Today is Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national holiday. This day in 1840 marked the beginning of the end of New Zealand as a Maori Polynesian island, and its takeover as an arm of the white British empire. So, obviously a big cause for celebration.

The Treaty of Waitangi is given various interpretations, and the official and popular position today is that Waitangi day celebrates New Zealand and emphasises unity between Polynesian Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealanders). Many Kiwis see it simply, I suspect, as “a nice day off”. But Waitangi day – and specifically the 1840 Treaty – have also historically attracted a great deal of protest. And not within due cause.
The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi was signed at a time when white European settlement and economic entaglement in New Zealand were increasing rapidly. Although the great population and apparent fierceness of the Maori had precluded the possibility of any whole-scale foreign invasion, relations between Maori and white settlers were by no means solely hostile, and many Maori tribes and individuals were co-operating in and benefitting from European economic involvement in their islands. There were all sorts of people in New Zealand – some say those included fugitives – without the country having any overral legal form of government in a Western sense. The “Musket Wars” – a charming gift of Western technology – had already disrupted Maori society, and the French, who were disliked more than the English, were threatening to annex New Zealand territory.

As far as I can tell from my visits to Wellington’s Te Papa museum (where the details on Waitangi are kept up the stairs, in a corner), there was a general feeling at the time that Western settlement and involvement was a de facto reality, which would benefit from some transparency for everyone’s sake. Hence the acceptability of a written treaty.

A few years before 1840, the hereditary chiefs and heads of the tribes of the northern parts of New Zealand had declared the constitution of an independent state. This was known as The Declaration of Independence of New Zealand , itself drafted by James Busby, the official British Resident in New Zealand. As Wikipedia says, “the 1835 Declaration of Independence arose in response to concerns over the lawlessness of British subjects in New Zealand and in response to a fear that France would declare sovereignty over the islands…” But of course James Busby’s concerns about the French were not motivated by quite the same reasons as the Maori chiefs. The Maori did not want the French to take-over the islands. The British simply did not want the French to take-over the islands before they did. And they did so, five years later at Waitangi.

The text of the treaty is in alternately flattering, pandering and legalistic language, and apparently differs significantly in Maori and in English. But essentially the Treaty hands over technical sovereignty of the New Zealand islands to the British Crown, while nominally preserving the property rights of individual Maori tribes (already including the stipulation that if they felt like selling their property to the Crown, they should go ahead).

Some white New Zealanders today generously say that the Waitangi treaty is the foundational document of New Zealand and that it should be celebrated out of respect for Maori heritage. But the vacuousness of this politically-correct claim is demonstrated by the fact that as early as 1877 a judge declared the treaty to be a legal “nullity” and not binding on the British Crown. For most of the 20th century the Treaty had no recognition at all other than as an example of the “benevolence” of British imperialism, and still it forms no part of either New Zealand or English law.

The movement to recognise the Treaty culimanated in the establishment in 1975 of the Waitangi Tribunal, which considers Maori land claims. But the fact is, almost all of that original Maori-owned land is long gone, and the Treaty, while looked-to today as a means to protect Maori ownership, was exactly the mechanism by which Maori ownership was taken away. As Wikipedia says:
“The short-term effect of the Treaty was to prevent the sale of Maori land to anyone other than the Crown. This was intended to protect Maori from the kinds of shady land purchases which had alienated indigenous peoples in other parts of the world from their land with minimal compensation. Indeed, anticipating the Treaty, the New Zealand Company made several hasty land deals and shipped settlers from Great Britain to New Zealand, assuming that the settlers would not be evicted from land they occupied. Essentially the Treaty was an attempt to establish a system of property rights for land with the Crown controlling and overseeing land sale to prevent abuse. Initially this worked well. Maori were eager to sell land, and settlers eager to buy. The Crown mediated the process to ensure that the true owners were properly identified (difficult for tribally owned land) and fairly compensated, by the standards of the time. However after a while Maori became disillusioned and less willing to sell, while the Crown came under increasing pressure from settlers wishing to buy. Consequently government land agents were involved in a number of dubious land purchases. Agreements were negotiated with only one owner of tribally owned land and in some cases land was purchased from the wrong people altogether. Eventually this led to the New Zealand Wars which culminated in the confiscation of a large part of the Waikato and Taranaki. In later years, this oversight role was vested in the Native Land Court under the Native Land Court Act of 1862, and later renamed the Maori Land Court. It was through this court that much Maori land was alienated, and the way in which it functioned is much criticised today. Over the longer term, the land-purchase aspect of the Treaty declined in importance, while the clauses of the Treaty which deal with sovereignty and Maori rights took on greater importance”.

Yet today, the balance of New Zealanders believe Maori deserve no compensation for lost lands with the same percentage (nearly 40%) wanting the Treaty removed entirely from New Zealand law.

But why bother? The damage has been done, well over a century ago, and the victory to the white Europeans. New Zealand has been transformed from a Polynesian island peopled by Maori to an extension of Western consumer society, by way of the British empire. The concept of Maori land has been almost totally obliterated. And this was their land, at least all of the North Island: everywhere I go, every little town has dozens of places with Maori names. The Maori were not confined to one corner of New Zealand; they were everywhere, and they were thoroughly ousted by Western settlers, as firmly and comprehensively as the pukeko has been ousted by the sparrow, and the Kauri by the Monterrey Pine.

Waitangi to many New Zealanders stands as a by-word for Maori special privaleges, Maori whinging and Maori sour grapes. Yet it is the white settlers that got something for nothing, the white settlers who gained a whole nation through legalistic sleight-of-hand and the white settlers who ignored their own Treaty as soon as it suited them, in order to fufil their real aim to take as much Maori land as possible. And now Maori stand, an object of contempt, on the lower tiers of New Zealand society, in a land filled with their place names, with precious little place for them.

So let’s not talk of Waitangi in terms of respect for Maori heritage, or a union of Pakeha and Maori, or “equal rights” or (least of all) British imperial “humanitarianism”. It’s quite clear what the agenda of the British government was: in 1839 – the year before Waitangi – the governor of New South Wales had been appointed “Governor of New Zealand”. That could hardly have been clearer that the British intention from the outset was obviously to annex New Zealand. And once accomplished with a few confused speeches and an ambiguous piece of paper, they showed their true colours by sweeping the Treaty under the carpet, until it was dragged back out by popuar protest movements in the 1970s.

Let’s do without the political correctness this Waitangi Day in favour of a more realistic and clear-headed version of New Zealand history and British imperialism: they came, they coveted, they cajoled, they conquered. Job done.

Like the Americans with the Panama canal, they “stole it fair and square”. Why confuse history by trying to gloss-over reality? Why be defensive? The process at Waitangi doesn’t make me hate my own country, Britain. But trying to make it out to be something more rose-tinted than it is: that just embarrases me.

Let’s simply be straight-forward: through a serious of misleading metaphors and conflicting concepts (sovereignty versus ownership, the distinction between which makes no sense to me…), the British stole a nation, on the flimsiest of paper-pretences.

Perhaps one of the sadest reflections of the trust that those early Maori mistakenly put in Captain Hobson and the other treaty-makers is found in the words of the northern chief, Nopera Panakareao, who early on summarised his understanding of the Treaty as “the shadow of the land is to the Queen, but the substance remains to us”. A British official later remarked that the Maori would discover that the British had acquired “something more than the shadow…”. Nopera later reversed what he’d said – feeling that the substance of the land had indeed gone to the Queen… Only the shadow remained for the Maori.

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