Arguing about New Zealand’s founding Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 174th anniversary of New Zealand’s founding as a Crown Colony, when Hone Heke became the first of around 40 Maori to sign a treaty with the British government at Waitangi (‘Weeping Waters’).

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Copies of the Treaty were subsequently taken around the country, and about 540 Maori subsequently signed. Today the Treaty of Waitangi is upheld as a founding document. Like most ‘founding documents’ it’s also grown with us. Today we uphold the Treaty as a definition of race relations – a device for establishing the relationship between two peoples, buoyed on ‘principles’, developed in the 1980s, which guide the way claims by Maori against the Crown are analysed and settled.

It is also terribly divisive. Arguments always flare at Waitangi and the associated Te Ti marae on the day – down to mud being thrown (literally) at dignitaries. Meanwhile, nay-sayers deny it’s valid – particularly a lunatic fringe of ‘Celtic’ evangelists who think they have found a ‘real’ version in the drawer of a bureau in an auction house. These fruit-loops trawl the Treaty, word by word, for literal meaning they twist to suit their own agenda. On what I’ve seen of their rantings, they don’t have the slightest understanding of historiographic methodology. Still less any acceptance of the context of the Treaty as a living document. If they were in a class I was teaching on history – or philosophy, or logic – they’d get an F.

The reality is that the Treaty has become part of New Zealand’s cultural fabric – an evolving, current concept that far transcends its humble historic origins.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.
Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Back in 1839, when the Treaty was first mooted, the Treaty wasn’t envisaged as a colossal nation-founding treatise at all. It was a quick and cheap expedient for meeting an immediate need.

The problem the Colonial Office faced was that New Zealand was off the beaten track – it had little economic value. But white crime was rife, leaking out of Sydney. Ex-convicts and other pakeha (white people) in New Zealand thumbed their noses at British law. Then former kidnapper Edward Gibbon Wakefield decided the place would make a perfect venue for the socially ideal society he envisaged.

From the Colonial Office perspective it was a perfect storm. Crown Law had to be established. But the Treasury wasn’t prepared to fund it – meaning that colony by treaty with Maori, as a cheap alternative, gained ground. This idea keyed into Church Missionary Society thinking, in the ascendant at the time.

I've covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.
I’ve covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.

New Zealand consequently became the only British colony set up by treaty. But it was done with terrible haste. William Hobson, the naval commander sent to undertake the task, didn’t know whether the colony should cover all the New Zealand islands, or just Northland where contact with Maori principally existed at the time. That was still being debated when he rushed to the Bay of Islands on board HMS Rattlesnake and met local British officials – the Resident, James Busby; and CMS head Henry Williams.

The short three-clause treaty that followed was hastily written and badly translated – there is evidence that Williams was given the wrong version to turn into Maori, and his translation of that was sloppy.

The  first clause repudiated the ‘Declaration of Independence’ of 1835, by which Busby tried to get Maori to enforce law over Britain’s wayward ex-convicts. The other two clauses  were designed to get land sales under control – and set up the colony. Maori had been falling victim to private deals during 1839 which, by British law, had the appearance of scams. Hence Maori were guaranteed possession of what they had – until they sold it to the British.

The lot fell foul of cultural differences. None of the British officials were sure Maori understood the distinction between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘chieftainship’, and the wording that emerged – which never made it into the Maori version – wasn’t clear.

It’s from this that a lot of the debate has since generated about the Treaty – but at the time it was a product of mis-fired good intentions. And, as I say, things have evolved since. As they should.

The story of how it was signed – which was only accidentally on 6 February – and the subsequent fate of the actual parchment signed that day almost exactly matches the way we’ve conceptualised it, culturally – but that’s another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, fun with science, and more. Watch this space.

11 thoughts on “Arguing about New Zealand’s founding Treaty

    1. History is an amazing subject – not least because, by knowing where we have been, we can better understand how we’ve got to where we are today, and why today is as it is. And history gets reinvented, quite often, with each new generation – often on the back of new perceptions and new questions that arise.


  1. I’m with Prof. Duke.

    You allude to something that has a parallel in US history regarding treaties with the Plains Indians, and that’s how cultural differences and expectations impact understanding in translation. My understanding is the Plains Indian notion of property ownership in land, as opposed to the English version in US law, were two wholly different things; basically, the Plains Indians thought all they were ceding were hunting rights. (Don’t take my word for it, I’m not an expert.)

    Ah, the eternal tail-chasing fun of (re-) interpreting words written generations past — but what sort of “Celtic” evangelists (neo-Druids?) are you dealing with?

    Interesting post!


    1. There are very close parallels between New Zealand’s colonial-age history and the way the same forces unfolded in the US (and, for that matter, elsewhere). It was all symptomatic of the expansion of “Europe” – its culture – across the world in the nineteenth century. The ideologies of this colonial drive were closely linked in all these disparate places. A diaspora without parallel in the history of the world – an extraordinary movement that historians, to my knowledge, haven’t really explored properly yet.

