The Treaty of Waitangi and ‘Hobson’s pledge’

I have always thought it ironic that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on 6 February 1840 largely by accident.

If everything had gone according to prospective governor William Hobson’s plans, it would have been signed on 5 February. That was the day Maori assembled outside the house of James Busby at Waitangi to discuss the proposed treaty. But no agreement could be reached and Hobson suggested to Maori that they should re-convene in two days, 7 February.

A photo I took of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right.

In fact, Maori carried on debate that evening at the marae below Busby’s house. Next morning some arrived back outside Busby’s house to sign it. Hobson was called ashore from his ship, HMS Herald, arriving in a morning coat. He refused to allow further debate as it wasn’t a ‘regular meeting’, but he was prepared to receive signatories. And that is why Waitangi Day is 6 February.

The more crucial aspect is the British intent to set up a Crown colony after obtaining sovereignty from Maori by means of a Treaty. It was the first – and last – time Britain did this with indigenous people. Usually they just mowed in and took whatever they wanted, forcing indigenous peoples to submit over time, usually through economic means backed where necessary by military power (this actually happened in New Zealand, too, in the end).

The issue with the Treaty itself is that, like the US Declaration of Independence and their Constitution, the Treaty of Waitangi is considered a founding document for the New Zealand state – and as such is as important today as it was in 1840. It is in the dissonance between historical place and the meanings being currently attributed to the Treaty – notably as a blueprint for putting race relations on a constitutional and legal basis of partnership between equals – that a good deal of recent debate has rested.

The current so-called ‘backlash’ against the revival of the Treaty and of Maori in New Zealand, to me, is epitomised by the ‘Hobson’s Pledge’ fringe movement, whose tagline derives from the fact that as each chief signed on 6 February, Hobson spoke to them in halting Te Reo – ‘he iwi tahi tatou’ (‘now we are one people’), in which he had been coached by Henry Williams. This was a diplomatic platitude, but it has been taken out of context and mis-used for current purpose to validate a contemporary and rather repugnant agenda. It’s completely ahistorical, and as far as I am concerned, if any of these ‘pledge’ advocates were to spout their stuff in a history class I was teaching, I’d give them an ‘F’.

One of the problems with what I’ve seen in most of the ‘backlash’ arguments is that they rest on the supposition that the literal words of historical documents – including the Treaty – determine an immutable and face-value literal truth in today’s terms.  Of course this is not so – documents have to be understood in context of their time; and also have to be seen in terms of the purpose for which they were written, who wrote them, what the issues were when writing them, and so forth. What perspective do they capture? How do they capture it?

As just one example, the main record we have of events on 6 February 1840 was penned by William Colenso. Can we consider it complete and accurate, as he insisted? Let’s consider the context. He wrote it in 1890 on the basis of partial notes he made 50 years earlier. They are partial; other accounts reveal things Colenso didn’t. That’s inevitable, of course; he was but one observer. What’s more, his purpose when doing so in 1890 was to curry favour with the Anglican synod as part of an attempt to get himself reinstated in the church after being thrown out of it in the mid-1840s; so he up-played the role of the Church Missionary Society on the day which approached farcical levels during the Treaty ceremony as they tussled for status against the Catholic mission under Jean Baptiste Pompallier. Colenso’s words have to be seen in this sense – and his pamphlet has been subject to at least one academic analysis, designed to identify its veracity and biases.

Te Rauparaha, who signed the Treaty of Waitangi twice. From

The fundamental issue is that societies change over time – and the shared social meaning of a document upheld as central to that society, such as the Treaty, changes with it. The process is organic, not planned. However, the Treaty’s drafters – Hobson, Freeman, Busby, Williams and a few others who managed to poke their fingers into the pie during the frenetic first few days of February 1840 –  could not anticipate their future. Nor was that their purpose: they had an immediate need in mind. Worse, they were all – as Felton Mathew observed at the time – busily trying to pursue their own agendas at the expense of the others.

That process of re-invention to fit changing society has been ongoing as far as the Treaty is concerned; as the values and ideals of society have changed, so too have the meanings attributed to the Treaty. If we look at the place of the Treaty through New Zealand’s history, we find it has undergone that change and adaptation continuously since 1840. And there is nothing unusual about nation-founding documents doing this. The US Constitution, for example, is specifically designed to be kept relevant through amendments, some of which undo previous amendments that have become socially obsolete, such as prohibition.

The Treaty, in short, is far more than the document of 1840.  Its reality is as a concept; a dynamic, living entity whose framework and meaning is adapted by each new generation – sometimes consciously, sometimes as a product of the priorities of each new change. It has, in short, transcended the original wording and become an integral part of New Zealand’s self-view, inevitably meaning it must adapt with society through time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


6 thoughts on “The Treaty of Waitangi and ‘Hobson’s pledge’

    1. Thanks! This is an interesting subject for me – the only problem being that the phrase ‘Treaty of Waitangi’ is also a ‘trigger word’ for a very noisy lobby group of non-historians whose response to anything that disputes their version of the Treaty is to personally abuse whoever says it, and then deny the right of their target to engage in a private discussion to resolve the issue. New Zealand has defamation laws, with which I hope they are familiar. But it’s pretty sad – if only people remembered that we are all here, one way or another, to uplift each other. Sigh.

        1. I’m never really sure what motivates them. An emotional sense of fundamental truth relative to their own ideology seems to be part of it – coupled with a failure to abstract their thinking; their first response to any attempt to debate it is to personally attack the author of the discussion.

  1. You’re setting out a minefield for all citizens of NZ concerning your view regarding “”The Treaty”” by implying that the words and meanings can change over time . This is so wrong and leads to conflict and confusion. The “”social meaning”” of a document changes , again this is pure fiction on your part; then again you do it with : “”Re-invention to fit changing society””is another minefield created!

    1. I have to make clear that this is not my personal interpretation, what I am summarising here is the current professional historical view, which has been generally held since the 1980s. It reflects the fact that the idea or concept of a key nation-founding document such as the Treaty of Waitangi can, and will, be shared by any given society; and thus must reflect that. The point of changed meaning over time, as society changed, was underscored in 1987 when Sir Robin Cooke developed a series of principles intended to identify the socially-shared place the Treaty had gained by then. This is not an opinion of mine but documented fact; you can find it here: – scroll down to the downloadable PDF at the bottom, and rather than further debating issues with me, as the messenger, please refer to that organisation in the first instance.

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