Mercury Bay Museum Musings #3

Search & Book

Mercury Bay Museum Musings - 22 January 2016

The 6th of February this year will see our national commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi negotiated between representatives of the British Crown and the so-called indigenous Maori 'United Tribes (or Confederation of Tribes) of Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the Bay of Islands 176 years ago. The Treaty, though flawed and controversial and which bedevils our nation to this day, is of constitutional importance and the ongoing debate about what the Treaty actually means cannot be ignored. It is integral to how we govern ourselves, both as a bi-cultural and now multi-cultural nation, warts and all. The underlying reasons which gave rise to the treaty are complex. In some instances Maori – principally the northern Maori tribes in their pre-treaty discussions with representatives of both the Crown in New South Wales and indirectly the British Colonial Office in London, were sometimes in accord. But in many other aspects they were not. Again it is the 'devil in the detail' that has left us between a rock and a hard place. Did Maori fully understand the import of what they agreed to? Did they cede sovereignty?

Answering the thorny questions on how Aotearoa  became a separate British colony, rather than an appendage to the established colony in New South Wales, has been been well researched by many eminent New Zealand historians such as Michael King, Claudia Orange, Michael Belgrave and Paul Moon, to name but a few. Essentially they all agree about the instructions given by the Crown to Captain William Hobson, the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales. They were quite specific. Hobson was directed by the British government to take the constitutional steps necessary to establish a British colony in New Zealand and negotiate a voluntary transfer of sovereignty from Maori to the British Crown. Unfortunately Hobson was not a lawyer and not furnished with a draft document prepared by lawyers for the colonial office. On arrival in the Bay of Island on the 29th of January 1840 he hastily cobbled together a Treaty in English with the help of his secretary, James Freeman and the British Resident in New Zealand, James Busby – neither of whom was a lawyer. The Maori language version was prepared overnight on the 4th of February by the missionary Henry Williams and his son. On the 5th of February copies of the Treaty in both languages were put before the northern chiefs, many of whom had earlier petitioned the New South Wales government for protection from the depredations of the unruly pakeha sailors and other riffraff who were creating havoc in the Bay of Islands. The draft agreement was discussed and, from time to time, fiercely debated at some length by the chiefs present. But by the close of the day there was no clear consensus amongst Maori and at that point it was not certain if the chiefs present would sign. However the following day 45 chiefs representing the Northern tribes did sign, followed by subsequent signings by other northern chiefs, who were not present at the 6th February 'hui', and later at 50 other locations in the North and South Islands. Before the signings were complete Hobson proclaimed British sovereignty over the whole country on 21 May 1840. New Zealand continued as a dependency of New South Wales until New Zealand's own charter was promulgated in 1841, making the country a separate colony of Great Britain.

The signing of the Treaty and Hobson's proclamation of sovereignty which preceded the collection of more tribal signatures – plus the fact there was more than one version of the Treaty, all of which incorporated the many contradictions between the 'official' English and Maori versions, should have been nullified as being 'ultra vires'. As a consequence it has made it difficult for successive New Zealand governments to give judicial and moral effect to the document. Additionally, and of more significance, the English language version of the Treaty incorporated phrases, words and concepts which were foreign to Maori, both in intent and form. They could not be meaningfully translated into the Maori language in a way in which what was being proposed by the Crown could be grasped and the implications fully comprehended by Maori. Indeed it resulted in Maori quite understandably holding fast to differing interpretations and conceptualisations to this day.

In paraphrasing historian Michael King the face of New Zealand life from 1840 has been a 'Janus' one, representing at least two cultures and two heritages, very often looking in different directions.

I wonder whether having a lawyer present at the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations would have helped. Unless he undertook the case on a 'pro bono' basis and also a Maori linguist, perhaps not. However I believe the Maori name for the river that emerges below the British resident's house on the western side of the Bay of Islands – where the Treaty was signed, means 'waters of lamentation'. How apposite.

The Mercury Bay Museum has on display a facsimile of the Maori version of the Treaty The original English and Maori versions are held in safe keeping at the national archives in Wellington.