Gerry Te Kapa Coates
Waitangi: A Living Treaty by Matthew Wright (Bateman Books, 2019), 296pp, $39.99
Professor Paul Moon says of the Treaty of Waitangi in his Foreword to this book: ‘The intricate web of colonial policy that was spun in years leading to its signing requires disentangling.’ He notes the Treaty’s evolution and its ‘layers of interpretations and meanings’. Te Tiriti o Waitangi can be seen as a shared idea—or plurality of ideas—one that began in 1840 with 176 words in te reo Māori, 226 words in English; a modest document compared with other founding documents such as the US Declaration of Independence (1337 words) or England’s Magna Carta (4478 words). Today Te Tiriti has morphed into a resolution process dealing with historical grievances as well as more recent issues such as the place of concepts like kaitiakitanga rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone. Te Tiriti has always been attributed with interpretations that stretch beyond the mere meanings of the words.
Do we really need another book in this crowded field? Author Matthew Wright would argue yes, examining ‘the idea of the Treaty’ which he asserts is ‘in many ways the overall history of Aotearoa’s social development, race relations, and the way the Treaty rose, fell and was re-purposed as these factors interplayed’. He says he has taken, of necessity, an ‘unashamedly post-modern angle’ and a more ethnographic approach to both the past and present. Also, ‘this perception of the Treaty as both historical pivot and interpretive lens’ can mask the themes and trends that led up to the Treaty and continued to apply afterwards. He asserts that the ‘socially shared meanings of the Treaty changed—and were differentially held by Māori and Pākehā—across time’. Also that ‘there were good reasons why protesters of the 1970s, both Māori and Pākehā, declared the Treaty a fraud’. No other treaties signed by the British with Indigenous people were quite like Te Tiriti: it was the first and last time Indigenous people had obtained colonial sovereignty by legal contract rather than at the point of a bayonet. Māori oral traditions were not as readily accepted by the colonisers as final absolute truths.
Wright uses the term ‘period thinking’ to describe historical mindsets persisting as ways of looking at issues of the present day. He covers the initial settlement of Aotearoa by migrant Polynesians, probably at the Wairau Bar, as laying to rest fringe ideas of any earlier decisive human settlers. The so-called ‘contact period’ generally began when various misbehaving foreigners—whalers, escaped convicts and missionaries—arrived, and persisted until after the Treaty was signed. Captain Cook’s brief visits had sparked some scientific interest, but any thoughts of colonising Aotearoa took second place to the increasing trade driven from Sydney and Hobart Town and by Māori with produce to trade. This exchange of goods allowed Māori to transform their lifestyles with new technologies such as metal tools. Trade became so important that Māori ‘were prepared to alter an aspect of their culture’, i.e. cannibalism, to avoid damaging trade access. The Church Missionary Society introduced Māori to Christianity around 1814, thinking that ‘if they could educate Indigenous peoples in British ways’ it would help Māori to ‘improve’ their lives.
Wright also examines the early developments of the Pākehā society, the persistent mindset of settlers and issues of their control. James Busby was appointed as Resident in Aotearoa in 1833. One of Busby’s first tasks was to organise a Declaration of Independence—an assertion by Māori of their own sovereignty—and a hui was held at Waitangi in March 1834. But there were other factors at play, and Busby’s assertions had underlying goals and meaning: he wanted to curb the activities of his competing contemporary, the French ‘madman’ de Thierry; he wanted to resolve the issue around which flag would be flown by registered locally built ships as required by law; and at the same time he was also hopeful, based on platitudes from London, that Aotearoa ‘could evolve into a dependency, and perhaps a protectorate’. In mid-1837 Busby was sent on the corvette HMS Rattlesnake to the Bay of Islands, where the Pākeha population had risen to over 2000. Busby described these settlers as the ‘abandoned ruffians from our own country’, some of whom wanted to ‘make a profit by whatever means, fair or foul’ via multiple colonisation companies that were mostly to collapse. Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company got further than most in encouraging colonists, but the problem was that the whole enterprise, notes Wright, ‘pivoted on cheap land’.
William Hobson, an Irishman, was Busby’s replacement. Hobson’s orders from London were for the new colony to be ‘self-funded’ by buying land cheaply from Māori and reselling it to colonists for a profit. He and his staff arrived in the Bay of Islands to find a Pākehā community marked by ‘a world of personalities and warring factions who were all eager to stir the Treaty pot’. Wright says Hobson and his staff ‘soon realised they had plunged into a hotbed of rival ambitions’, which were compounded by the isolation through distance and communication delays with London. Hobson was also mindful that the French who, although tacitly admitting that Aotearoa was within Britain’s sphere of influence, presented the potential for an unknown turn. With this complex background, Hobson pressed on with development of the Treaty, taking as a starting point a version he had brought with him from Sydney, which he edited before his arrival. His position was compromised by poor health and a dysfunctional relationship with Post-Captain Joseph Nias, commander of the ship HMS Herald which brought him to Aotearoa. With Hobson so indisposed during these critical times, during a dismal wet week leading up to the signing Busby had ‘free reign to ponder the wording of the Treaty’.
