expensive but I guess I just got used to it here as an international student. In any case, the practice of differentiated pricing is not unique to (and common in) Aotearoa New Zealand.
The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 is presented as THE significant event in the creation of the New Zealand as it exists today - that country’s “founding document”! In recent years the Treaty has undergone something of a “resurrection” in NZ after a long period of being ignored or, at best, “honoured” in theory as the moral basis for colonialisation and an example of how race relations should be conducted in colonial situations. More recently it has been the means through which NZ has tried to address the residual problems of its relationship with the Maori people. Despite its issues of interpretation and legal uncertainties it is generally promoted as having been a “good thing” even to the extent of making its day of signing a National Holiday. As such it is hardly surprising that the location where it happened is something of a “national shrine” for New Zealanders. But us that enough to make it suitable as a WHS? And is it worth visiting anyway if you are a non-New Zealander?
There are very few WHS sites inscribed primarily because of what happened there – and, where there are, they tend to be of “World significance – e.g Hiroshima and Auschwitz. Also, the WH Convention requires that there be tangible remains with OUV rather than merely a metaphysical link to the event – however important. Leaving aside whether the signing of the treaty was a “world significant” event, what are the “tangible remains” of the event? Well there is a replica flag staff in approximately the original position in the open grassy area where the events took place (photo). There is a 35 metre long Maori canoe (Waka) built in 1940 whose boat house is just outside the “Historic Precinct” (but would presumably be inscribed anyway although “movable” heritage can’t be considered for WHS status). There is a Maori meeting house also built in 1940 to celebrate the centenary of the Treaty. This functions as a Maori “national marae” to be shared by all Maori tribes. And finally there is the “Treaty House” – the British Residency. This had been built as early as 1833/4 and was the location for early meetings but the full discussions with the assembled tribes took place in a tent in front of this house. The house itself was altered in the 1840s and heavily restored in 1932 after falling into disrepair. Inside, the interior wall of one room has been cleared of plaster etc to reveal an original exterior wall.
The site is pleasantly situated on a rise overlooking the Bay of Islands and stretches down towards the beach where the Maori canoe is housed. Beyond the cleared areas there is “virgin” New Zealand bush. The area around is well worth visiting if you are in Northland but I can’t say I was impressed with the site itself. The first negative was the entry fee – a whopping NZ$25 pp (over 15 Euro!!) but FREE to New Zealand residents. You would think that NZ would want to show off its National shrine to overseas visitors or at least wouldn’t discriminate against them! But in fact it seems that overseas visitors actually have to subsidise New Zealanders! NZ isn't exactly a "poor" country with justifiable reason to charge "rich" tourists a premium. A problem is that the site is owned and run by the private “Waitangi Trust”.
And what do you get for your money? Well there is a new Visitor Centre in a nice building. It shows a rather ordinary audio visual but otherwise is primarily a souvenir shop. There is then a “Rainforest” walkway through the bush and up to the grounds and the buildings. You are then able to enter the meeting house and meet a couple of Maoris in national costume and finally you can visit the “Treaty House” itself. It is a pleasant little period house and garden but rather underwhelming in the great scheme of things. Now there is a public path around the grounds along the “cliff top” – so, if you just want to see the grounds, flagstaff and buildings from the outside, take in the Canoe and miss the Visitor Centre you can easily do so for free! I might say that I like NZ and would recommend it as a destination so, go up to Bay of Islands by all means but the Treaty Grounds can easily be missed out at these rip-off prices!
And what about the WHS credentials of the site – well, as implied above I just can’t see the case.
2007 Added to Tentative List
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