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Can Waitangi Day be a celebration that brings New Zealanders together? Or will the events of 1840 forever be a touchstone for division and conflict?
Partly, it depends on how the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi is understood. Is it a "sacred compact" or "a thing most treacherous"? The point of contention is the relationship between the first two articles of the Treaty, and in particular, how the Maori phrase kawanatanga katoa (sovereignty/government) in the first article relates to tino rangatiratanga (chiefly authority) in the second. In the first, kawanatanga katoa was ceded by Maori to the Queen, thus bringing New Zealand within the realms of the British Empire. In the second, tino rangatiratanga was to be retained by Maori and protected by imperial power. For some, the tension between the two articles is insurmountable. They argue that Maori rangatira who signed the treaty could not have understood its terms in the way the British intended, and indeed, may even have been deliberately misled. In my view, however, their arguments fail to convince, and a more coherent and satisfying account can be gathered from the historical context.
The Colonial Office, in giving its authority to Captain Hobson, had issued written instructions any treaty signed must have the free and informed consent of Maori. The New Zealand Company, wishing no doubt to protect its schemes for colonisation, declared the treaty to be merely "a praiseworthy device for amusing and pacifying savages". The foreign residents of Kororareka (modern-day Russell), perhaps resentful of losing their lawless freedom, spread rumours among Maori that darker motives were at play: Britain would seize their lands and make them taurekareka (slaves). Yet, the weight of evidence suggests the British Government was indeed sincere in seeking the full and free consent of its treaty partner.
Capt Hobson drafted the treaty in English with the help of the British Resident, James Busby. It was then translated into Maori by the Anglican missionary, Henry Williams, of the Church Missionary Society. Captain Hobson also gave Mr Williams the task of explaining the treaty to the gathered chiefs, telling him that none must sign until they fully understood its terms. Mr Williams was the obvious choice for the job, being an experienced negotiator in the New Zealand context and highly respected by Maori. He also considered it a great honour, for he viewed the treaty as nothing less than the Magna Carta of Maori.
"In the midst of profound silence," Mr Williams recalled, "I read the treaty to all assembled. I told all to listen with care, explaining clause by clause to the chiefs, giving them caution not to be in a hurry, but telling them that we, the missionaries, fully approved of the treaty."
There is no valid reason to impugn the motives of Mr Williams: his translation was fair and his explanation was full. But the question remains, did his hearers sufficiently understand what was said to enable them to give their informed consent? His fellow missionary William Colenso had his doubts. He remembered raising concerns directly with Capt Hobson: how fragile the agreement, given the limits of Maori understanding, and how vulnerable the missionaries, given the trust vested in them. It was an understanding and a trust put to the test five years later, when nothing stood between a Maori sense of betrayal, and the destruction of the fledging colony, but the fragile text of the treaty, and the explanation of the vulnerable missionary, Henry Williams.
In January 1845, Hone Heke had cut down the Kororareka flagstaff for a third time. Though first to sign, he now rejected the treaty as "all soap" — smooth and oily, but with treachery hidden beneath. He called on Maori to join him in renouncing British sovereignty. The full military strength of Ngapuhi gathered at Paroa in the Bay of Islands ready to take up arms against the Government. Even Tamati Waka Nene, so influential in 1840, was in two minds as to whether Maori had not been treacherously betrayed five years earlier. Mr Williams went to the hui to answer the charges made against him and to defend the honour of Queen Victoria. He armed himself with freshly printed copies of the treaty, which he distributed among the gathered chiefs: "I read clause by clause, requesting the chiefs to notice any expressions which favoured the assertion their interests had been betrayed by the Government, or that there was any design to deprive them of their just rights."
He assured them the treaty was a "sacred compact" and that the word of Her Majesty could not be violated — anything else was, in Mr Williams’s view, "he tino mea kohuru", a thing most treacherous.
Mr Williams was in no doubt Maori understood and accepted his explanation, "for by this explanation alone," he said, "I was enabled to give considerable check to the proceedings of the natives in arms."
Instead of joining Hone Heke, most Ngapuhi chose to remain neutral. Some, such as Tamati Waka Nene, even took up arms against him. Politically, Hone Heke’s cause was lost before it began. British and Maori troops might have restored order in the north, but the true weapon of Hone Heke’s defeat was the treaty itself.
So can Waitangi Day be a day that brings us together, Maori and Pakeha, indigene and immigrant? Yes it can, for it is a sacred day, even in an age that has almost forgotten the meaning of the word. Indeed, we can take our lead from the celebrations of the past. In 1963, Sir Turi Carroll, President of the New Zealand Maori Council, welcomed Queen Elizabeth to the Treaty grounds at Waitangi: "We gladly offer today, on this anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, to renew the spirit of that compact and, above all, to reaffirm our loyalty to the Crown."
He spoke on behalf of Maori and acknowledged the presence of many descendants of those Maori tipuna who first signed that fragile text. The Queen in reply also understood the significance of her presence as the great-great-granddaughter of Victoria.
"Whatever may have happened in the past," she said, "and whatever the future may bring, it remains the sacred duty of the Crown today, as in 1840, to stand by the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi, and to ensure that the trust of the Maori people is never betrayed."
- Malcolm Falloon is a PhD student in the department of theology and religion at the University of Otago University and is the minister at St Luke’s Anglican Church, Mosgiel.