New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.
Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.
Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

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. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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6 thoughts on “New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

  1. So interesting. I hadn’t thought of a connection like that, but it all makes sense. Many many years ago there was a PBS broadcast entitled “Connections” with James Burke. Many of these episodes about curious historical connections are quite funny. One that sticks in my mind is the doctor in Louisiana who’s trying to cure Malaria. He thinks the problem is heat. He creates a machine to make his patients cooler. It doesn’t help the Malaria, but he did invent the first air conditioner!

    I think it isn’t too often that a native people “invited” westerners into their lands right? It usually meant bad things for the native peoples. I guess this time the British actually helped out!

    1. I had Burke in mind when I wrote this – not an approach ‘conventional history’ takes, but important because we never know what insights might follow by exploring linkages beyond the usual ones academic historians get taught.

      The Treaty of Waitangi was unique, worldwide – product of a brief ‘window’ in British history between the ‘white plague’ epoch (when colonial Europe literally delivered smallpox-riddled blankets to indigenous people, enslaved them and so forth) and the ‘imperial militarism’ of the later nineteenth century (when, for instance, a handful of British Maxim gunners defeated an army of Matabele warriors armed with spears). It didn’t mean the Colonial Office of the late 1830s shared modern post-colonial attitudes, of course.

      I’ve looked into it in a good deal of detail in several of my books. My take is that there was a generation, after the Napoleonic Wars, who were quite idealistic – driven by war-weariness and as a reaction to the turmoil of industrialisation, among other things. It faded. The problem with the Treaty itself was that what Maori thought they were getting, and what they actually got, were two quite different things.

      The story of the actual Treaty parchment is interesting, too – forgotten, rat-eaten, and finally found and preserved. I really must blog on it. Suffice to say, it’s held in Archives New Zealand and due to be transferred to our National Library. The cost of re-housing it has been budgeted at $7 million. I thought I might offer to transfer it myself for (say) half that sum. After all, it’s only 150 yards between the two buildings…

  2. Very interesting connection! Perhaps we should be letting fireworks off too… (any excuse).

    Out of curiosity, and a little bit off topic, but do you know of any examples where there was friction between British and American crews in early 19th century New Zealand? From what I recall, I read that the Americans scaled back NZ whaling operations during the War of 1812 but I’d be interested to know if there were any close calls during that period, or after.

    1. I don’t have any info to hand on that one, unfortunately. I know there was at least one instance where a British ship ran into a French one here in the early 19th century, when they were technically at war – but because of the speed of communications, the French didn’t know. Not sure about the Americans.

  3. Wonderful post, Matthew and frankly, a breath of fresh air regarding the celebration going on in the States today. There was a time that I celebrated this day but these past years are ones of grave concern. Having launched one rant here, I will not launch another. Your point about the Industrial Revolution is one I don’t think many people realize and as I read through that paragraph, the parallels to today’s issues are quite evident. Thanks, again, for yet another fresh view of history.

    1. I find it very useful to approach history from a different perspective. It’s one of the reasons, I think, that the academic community here have a default response of public hostility and worth-denial – all, needless to say, pursued without my being done the courtesy of a personal approach – whenever I publish anything in their field. Even when studying it at university I found my approach, which came from a science background, clashed with the way the history fraternity (typically the arts or English lit) approached the field. I finally found myself ‘in line’ with it post-grad when I was taught by Peter Munz, a student of Karl Popper – who basically invented the philosophy of modern science. But Munz’s teachings were regarded as weird by the rest of the conventional history fraternity! I guess, ultimately, we find our own paths in life.

      The Industrial Revolution fascinates me – even now, we don’t really understand quite why it happened, or the mechanisms behind the social change. The main stumbling block is that our frameworks of understanding, today, are framed by it. And, as you say, it is very clear that much of the socio-economic change happening today – which we might consider the ‘third’ Industrial Revolution – parallels it. And, I think, for good reason; those unchanged frameworks of thinking, and the way they intersect with human nature.

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