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One other reason Māori signed the Treaty: Fear of the French

In brief
  • In 1772 the French and Māori fought, with Māori getting the worst of it.
  • In 1835, Māori chiefs around the Bay of Islands sought British protection to avoid further violence with the French.
  • This set the groundwork for the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.
  • Modern interpretations of this history differ, but the Treaty was clearly a factor in New Zealand avoiding  colonisation by the French.

“France of the South”

According to French naval records from 1772 a sealed glass bottle was buried with  a document claiming the whole of Nouvelle Zelande in the name of France, and renaming us “Australfrance”, or ‘France of the South’.

How that bottle got there is one part of the story of why Māori signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Hospitality, then ambush! 

In 1772, French naval vessels commanded by Marion du Fresne anchored off Moturua in the Bay of Islands and befriended local iwi. For 33 days the French frolicked in a seeming paradise, but on day 34 Māori invited du Fresne and 15 of his men fishing. They never returned. 

A search party of 12 followed but also never came back. One survivor, speared in his side, revealed how the French had been ambushed. A heavily-armed French unit raided a recently abandoned village and found the bodies of du Fresne and his men roasted, some half eaten.

One other reason Māori signed the Treaty: Fear of the French - Centrist
“Mort de Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne dans la baie des Îles”. Image: By Charles Meryon – La France pittoresque, Public Domain

That night, an attacking force of 1,500 Māori warriors (equivalent to two NZDF battalions) launched a sneak, but expected, strike on the French basecamp, defended by only 50 French troops. Despite the overwhelming odds, the French, with their superior weapons, killed around 300 Māori. The remaining 1200 fled, evacuating the island. The French, too, departed without a single further life lost.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend…

Another take on history slams the French for “brutal retaliation”, but the oldest records tell a different story that the French only acted in self defence. In any event, it doesn’t matter for this article which version is correct.

Fast forward to 1835, and with French territories now well established in the Pacific, rumours swirled among iwi that “the tribe of Marion” were returning to exact utu and formalise the French claim on New Zealand.

Chiefs from the Bay of Islands met James Busby, Britain’s official resident here, and they hammered out a Declaration of Independence seeking protection from Britain against the French. They had earlier written a letter to King William IV in England, saying: “We have heard that the tribe of Marian (sic) is at hand coming to take away our land, therefore we pray thee to become our friend and the guardian of these islands”.

A timely move

That declaration set the ground for the Treaty of Waitangi five years later in a race against time: the French were preparing to formally colonise New Zealand and an immigrant ship accompanied by the French navy arrived at Akaroa in 1840 just weeks after the Treaty was signed. 

The migrants settled at Akaroa on Banks Peninsula, but the French realised they were too late to enforce a formal claim without risking war with Britain.

Fast forward to 2024 and woke historians would now have you believe the UK agreed to go to the expense of defending a Māori territory 18,000km from London, and to fully fund Māori into the modern world, without taking sovereignty and whilst giving iwi co-governance over British citizens. 

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