Waitangi Day 2020

It’s 180 years since a treaty was signed outside the Resident’s House in the Bay of Islands by which Maori ceded sovereignty to the British crown. It remains the only such treaty in the world; the British signed many treaties with many peoples, but none involved a cession of sovereignty.

Of course, the question remains whether Maori knew that this is what they were signing over. The version in Te Reo Maori, which was read out, didn’t actually say so.

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, when the main debates over the Treaty were held on the lawn outside.

Into that mix is the fact that the Treaty itself has had an evolving meaning through the past 180 years in any case. The usual social consensus today – in which the Treaty is seen as an instrument of partnership between two peoples – differs, sharply, from that of 70 or 80 years ago where it was viewed by the dominant (Pakeha) culture as a device for defining their own nationhood.

The fact that the Treaty has always been as much a socially-mediated construct as a legal document is something that has been difficult to reconcile. The dissonance lies at the heart of much of the dispute and debate about the Treaty today. And that debate can get quite emotional.

I discovered that first hand a couple of years ago when I suggested that a lobby group trying to undo the present place of the Treaty – by speciously picking over selected historical data to fit their current agenda – would get an F in any class I was teaching. The result was a violent explosion of abuse from total strangers in this group, who erupted at me with all the anger they could muster, dumping the whole of their hatred of the way society has changed on to me, personally. I was solely and exclusive the cause of their problems, it seems, and the frenzy went on for weeks. I was abused, stalked, sworn at, doxed online, defamed and more. I came close to laying a police complaint about the more egregious of them. Ouch.

In fact, of course, the Treaty is as much a social entity as a legal one. I explored that evolution of social meaning from 1840 to the present in my book Waitangi: A Living Treaty. It’s since been picked up as recommended reading in at least one university, and it’s available right now in all good New Zealand bookshops. Or direct from the publisher. Check it out.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

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