Mixed Historical Motives: The simple clauses of the Treaty of Waitangi masterfully embraced the complex agendas of both its British and Maori signatories.
IT’S JANUARY 1840, two sailing vessels are fast approaching the North Island of New Zealand. His Majesty’s Ship Rattlesnake carries Captain William Hobson bearing instructions from the Colonial Office to organise the voluntary cession of the islands of New Zealand to the British Crown. The other ship, Aurora, carries settlers to the newly established settlement of Port Nicolson. It has been chartered by the privately owned and organised New Zealand Company.
Captain Hobson’s instructions are not unrelated to the purposes for which the Aurora and her passengers set sail. The islands of New Zealand, conveniently located in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere, are large but sparsely populated (the indigenous Maori population numbers approximately 125,000). Not surprisingly, therefore, they have begun to loom large in the sights of European entrepreneurs, missionaries and imperialists.
Under pressure from the aristocratic backers of the New Zealand Company, and wary of the pretensions of competing powers – particularly the French – the Colonial Office in London is determined to regularise the confused situation then prevailing in Australasia. If the land titles being sold to settlers by the New Zealand Company are to be legally enforceable, the question of sovereignty must be settled – and quickly. By fair means or by foul, New Zealand is to be annexed to the British Crown.
The cheapest, the most politically expedient, and (in the face of the Missionary Society’s strenuous submissions) the most morally defensible means of securing possession of New Zealand is to persuade the indigenous Maori tribes to cede sovereignty to her Britannic majesty, Victoria, voluntarily. Indeed, British agents and missionaries in New Zealand have been assiduously laying the groundwork for just such a solution since the mid-1830s. The British Resident, James Busby, has even secured a “Declaration of Independence” from his purpose-built “Confederation of Chiefs” so the Crown has something to sit down with when the time to negotiate a plausible treaty of cession finally arrives.
As HMS Rattlesnake drops anchor in the Bay of Islands in February 1840, this is exactly what Hobson and his confreres, Busby and Freeman, are preparing to do.
THE MAORI LEADERS gathered at Waitangi to korero with Captain Hobson have come with an equally clear set of priorities.
First and foremost, they are seeking protection.
From the early 1830s a rough “balance of terror” has prevailed among the indigenous people as more and more of them acquired firearms. Even so, the slaughter and dislocation of the so-called “Musket Wars” are still a very recent memory, and nobody’s ready to wager the lives of their whanau and hapu on the blood-letting never breaking out again. Information gleaned from Maori who’ve travelled to Australia – and further afield – suggests that the British Empire holds out the best hope of keeping the peace between the tribes.
They’re also keen for the British to keep the roughly 2,000 unruly Europeans who’ve settled amongst them to trade, hunt whales and seals, or simply to outrun the writ of whoever’s justice system is after them, under some semblance of control. There’s a lot of wealth to be had from these folk, but only if the tribes can enlist the aid of an entity with sufficient power to make sure they keep their side of any bargain – and pay up.
Having learned the hard way how skittish the Pakeha become when Maori exercise their own robust forms of tribal justice, they reckon it will make things a lot easier if their “guests” are forced to live under their own laws.
Among the shrewder Maori – including the wily Hone Heke – there is also a nagging fear that the ever-increasing inward flow of European settlers will not stop. They’ve learned that these new arrivals are different – not the usual traders, whoremasters, grog-sellers, whalers, sealers and fugitives that the tribes have grown used to accommodating.
More than anything else, the settlers arriving on the New Zealand Company ships desire land – Maori land. And as more and more of them arrive, that hunger for Maori land can only increase. That’s why the better educated and more travelled Maori are determined to secure their tribal possessions against settler pressure by placing them under the protection of the world’s most powerful nation – Great Britain.
Also at Waitangi are the Christian Maori – the products of more than twenty years of missionary effort. To these men and women the Pakeha have vouchsafed an entirely different understanding of the human condition. Christianity has conferred upon its native converts a new kind of power: a new mana.
They understand that the Pakeha’s morality, knowledge and technology offer their people a way-in to a world their ancestors could never have imagined. For them the future lies in a voluntary melding of their own and the newcomers’ cultures – and that melding cannot happen soon enough.
