Waitangi – a living treaty

It’s Waitangi day today – 181 years since a naval captain, William Hobson, and Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi on the lawn of James Busby’s house in the Bay of Islands – a place called Waitangi (weeping water). So the British established a Crown Colony in New Zealand.

Since then the Treaty has remained with us – and evolved. It is a living document. Its current place is crucial: it symbolises a way forwards for New Zealand race relations. It’s important. And it’s necessary. There are plenty of commentaries about this and little need for me to repeat them here – other than to say that the Treaty is a living document, and a good thing too.

The ‘Waitangi’ Treaty parchment – what’s left of it, anyway.

The new social place of the treaty hasn’t come without its problems, of course. There has been a backlash, led by a small fringe group who – a historian friend pointed out – have managed to name themselves after a brand of furniture polish.

Well, they call themselves ‘Hobson’s Pledge’. Allegedly, the halting words in Te Reo that Hobson spoke after each chief signed, ‘now we are one people’, were a ‘pledge’ that validates the entirely contemporary agenda of today’s ‘Pledgers’. That idea is, of course, pure rubbish – an ahistorical fantasy construction these people have placed across the past, casting their own wishes and desires on to events of a very different time and context. The reality is that it was a diplomatic platitude that Hobson was prompted to say by Henry Williams, at a time when the practical power of the British colony amounted to a couple of constables he had brought with him. It certainly wasn’t a ‘pledge’ to suit the agenda of people in his unknown and unimagined future.

As far as I can tell the Furniture Polish brigade have problems with where New Zealand society has gone in the past thirty-odd years, for which they appear to blame current historians. Certainly the the last time I had any dealings with them I got dumped on by an avalanche of all the rage, hatred and anger they could muster – personally blamed, it appeared, for the problems the Pledgers have with modern society. Their answer to their problem is to return to the race-relations model of seventy or eighty years ago, when the Treaty had a very different meaning. And they validate it variously by re-running the historical interpretations of the 1890s – which is where that model began – and by misusing historical data, all in ignorance of the basic principles of historical methodology. If they were in a history class I was teaching, they’d get an F.

History, of course, cannot be wound back. And society always changes. Some within that society might not like the way it has changed – but they have to accept it.

If you want to check out the historiography of the Treaty, my book on the Treaty is available here. Click to buy.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

7 thoughts on “Waitangi – a living treaty

  1. 181 years…and Australia still doesn’t have a single treaty with our First Peoples. My state and a couple? of others are in the process of negotiating a treaty – for our state – but Australia as a whole?
    -makes rude noise-
    I cannot tell you how angry that makes me. Go NZ!

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    1. I think NZ was lucky. There was a ‘window’ in the generation after the end of the Napoleonic wars in which the Church Missionary Society gained influence in the Colonial Office, where the Treasury was deeply penurious, and where nobody wanted NZ as a colony; but where crime was ‘leaking’ out of NSW, Vic and Tasmania into the place. The combination led to the Treaty of Waitangi. But the attitudes didn’t last – I put the shift away from a ‘softer’ empire down to the Indian uprising of 1857-58, particularly, which triggered a distinct ‘hardening’ of British attitudes to Empire. Colonialism, like all human constructs, had its dimensions – mostly generational. (My book on the Treaty contained a significant reinterpretative element that included these points – it’s been picked up as required reading in a couple of universities, which is great. Outside there, nobody’s noticed…)

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      1. Forgive my ignorance but…why was New Zealand colonised in the first place? Obviously not as a penal settlement, the way we were. Back when I was at school, I don’t think NZ was even mentioned. Clearly though, terra nullius didn’t apply there.
        See the contrast between our settlement history and what I’ve picked up from you, the differences are quite stark.


        1. It’s a long(ish) story – first there was ‘leakage’ from the penal colonies in NSW and Tasmania, coupled with merchant adventurers attempting to trade with Maori, coupled with a deliberate effort to make the Bay of Islands a resupply point for the cross-Pacific trade from Sydney. Then, in the late 1830s, a convicted kidnapper named Edward Gibbon Wakefield got backing to establish a private-enterprise settlement. The scheme was fraudulent: they began by selling land they didn’t have title to. But they actually got it going. The Colonial Office was already under pressure to extend British law to New Zealand in order to bring the merchants and miscreants under control, and the Wakefield scheme essentially nailed the point. The British government wasn’t going to allow a British colony to exist outside the reach of British law. But they really weren’t otherwise interested in NZ. One of the factors behind the treaty was that, apart from anything else, it was meant to bring Maori in on side as an adjunct to running the colony as cheaply as possible. Nobody, I suspect, expected it to actually work long-term. And the Wakefield scheme didn’t – they were bankrupt within a few years. But by then one thing had led to another, and there was little option but to keep going with the colony.

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          1. Oh! So New Zealand was a kind of…no man’s land in the beginning? Or maybe I should call it grassroots colonisation?

            When you say ‘bringing the Maori in’ does that mean as a source of labour?

            Btw – I just tried to find Waitangi on amazon.com and can only find a paperback version. No ebook? Also the paperback is showing as currently unavailable. Freyberg is showing as out of stock. I wonder if this is more of the ‘can’t ship to Australia’ nonsense. :/

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            1. Apropos ‘bringing the Maori in’ – a bit ambiguous, the intent was to establish a Crown colony with their free agreement. It caused a lot of trouble when the Treaty was offered because nobody could agree whether Maori understood the terms, which included sale of land.

              ‘Freyberg’ is actually out of stock – it sold out and is being reprinted (I discover it got on the best-seller list here… I hadn’t actually noticed…) Should be available within a couple of weeks, all going well. ‘Waitangi’ should be available now, it’s in print, but it’s possible the publisher hasn’t been able to get it recently distributed to Amazon. They didn’t do an e-book edition. It can be bought direct from the publisher: https://www.batemanbooks.co.nz/product/waitangi-a-living-treaty-2019/

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              1. Thanks Matthew. Unfortunately my eyesight is getting to the point where I need the larger font of the Kindle. Perhaps you could tell the publisher that some people prefer ebooks. 😉

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