      Part of the problem – certainly in New Zealand – has been that the ‘post-colonial’ establishment historical view that emerged in the late 1980s didn’t transcend the parameters of colonialism. More often than not, it simply reversed it as a device for demonising old ideologies. That exploration was necessary, but I always felt it wasn’t adequately handled. The cause, in part, was a ‘status race’ among university historians to be seen to be most angst-ridden and personally guilty over behaviours of people 150 years earlier. Those who failed to toe the ‘party line’ risked being ostracised. (I say this on personal experience of being part of that community in the early 1980s, as a student).

      I published my assessment of the way post-colonial thinking framed academic history, via the work of a specific historian, here:

      The historian, Judith Binney, responded, during interview, which unfortunately isn’t online other than in summary::

      Tragically, she passed away in 2011.

      Unfortunately, one result of the profile that post-colonial academic history has gained here, has been a backlash from people outside the academic field..

      The Celtic loonies are probably the most extreme of them. They’re a tiny handful, but quite noisy, and they peddle a vacuous fantasy about a supposed ‘pre-Maori’ Celtic history in New Zealand, with clear contemporary agenda. Their denial of the Treaty is consistent with that agenda – and they have been so fervent that when the National Library mounted a mobile exhibition to promote the facts of the Treaty, the exhibition bus was pursued all over the country by a van filled with the Celtic enthusiasts, waving placards and banners calling the Treaty a ‘fraud’. Pathetic. But at least it made it pretty obvious what they were actually up to.


      1. I don’t think there’s a lot of purpose to “demonizing” the past and the ideologies of the past. I’ve always thought the implicit subtext was, “Of course, WE TODAY are SO much better than that.” Well, maybe. But I think it would be more interesting to see what people think stripped of rhetoric and rationalization; what motivated them at the time, regardless of what we think of those motivations today. I can, for example, respect the sense of duty and honor impelling my ancestors to serve in the Army of the Confederacy; I can only deplore the cause for which they fought, and hope, sincerely, that we really are better people now. I feel no guilt over their actions for a very simple reason: I wasn’t there, and it wasn’t me.

        Liked your article. I thought it interesting that Ms. Binney’s source material was collected as part of one side of a legal process; although my own training in that direction was to look at both sides of an issue to assess it for strengths and weaknesses.


        1. Thanks. Gives a glimpse into some of the professional stuff I do too – I confess I veer into whimsy, somewhat, on this blog… 🙂 The ‘treaty settlement’ process here is specifically judicial, and historians hired to collect evidence do so on the basis of cases for the prosecution. I was involved myself in the 1990s, at least until I had a humongous run-in with one of the organisations. The problem I had was that I wasn’t a ‘hired gun’, and to me their requirement stood against the balanced parameters of purely intellectual history – a point I am far from alone in making, here – and for me (and a few others) the problem comes when those ‘prosecution cases’ are used to represent broader history written without that underlying purposes. You’re quite right: we must accept, understand, even respect past characters, for the most part, for showing integrity relative to the values of their own time. They are not our values, and we wouldn’t do the same ourselves, of course. But we can’t deny what they did; and if we understand their reasons – in their own terms – we can better understand what was happening then…and maybe avoid making the same mistakes today. It’s what history is about!


  2. Fantastic post! You’ve done a brilliant job summarizing what is obviously a complicated but very important part of our history.

    I chuckled at your reference to Edward Wakefield as a kidnapper, those brothers certainly weren’t adverse to scandal – not here and not back at home either! One thing I try to remind myself is that all individuals are flawed, fallible and well, human, and it is easy to forget that when analyzing their decisions, motives and actions one and a half centuries later. Especially when those decisions continue to influence our lives today. We can’t change our past, although some might try to, but we can try to understand it better and use that understanding to move forward together.


    1. Phillip Temple’s 2002 bio of Wakefield, ‘A sort of conscience’, is worth a look if you haven’t read it already. Really digs into the depth of this man and his relatives – complex, flawed, human, multi-layered, constantly wrestling with ethics. An absolutely fascinating read & proof (if we ever needed more) that history is an amazing subject.


  3. We were just saying, as we walked around Devonport enjoying a sorbet in the sunshine, that Waitangi Day has become just a day off and a ‘oh God what are they doing at Waitangi this year?’ rather than a celebration of nationhood. Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually agree on how great life in NZ is and find a way to mark our national day without rancour? Perhaps next February I’ll start a Facebook campaign and see if we can get some positive action!


    1. Sounds good. Waitangi Day’s definitely more divisive than otherwise & I think most of us look on it as a day off rather than anything else. To my mind Anzac Day is more our national day. (Though my effort to switch that to Chunuk Bair day in August got ridiculed in the Sunday Star-Times, among other media, largely because it was so blatantly linked to selling ‘Shattered Glory’…sigh…)

      Sun and sorbets in Auckland? Awww! We’re running half a gale and patchy overcast in Wellington!


Comments are closed.