THE SIMPLE CLAUSES of the Treaty of Waitangi masterfully embraced the complex agendas of both its British and Maori signatories. It is, however, naïve in the extreme to characterise the document as a contract.
Treaties are not contracts: at least not in the sense that a mortgage or hire-purchase agreement is a contract. What a treaty actually amounts to is a description of the power relations existing between two peoples at a precise moment in history.
Almost always (and the Treaty of Waitangi is no exception) the relationship between the signatories is an unequal one (usually reflecting the stronger party’s military victory over the weaker). What makes the Treaty of Waitangi so interesting is that it was signed in anticipation of – and as a way of avoiding – the military clash which would have become inevitable if a voluntary cession of sovereignty to the British Crown had been refused.
But Maori did not emerge from the negotiations of February 1840 empty-handed. The quid pro quo, in return for making things easy for the Colonial Office, was the guarantee of what they had been seeking all along – the protection of the Crown. Protection against any return to the slaughter of the Musket Wars; protection against social disorder and commercial trickery; and protection against the Pakeha they were most afraid of: the ones who were coming to stay.
This was the real partnership enshrined in the Treaty: the partnership between the Maori tribes and the Colonial Office, or, to put it more precisely, with the executive arm of the British Government in London. This was the power the chiefs had aligned themselves with: a power which, in the person of the Governor, would stand between them and the predatory approach to land acquisition represented by the New Zealand Company and its growing body of imitators.
And there’s no question that the chiefs’ fears in regard to the settlers were entirely justified. Here, for example, is how one of the Governors of the New Zealand Company viewed the Treaty:
“We have always had very serious doubts whether the Treaty of Waitangi, made with naked savages by a consul invested with no plenipotentiary powers, without ratification by the Crown, could be treated by lawyers as anything but a praiseworthy devise for amusing and pacifying savages for the moment.”
THAT OMINOUS “for the moment” offers us a chilling reminder of just how historically contingent all treaties are. Certainly the Treaty of Waitangi – as a means of protecting the things Maori treasured – did not long survive the moment when the settler population reached a size sufficient to persuade London to grant it a measure of self-government (1852).
It was at that point that the Crown effectively ceased to be the protector of New Zealand’s indigenous inhabitants, and became, instead, the protector of the new settler state. In vain did the chiefs appeal to the Governor to uphold the Crown pre-emption clause of the Treaty. And when, in growing desperation, they crowned their own king and attempted to defend what remained of their tribal lands, the Settler Government promptly declared them rebels and traitors, and the British Government in London dispatched a vast army to crush the resistance of the nascent Maori state.
It is difficult to envisage any other outcome. The moment London acquiesced in the formation of a New Zealand State, they set in place an entity which could only grow and prosper at the expense of the country’s original inhabitants. Because, as the chiefs rightly apprehended back in February 1840, if the new breed of settlers came to stay – it could only be on Maori land.
TO SAY that the Treaty of Waitangi was breached is, therefore, an accurate but ultimately trivial historical observation. Had it not been breached, New Zealand – as a colonial society inextricably enmeshed in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the British Empire – wouldn’t have existed. For the Settler State to become real, the Treaty had to become, in Chief Justice Prendergast’s brutal phrase: “a simple nullity”.
Was that wrong? Should the undertakings given by Captain Hobson on 6 February 1840 have been honoured? Removed from its historical context, the question is easily answered in the affirmative. Except that those who go in search of such unencumbered moral judgements, do so without understanding that such questions can never be extracted from history.
To judge the dead may give some comfort to the living, but no matter how fervently the misdeeds of previous generations are condemned, they cannot be undone. Therefore, whatever justice we seek to do here and now, let it be to right the wrongs of the present – not the past.
We fair-skinned Polynesians are not – and can never be – “Europeans”. Just as contemporary Maori are not – and can never be again – the Maori who inhabited these islands before colonisation. Both of us are the victims of historical forces too vast for blame, to permanent for guilt.
And both of us have nowhere else to go.
This essay was originally published on the Bowalley Road blogsite on 12 May 2011.