Put it down to the slender number of historians working on this period, or the success of attention-grabbing zealots, but New Zealand's Declaration of Independence - written in October 1835 - has grown to become one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented documents in the country's history.

The background to the agreement is easily assembled. In 1832, the British Government appointed James Busby to become Resident to New Zealand - a position similar in many ways to a diplomatic representative - with no powers to tax, legislate, enforce British law, or do anything much more than somehow try to foster good relations between Maori and Europeans.

Residencies were an inexpensive alternative to annexation, and the British Government hoped that with Busby's appointment, the "New Zealand problem" would no longer occupy as much of its time.

However, Busby soon began to develop his own ideas for New Zealand's future, most of them independent of his superiors in London.

In March 1834, for example, he assembled 25 Northland chiefs to approve a flag for New Zealand trading ships. With no reason to quibble, the British Colonial Office and the Admiralty shrugged their shoulders and acquiesced to this initiative when it was presented to them as a fait accompli.

Busby mistook this for endorsement, and became enthused by the possibilities of Maori chiefs working as a decision-making body. His ambitions for such a development quickened when he received a letter in October 1835 from the eccentric Frenchman, Baron Charles De Thierry, who announced his intention to become "Sovereign Chief" and "Lord and Governor" over New Zealand.

De Thierry's plan was almost farcical, but Busby mistook it for a serious threat to British interests (De Thierry did not reach New Zealand for another two years, by which time the mirage of a French incursion had disappeared from Busby's mind).

His response was to draft the Declaration of Independence and seek chiefs to sign it. On October 28, 1835, 34 chiefs assembled at Waitangi and put their names to the agreement, which declared the nation as an independent state under the designation of the United Tribes of New Zealand, and which vested all sovereign power and authority in the hands of the chiefs who signed up.

Busby hoped that this confederation of chiefs would meet annually to pass laws, and in time, that New Zealand would emerge as a sovereign nation-state, albeit with the British Crown acting as its paternal protector.

The conventional wisdom on the significance of the Declaration has long been that it was some sort of precursor to the Treaty of Waitangi, and even that it was part of the British plan to annex New Zealand.

Claudia Orange noted that the Declaration was "acknowledged" by the British Colonial Office, and that Richard Bourke - the Governor of New South Wales - "commended Busby for his initiative".

However, a closer look reveals that the British Government was far from happy with Busby's capricious initiative. Bourke may have been sympathetic to some of the sentiments in the Declaration, but he rejected all of Busby's requests for practical assistance to make the Declaration work.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the Colonial Office, there was concern that Busby (whom one senior official had recently recommended be dismissed for incompetence) had gone too far, and that a new policy for New Zealand was needed as a corrective.

Bourke's successor, Sir George Gipps, summed up this view, calling Busby's Declaration "a silly as well as an unauthorised act".

By 1838, the Declaration was in tatters anyway. The Confederation of Chiefs found that they had no means of enforcing their decisions and had ceased meeting, while war had broken out between some members.

It was not even acting as a regional goodwill agreement, let alone a national document of constitutional significance.

Then, in 1840, the British Government-backed Treaty of Waitangi finally deprived the Declaration of any lingering meaning or force. That, at least, was the view of British officials, and was consistent with international law at the time.

By almost any measure, the Declaration had been rendered impotent by 1840, and it was rightly consigned to history as little more than a "paper pellet" in the words of Busby's biographer, Eric Ramsden.

However, in recent decades, there have been several attempts at blowing life into this dead agreement. It would be tiresome to catalogue all the examples of various interest groups which have misappropriated text from the Declaration to make claims for asserting Maori sovereignty in the present age.

What is more significant are the misunderstandings on which such arguments are founded, coupled with the fact that in advancing Busby's failed agreement, they are denigrating the much greater significance of the Treaty of Waitangi.

* Dr Paul Moon is professor of history at AUT University. paul.moon@aut.ac.nz