Yes, the meanings of the past DO change

I featured in the national media yesterday, subject of a personality profile piece to highlight my latest book, Waitangi: A Living Treaty. It was kind of cool. The feature was syndicated across several of the major national daily papers, and online – here.

The basic idea of the book is that the Treaty is a living entity – more than just the piece of paper signed in 1840. It has become a socially-mediated construct, an idea that in the past 30 years has become central to New Zealand’s establishment and to the social and conceptual reinvention of itself. This is a long way from the original meaning of the Treaty – which was a hasty document intended to meet an immediate political need within the British Empire.

To become as central as it has today, it seemed to me, the idea of it had to have changed through time. So I had a look. And it had – radically. I explored exactly why this happened in the book, and to me it’s a prime example of how a historical document or moment can transcend its origins and become something much more – a concept, an idea, a shared belief. From the social perspective, this is by far the most important aspect because it means that although the specifics of the original document may well have been superseded, the concept of having it remains alive and is evolving with society.

To me it’s obvious, and it doesn’t require us to try and reconcile or rationalise the dissonances between the literal words and intent of the Treaty as it stood in 1840, and the way it has evolved with us into the twenty-first century. It is from this dissonance that much of the argument of late has flowed, and from where the ‘backlash’ movement have obtained a voice – latching on, for instance, to a few words spoken as a polite post-signing platitude to each chief after they signed by William Hobson. To the modern ‘backlash’ brigade, these words were a solemn ‘pledge’. It is, of course, utterly ahistorical; Hobson had nothing of the sort in mind, and all they are doing is hijacking point-data from the past to support a current political agenda. As I pointed out in an earlier post, if these people were in a history class I was teaching, they’d get an F.

The thing is that we have to draw distinction between the meanings of events at the time, and the way that the product of those events – the Treaty – became an idea and entity of its own, evolving with society through time. It’s an idea that I have found remarkably difficult to get across; I am told, repeatedly, that the past ‘doesn’t change’. No, it doesn’t. But the meanings we attribute to it do, as our own society changes. And in any event, enduring entities such as the Treaty certainly change their shared meaning, because they have a life that runs beyond their own time.

This, incidentally, was something well understood by the US Founding Fathers when they wrote their Constitution. It was intended as an enduring document, to do which they wrote in facility for it to be amended as time went on. The Treaty is not a constitution, but has become similarly enduring as a social pillar. And that, by definition, means it must be a shared and current idea: a living Treaty.

A photo I took in 2011 of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

Let’s consider how that shared meaning has changed, in the broadest brush. The Treaty began life as a document to establish the pakeha state in New Zealand by agreement with Maori, who were meant to have surrendered their sovereignty to Britain. In return they were guaranteed certain key rights. That was the original intent. But it didn’t last – because the idea of the Treaty gained a life well distinct from its paper reality. In a few decades from 1840, the Treaty went from a solemn legal compact with Maori to a ‘nullity’, then was reinvented through the early twentieth century as a founding document for the New Zealand pakeha state.

That shared idea lasted into the 1970s, after which there was a transition into a new shared idea by which the Treaty  became a blueprint for a new race relations approach, framed around the rights it guaranteed Maori. To make it work in the late twentieth century world, one very different from that of 1840 and certainly one never anticipated in detail by Hobson, it was necessary to find ways of re-framing that idea in what became known as the ‘principles’ of the Treaty.

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Obviously I can’t recount the whole argument in every detail in a brief post – for that you’ll need to check out the book. But that, in a nutshell, is pretty much what I am on about. While the past itself can’t change, the way we see it – and the meanings we require of it – certainly do. And I wrote a book about it. Call it an application of post-modernist abstraction to the past. I do.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

5 thoughts on “Yes, the meanings of the past DO change

    1. Or defamation action by me. The same crowd are at it again as a result of the feature article. I don’t mind a fair discussion, but these people excel in putting words in my mouth, condemning me for what they insist I have said, and then invalidating anything I suggest to the contrary. It makes clear what they are, at least.

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