Protestors march towards the Te Whare Runanga on Waitangi Day February 06, 2007 (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Ranginui Walker: Te Tiriti and the abyss of meaning

Three decades ago one of the giants of New Zealand thinking and writing, Ranginui Walker, published Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou, Struggle Without End. The book, originally released in 1990 and revised in 2004, is a history of Aotearoa from a Māori perspective had a profound influence and today remains as piercing and illuminating as ever. Below, an excerpt from the chapter headed ‘Tauiwi’.

In 1831, under missionary guidance, 13 leading chiefs in the North petitioned the King of England to provide some form of control over British nationals in New Zealand and protection from the possibility of other foreign intervention. A token gesture was made to the request by the appointment of James Busby as British Resident. Although Busby had no power to enforce law and order, he symbolised an official British presence in the country and the initial step towards formal annexation. As a consequence of the impounding in Sydney of a New Zealand-built ship for not flying an ensign, the master of the vessel was forced to fly a Māori mat from the masthead before it was allowed to sail. In response to that event, one of Busby’s first official acts, in 1834, was to convene a meeting of 25 chiefs in front of his residence at Waitangi to select a flag for their country. The meeting concluded with a ceremony hoisting the chosen flag beside the Union Jack, an act signifying recognition of Māori sovereignty over New Zealand.

In October 1835, Busby convened a more significant meeting at Waitangi of 34 chiefs from Northland down to the Hauraki Gulf to sign a declaration of confederation and independence. This move was designed to neutralise his rival Thomas McDonnell in the Hokianga and the pretensions of a Frenchman, Baron de Thierry, who intended to settle on land he had bought at Hokianga and proclaim himself king. In the first clause of the declaration, the chiefs declared New Zealand to be an independent state under the name of the United Tribes of New Zealand. The second clause said:

All sovereign power and authority within the territories of the United Tribes of New Zealand is hereby declared to reside entirely and exclusively in their collective capacity, who also declare that they will not permit any legislative authority separate from themselves in their collective capacity to exist, nor any function of Government to be exercised within the said territories, unless by persons appointed by them, and acting under the authority of laws regularly enacted by them in Congress assembled.

The translation of the first part of this clause pertaining to the nature and seat of sovereignty gives some insight into how Busby dealt with the concept in relation to Māori equivalents. He rendered it as “Ko te kīngitanga ko te mana i te whenua”, meaning the king is the sovereign power of the land. Clearly, he and Henry Williams, who assisted him, equated the word mana with sovereignty and power, a point that was to become significant under the Treaty of Waitangi five years later. A copy of the declaration was sent to the King of England with an expression of thanks for his recognition of their flag.

The tribes agreed under the declaration to meet once a year at Waitangi to make laws for the preservation of peace and the regulation of trade. However, few chiefs attended, as notions of Māori nationalism were alien to tribal society. In 1836 tribal fighting continued as before, with chiefs complying with Pākehā concepts of law and order only if it suited their purposes. Busby concluded that the diffusion of authority among tribal chiefs who were fiercely independent, made it impossible to create a central administration through them. By 1837 the missionaries also concluded that the chiefs were not ready to govern the country as a whole. The next year, when settler numbers had increased to a thousand and it was clear further settlement was inevitable, the missionaries George Clarke and Henry Williams called for British intervention and asked for a governor with military power to back his authority. By 1839 another thousand Europeans had settled in New Zealand and land speculation in a free market, unregulated by law or a central administration, was creating new tensions as some tribes realised they had surrendered too much for too little. But mounting pressure from metropolitan society was now irreversible.

