I decided this week that it was time to read William Colenso's eyewitness account of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Waitangi Tribunal is currently hearing Nga Puhi's version of those events so it seemed fitting. It's actually quite a lively read and gives a reasonable idea of what Governor Hobson and the missionaries said to the gathered Nga Puhi chiefs, as well as some inkling of their debates about what they thought it might mean.
Ever since that day in 1840 the Crown has contended that Maori signed away their sovereignty. I have always struggled to understand how they come to this conclusion. Colenso recounts that the rangatira had the Maori language text read to them and that a number of them signed it the following day. None of them were told the content of the English version and none of them signed it, nor did Hobson. So even though the English version cedes sovereignty, it is difficult to see what that has to do with anything.
The Maori version affirms Maori rangatiratanga (chieftainship) over their own people and possessions but yields kawanatanga to the Crown. What is kawanatanga? It was a new word for Maori, adapted from the Bible, and its meaning is ambiguous. Reading Colenso helps identify what people might have thought it meant.
Before reading out the text of the proposed treaty, the Reverend H. Williams gave a speech on behalf of Hobson. He said that Queen Victoria had sent Hobson out of a desire to do good for the Maori people and for her subjects living in New Zealand. The Queen had no power to restrain British people outside of her own dominions and so asked the chiefs to sign the treaty “and so give her that power which shall enable her to restrain them”. Remember that most Pakeha in New Zealand at that time were pretty savage compared to Maori. He went on to say that the Governor had not come to take their lands but to secure them in their ownership of it, and to ensure the return of lands unfairly taken from them.
The speeches that followed demonstrate that many of the rangatira were suspicious that the real aim of the Governor was indeed to usurp their lands and power. What is clear, though, is that none of them were agreeing to this. There was no consent for the Crown to rule over Maori, but rather for it to restrain the excesses of the Pakeha. The ongoing and unceasing assertion by Maori of their own political sovereignty, such as by Nga Puhi before the tribunal this week, is justified on that basis alone.
Ngai Tuhoe, of course, did not sign the Treaty at all. However they had terrible atrocities afflicted upon them by the Crown and it is their lands that were used to establish the Urewera National Park in 1957. John Key has said this week, in an extraordinary breach of good faith, that the Urewera will not be returned to Tuhoe. Once again this demonstrates why allowing the thief to adjudicate their own case is so problematic.
Apart from sheer racism, it is difficult to see why Tuhoe should not be returned their own lands. The Crown has always said that stolen lands now in private ownership will not be taken for restitution and this is a position that Maori have generally accepted on the basis that although it disadvantages them (since most stolen was settled and farmed) it would create a new injustice to seize it from its current occupants. What the Prime Minister is now saying is that even land owned by the Crown will not be returned unless in dribs and drabs. It would seem to be the sheer size of the Urewera forests that is the sticking point – that is to say it is simply the fact that the Crown is in a position to return the bulk of the land taken that is the very reason it will not. Talk about wanting to steal your cake and eat it too.