Thinking about Waitangi as a living treaty

It’s Waitangi day – the 178th anniversary of the day when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the Bay of Islands, establishing a basis for the British to establish a colony – and assert Crown law – across New Zealand. In the broadest context this colony was part of a much wider explosion of western culture across the world, including through the US frontier, at the same time. Indigenous people were, effectively, swept aside. Only in New Zealand was a treaty signed by which the indigenous Maori surrendered sovereignty by agreement – and where they were guaranteed particular rights. It was, and remains, unique.

Whether Maori at the time realised quite what this meant is a moot point; the issues of ‘talking past each other’ prevailed and the issue of whether sovereignty had been actually relinquished has been seriously explored of late, and for good reason.

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.

My book on the Treaty was released a couple of weeks ago and has had a good deal of media coverage so far, including in the print/online mainstream news media, on TV, and through multiple radio interviews, including one today.

I figure the treaty is more than just a historical document; it’s a living idea. One that New Zealand has picked up and run with in various ways since it was signed. Because society has changed, often dramatically, over the period, so too, therefore, has the place and meaning of the Treaty. This also means that we cannot simply trawl history for literal words of the day as devices for discrediting the current socially shared ideas about the Treaty, as some of the so-called ‘backlash’ brigade have been doing.

To really explore this in all its aspects and meanings, go check out the book. But briefly, in the nearly 18 decades since it was signed the Treaty has been many things. It went from a solemn legal compact in 1840 – which the Colonial Office instructed its administrators to scrupulously follow – to a ‘nullity’ by 1878. It soon fell into the background, considered by the 1890s as a curiosity whose race-relations aspects had long since been superseded by other laws.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed elsewhere in New Zealand (likely also the Bay of Islands). New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

After a while it was reinvented as a symbol of New Zealand’s founding – meaning the British colony. But it took a while; it didn’t gain full pace as such until 1940, the centenary. Did Maori get a look in? Not at all. Again, there was the notion that Maori had been provided for through other means.

That changed again in the 1970s with the advent of the ‘baby boomers’, the ‘generation gap’ and new ways of thinking. In one of the few real discontinuities of western history, a new generation worldwide looked for new ideas, new ways of doing things. New Zealand was part of that mix. In particular, older colonial-age ideas were rejected in favour of more inclusive approaches that gave indigenous peoples overdue recognition.

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Today it is central once again to the idea of race relations, symbolic of a new partnership, and brought up to date with a series of principles around which the idea can be interpreted. And my argument, in the book, is that we need to embrace this as society continues to change into the unknown future.

Will this happen? We’ll see. Meanwhile, check out the book – available at all good bookstores, or online.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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