Although moves had been set in train earlier in response to missionary appeals for intervention by the British government, New Zealand was not annexed until January 14 1840 by Order in Council as a colony of New South Wales. Captain Hobson, who was despatched in HMS Herald to carry out the order, arrived in the Bay of Islands on January 29. Lord Normanby’s instructions to Hobson acknowledged New Zealand as a sovereign state even though it consisted of numerous independent tribes with only the confederation of northern tribes having any semblance of a larger polity. Hobson was instructed to obtain the surrender of that sovereignty to the British Crown by the free and intelligent consent of the “natives”. They had to be persuaded that the sacrifice of their national independence would bring the benefits of British protection, law and citizenship. The instructions specified that Hobson was to treat for sovereignty over the whole or part of the islands that the natives were willing to cede. He was warned that they might feel distrustful or humiliated by British encroachment, but these impediments he had to overcome by mild ness, justice and the sincerity of his intercourse with the aborigines, If necessary, he was to engage their consent by presents and other pecuniary arrangements. Once sovereignty was obtained, Hobson was to contract with the chiefs for the sale or cession of lands to the Crown only. Thereafter he was to issue a proclamation that all land titles would emanate from Crown grants. Hobson’s first duty as the official protector of the aborigines was to confine his acquisition of land for British settlers to districts the ‘natives’ could alienate without distress to themselves. It was on the basis of these instructions that the Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up and subsequently signed on February 6, 1840.

The most penetrating critique in recent times of the drafting and signing of the Treaty was made by Ruth Ross. According to Ross, Hobson made some notes for the Treaty based on his instructions, From those notes, Busby and two officers from HMS Herald drew up the first draft of the Treaty, which Hobson corrected on February 3. The first draft was translated by Henry Williams while Hobson spent more time revising the document. The outcome of these combined efforts was four English versions and a translation into Māori which matched none of them. The English version from which the translation was made has yet to be found. Consequently, the official English version of the Treaty lodged with the Colonial Office does not match the Māori version which the chiefs of New Zealand signed.

The purpose of the Treaty embodied in the first article was the cession of chiefly sovereignty over New Zealand to the Queen of England. That is made absolutely clear in the English version, which reads:

The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand, and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation, cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England, absolutely and without reservation, all the rights and powers of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess, over their respective Territories as the sole Sovereigns thereof.

But the Māori version does not accomplish that purpose because its meaning was obscured by Henry Williams whose translation, when retranslated back into English, reads:

The Chiefs of the Confederation, and all the Chiefs not in that Confederation, cede absolutely to the Queen of England forever the complete Governance of their lands.

Ross blames the Protestant missionaries Henry Williams and his son Edward for translating sovereignty as kawanatanga (governance) instead of the word mana, which was used in the 1835 Declaration of Independence. The word kawanatanga did not convey to the Māori a precise definition of sovereignty. Had the word mana been used, no Māori would have had any doubt what was being ceded. So, says Ross, “was the Williams translation of sovereignty political rather than meaningful? Did they, knowing the chiefs would never sign away their mana to the Queen, deliberately eschew the use of this word and this concept in their translation?” Although the question is rhetorical, Ross left it unresolved. Williams was not a disinterested party. He and other missionaries had a vested interest in ensuring that the Treaty was signed because of their substantial landholdings. They owned their lands at the pleasure of the chiefs, which might be withdrawn at any time. Therefore, besides their publicly proclaimed desire for law and order, the prospect of gaining secure title in fee simple from the Crown provided them with a strong personal incentive to ensure that the Treaty was signed.

Ngāpuhi chiefs gathering to choose the United tribes flag (Image: Shaw Savill, Alexander Turnbull Library)

The use of the word kawanatanga poses other difficulties. It is derived from a transliteration of governor into kawana, which, with the addition of the suffix tanga, becomes governance. Although some northern chiefs had met a governor in New South Wales, there was no model or referent for a governor in New Zealand, and we can only imagine what the chiefs thought they were conceding to such a person. Sir William Martin wrote what he thought the chiefs had ceded 20 years after the Treaty was signed:

The rights which the Natives recognised as belonging thenceforward to the Crown were such rights as were necessary for the Government of the country and for the establishment of the new system. We called them “sovereignty”; the Natives called them “kawanatanga”, “Governorship” … To the new and unknown office they conceded such powers, to them unknown, as might be necessary for its due exercise.