The significance of noting Hobson’s and Busby’s roles is in the way their colonial mindsets determined the early Pākehā–Māori relationship, and how that set the stage for everything since. In Hobson’s mind the Treaty was merely ‘a device for enabling the British to control their own’ and a means of recognising the key elements of sovereignty and land purchase. Of course, the waters were also muddied by Henry Williams, the Church Missionary Society head and a former naval lieutenant, who was chosen by Hobson as the translator. His translation of the Treaty into Māori ‘varied from the English version both in nuance and direct statement’. This, coupled with variants in copied versions, ended up with Williams’ flawed translation being given ‘the benefit of the doubt that perhaps he had made a better translation than history otherwise gave credit’, despite having taken ‘only a few hours in the evening of 4 February, with help from his eldest son’ for the translation itself. The Treaty was signed on 5 February. The main record was based on notes taken by William Colenso, which were not published until ‘a jubilee’ in 1890.
Later, William Mantell—colonial land buyer, politician and fluent te reo Māori speaker—described Williams’ version as being ‘the most execrable Māori’. In 2011 Judith Ward’s research concluded that Colenso had ‘a personal “spin” both in his 1840 manuscript … and in the 1890 booklet’. Flash forward to subsequent discussions of the document in the twentieth century, and we see how ‘post-colonial thinking itself evolved’ after the late 1980s. Wright cites the work of historian Ruth Ross in the 1970s to move beyond the well-documented signing itself to a ‘land of documentary confusion’. This confusion, notes Wright, sprang from ‘period terminology and phrasing’—the result of the changing English language, then and since. And now, Wright emphasises, because of such changes, ‘past societies are very much “foreign lands”’. Indeed, the subtleties and dissonances of the meanings and understanding of a bicultural document such as the Treaty would not be made fully clear until cross-cultural studies such as those by Joan Metge and Patricia Kinloch in 1978.
Between the Treaty signing at Waitangi in February and July 1840, the Treaty document (or copies of it) was taken in a rather ‘haphazard way’ to various places around Aotearoa aboard HMS Herald, for Māori to sign. In all, about 540 Māori, including 13 women, signed it. Gradually, the Treaty document morphed into becoming a ‘Pākehā nation-founder’ document in the 1880s and 1890s, losing its original intent and application and making room for the idea that Māori had legally surrendered sovereignty.
Whether Māori thought the same way did not particularly occupy Pākehā officials. Wright concludes: ‘Māori did not sign away their sovereignty because Williams’ somewhat eccentric translation did not clearly ask for it.’ Further, Māori could never have imagined that Pākehā settlers would arrive on such a scale, particularly as there had been guarantees in the Treaty that rangatira would retain their power. In 1858 the first census to include Māori showed there that there were then almost the same number as Pākehā (56,049 Māori and 59,418 Pākeha). What the Māori could not know, of course, is clearly summed up by Wright: ‘With settlers flooding in, that balance could only change in one direction.’ A significant theme in the book comes when Wright asks ‘how the difference between what the British and Māori believed at the time was lost for so long’.
The rest of the book traverses well-known recent history: the labelling of the Treaty as a ‘fraud’ by Ngā Tamatoa; the ‘conscious attempt to deliberately modernise the idea of the Treaty’ by ‘Treaty principles’ developed by Sir Robin Cooke; and ‘backlash’ as a way of invalidating ‘contemporary cultural and political shifts’ such as advances made by Māori. The book provides a useful summary of progress and backsliding since the Treaty was signed, supported by recent scholarship and interpretation. The notes and bibliography are comprehensive, but it is a pity the index is less so.
GERRY TE KAPA COATES (Ngāi Tahu, Waihao) was born in Ōamaru, and has had poems, book and theatre reviews and stories in Huia Short Stories collections 4, 5 & 7, and various other publications, including Landfall, Ora Nui and Te Karaka, as well as a wide variety of non-fiction espousing environmental issues among other themes. His collection of poems and short stories from 1961–2011, The View From Up There, was published in 2011 by Steele Roberts. He was a panellist at the 2013 Christchurch Readers & Writers Festival. He also works as a consultant and commissioner on EEZ, RMA and similar hearings and does Māori and technology advisory work.