But as Ross points out, it was not the “natives” who called this unknown thing kawanatanga, but the Protestant missionaries. Their fudging of the meaning of the first article was not redeemed by their more faithful but inaccurate treatment of the second article, which protected Māori rights. This article states:

Her Majesty the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand, and to the respective families and individuals thereof, the full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries, and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess, so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession; But the Chiefs of the United Tribes and the Individual Chiefs yield to Her Majesty the exclusive right of Pre-emption over such lands as the proprietors thereof may be disposed to alienate, at such prices as may be agreed upon between the respective Proprietors and and persons appointed by Her Majesty to treat with them in that behalf.

From this retranslation of the Māori version of the second article back into English, discrepancies are clearly evident:

The Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs, to the Tribes, and to all the people of New Zealand, the absolute Chieftainship of their lands, of their homes and all their treasured possessions. But the Chiefs of the Confederation, and all other chiefs, cede to the Queen the right to purchase over such lands as the proprietors are disposed to alienate at such prices agreed to by them and the purchaser appointed by the Queen on her behalf.

Forests and fisheries are left out of the Māori version. Although these might be subsumed under the general rubric of treasured possessions, this omission is an indication of the lack of precision in the drafting and translation of the Treaty. But the primary consideration of this article is the meaning it conveyed to the chiefs. By this article the Queen guaranteed the tribes “tino rangatiratanga”, the absolute chieftainship, over their lands, homes and treasured possessions. Tino rangatiratanga was a much closer approximation to sovereignty than kawanatanga. The word rangatiratanga is a missionary neologism derived from rangatira (chief), which, with the addition of the suffix tanga, becomes chieftainship. Now the guarantee of chieftainship is in effect a guarantee of sovereignty, because an inseparable component of chieftainship is mana whenua. Without land a chief’s mana and that of his people is negated. The chiefs are likely to have understood the second clause of the Treaty as a confirmation of their own sovereign rights in return for a limited concession of power in kawanatanga.

The question arises as to who was sovereign over New Zealand. The British Crown claimed sovereignty on the basis of the English version of the Treaty. But that was not the version signed by the chiefs. The Treaty of Waitangi they signed confirmed their own sovereignty while ceding the right to establish a governor in New Zealand to the Crown. A governor is in effect a satrap, who, according to the Oxford dictionary, is the holder of provincial governorship; he was a subordinate ruler, or a colonial governor. In New Zealand’s case, he governed at the behest and on behalf of the chiefs. In view of the fact that Governor Hobson had no power to enforce his will, and gunboat diplomacy was distinctly unfashionable among the humanitarians in England, Hobson governed by the acquiescence of the chiefs. In effect, the chiefs were his sovereigns. But subsequent to the signing of the Treaty, the Pākehā behaved towards the Māori on the assumption they held sovereignty, while Māori responded in the belief that they had never surrendered it.

The third article of the Treaty, which was the least contentious, said:

In consideration thereof, Her Majesty the Queen of England extends to the Natives of New Zealand Her Royal protection, and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British subjects.

The translation of the Māori version back into English states:

This (the third clause) is in consideration of the acknowledgement of the Queen’s Governance. The Queen of England will protect all the Māori people of New Zealand. They will be given all the rights equal to those of the people of England.

Again, in this clause, it is clear that the Queen’s governance was acknowledged, not her mana. This clause is also interesting for its use of the word Māori. Prior to the advent of Europeans, Māori people had no single term for themselves. People were distinguished from one another by their tribal names. But with the coming of the whalers, sealers and traders, the word Pākehā was used to designate the strangers. The word is derived from pakepākehā or Pākehākeha, which are defined in Williams’s Dictionary as “imaginary beings resembling men, with fair skins”. The word Māori means normal, usual or ordinary, which through usage has become capitalised to refer to the Māori people collectively. Prior to the third article of the Treaty, Māori people had been variously referred to as New Zealanders, natives and aborigines. Thus the Treaty of Waitangi is the first official document to cite the Māori people as the indigenous people of New Zealand.

On January 30, 1840, Captain Hobson sent out a circular inviting chiefs of the confederation and independent chiefs as far south as Hauraki, to attend a meeting at Waitangi on February 5 to discuss the Treaty of Waitangi. When the chiefs assembled, Hobson addressed them and offered the protection of Great Britain. He read out the English version of the Treaty while Henry Williams gave the translated version. Busby also spoke, assuring the chiefs that the governor came not to take land but to guarantee their possession of it. Despite the obscure meaning of the Treaty, several chiefs sought reassurance by speaking out against it. Chiefs like Te Kemara, Rewa and Moka opposed the governor’s presence if it meant that their status would be relegated to below that of the governor. Rewa told the governor bluntly to return to his own country. He even issued a prophetic warning that those who signed the Treaty would be “reduced to the condition of slaves and compelled to break stones on the roads”. They also made accusations of sharp practices in land dealing by a number of Pākehā including missionaries. In rebuttal, Williams denied having robbed the Māori of land. In arguing that he wanted land titles to be examined by a commissioner, he ingenuously revealed his motivation for urging the Treaty on the Māori when he said he wanted an investigation because he had a large family of eleven children for whom he had to make provision. The influential Ngāti Hine chief Kawiti suspected that something more than kawanatanga was at stake. Since the missionaries had not expressed any desire for temporal power, he invited them to stay, while telling the governor to return to his own country.

While some chiefs opposed the Treaty, others such as Hōne Heke, who were under missionary tutelage, spoke in favour, likening the Treaty to the word of God. But the most persuasive supporter of the Treaty was Tāmati Wāka Nene, who, in the rhetorical style of the orator on the marae, addressed his fellow chiefs, saying:

Friends! Whose potatoes do we eat? Whose were our blankets? These spears (holding up his taiaha) are laid aside. What has the Ngāpuhi now? The Pākehā’s gun, his shot, his powder. Many of his children are our children.

Nene concluded by asking the governor to remain as both judge and peacemaker, and indicated that he would sign the Treaty. His elder brother Patuone endorsed what had been said and also urged the Governor to stay and avert a possible takeover by the French. The discussion ended at 4pm, with the chiefs asking for time to consider the matter among themselves. The meeting was adjourned until February 7 and a quantity of tobacco was handed out, but no food. The customs of Māori hospitality obliged any chief who convened a hui to feed his guests well. Governor Hobson, who claimed high office on behalf of the Crown, had fallen short of that social obligation. It was an inauspicious but symbolic start to a relationship that was supposed to be of mutual benefit. Some chiefs signified they would go home rather than wait around hungry for another day.

The missionaries were afraid that the chiefs would drift off before signing the Treaty so they advanced the meeting to February 6. When they arrived at 9.30am, between three and four hundred people were waiting in front of Busby’s residence. By 11am there was still no sign of the governor; no one had thought to inform him that the meeting had been put forward a day. When two officers came ashore at noon, they immediately went back and fetched Hobson. He was so bustled by the affair that he hurried ashore without changing into his uniform. The only symbol of his high office he wore that day was his naval headgear. Pictures of the signing with Hobson resplendent in his uniform are part of the myth-making surrounding the Treaty.

‘Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi’ by Marcus King, Alexander Turnbull Library

As soon as Hobson was seated, he announced he was ready to take signatures. Henry Williams read the Treaty again and invited the chiefs to come forward. No one moved. The missionary printer William Colenso queried Hobson as to whether the natives understood what they were being asked to sign. He insisted they ought to under stand it in order to make it legal. Hobson exonerated himself, saying it was no fault of his if they did not understand it, they had heard it read by Mr Williams. Busby tried to mollify Colenso by quoting what Hōne Heke said the previous day, that “the native mind could not comprehend these things they must trust to the advice of the missionaries”, Colenso was equal to this evasion, saying that he put the responsibility on the missionaries to explain the Treaty in all its bearings in case there was a reaction and they would be blamed. The impasse was broken by Busby, who hit upon the idea of calling chiefs by name to come forward. Hōne Heke was called first and the signing commenced. Of the 43 chiefs who signed that day, 23 belonged to the Confederation of United Tribes, while the rest came from other tribes. One of the latter was Iwikau the younger brother of Te Heuheu, the paramount chief of Taupō. He was at Waitematā on a musket-buying expedition when Hobson’s emissary arrived with the invitation to attend the meeting at Waitangi. As each chief signed, Hobson shook hands, saying, “He iwi tahi tātou” (We are one people), thereby laying down the ideology of assimilation that was to dominate colonial policy well into the 20th century. Each chief who signed the Treaty was given two blankets and some tobacco.

Since the real meaning of the Treaty was concealed by imprecise translation, grave doubts arise as to whether the chiefs signed with their “free and intelligent consent”. Furthermore, the association of Treaty signing with gratuities raises the question whether the chiefs were prompted as much by cupidity as by the promised benefits of British protection. Iwikau, for one, thought he had done well securing two blankets by the simple act of putting his mark on the Treaty. At subsequent signings other chiefs exhibited mercenary motives. One was Te Rauparaha, who signed twice when the Treaty was hawked around the country by the missionaries and Hobson’s other emissaries. One chief at Tauranga said, “Pay us first and we will write afterwards.” Another said, “Put money in my left hand and I will write with my right hand.” For chiefs of this disposition, the Treaty was nothing more than a commercial transaction, the exchange of their signatures for Pākehā goods. But what they thought they gave and what the coloniser claimed were separated by an abyss that was to have cataclysmic consequences for the Māori people. The chiefs were not to know that nation-building in the new world during the era of European expansionism was predicated on the destruction of first nations. By their acquiescence in the Treaty, the chiefs opened the way to replicate among their own people the colonial experience of African tribes and the Indians of the American continent.

Extensive efforts were made in the collection of signatures for the Treaty in all parts of the country. But despite an impressive final total of 540 signatures, there were some notable gaps. Two paramount chiefs, Te Wherowhero of the Tainui tribes and Te Heuheu of the Tuwharetoa confederation, did not sign. Although the meaning of the Treaty was disguised by the word governance, Te Heuheu intuitively understood its true intent. On Iwikau’s return to Taupo he repudiated what he had done, saying:

I will not agree to the mana of a strange people being placed over this land. Though every chief in the island consent to it, yet I will not. I will consent to neither your act nor your goods. As for these blankets, burn them.

As a consequence of Te Heuheu’s denunciation of the Treaty, chiefs of the Arawa confederation of tribes in the Rotorua lakes district and the Ngāiterangi chiefs at Tauranga refused to sign. Nor did the paramount chief of the East Coast, Te Kani-a-Takirau, sign. Ideologically, the word of these ariki placed the populous centres of the North Island outside the Treaty. But the authority of these chiefs was subverted by the process of collecting and aggregating signatures from other chiefs in exchange for gratuities. Thus the coloniser initiated the process of undermining the authority structures of Māori society by the application of his own principle of majority rule. On May 21, Hobson proclaimed sovereignty over the North Island on the basis of the Treaty of Waitangi. But he did not wait for the return of his emissaries with signatures collected in the south. Instead, he proclaimed sovereignty over the South Island on the basis that it was terra nullius, thereby ignoring the existence of the Ngāi Tahu. Only the arrogance born of metropolitan society and the colonising ethos of the British empire was capable of such self-deception, which was hardly excused by the desire to beat the imminent arrival of the French at Akaroa. But even greater deceptions lay ahead over the next 150 years.

Reprinted with permission © Ranginui Walker, Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou, Struggle Without End, Penguin NZ, 2004

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