Conflicting Expectations: On the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, Maori enjoyed complete cultural, economic and military hegemony in "Niu Tirani" [New Zealand]. In such circumstances their cession of sovereignty to Great Britain was likely regarded as being more strategic than immediate. Within 25 years, however, the Maori situation had changed dramatically. With the experience of the Maori in mind, we should ask ourselves: "What will New Zealand look like 25 years from today?"
IT WAS 175 YEARS AGO, today, that Queen Victoria’s representative, Captain William Hobson, secured these islands for the British Empire.
According to the Waitangi Tribunal, however, that is not what the chieftains of the North believed was happening. The Tribunal’s historians flatly reject the idea that, in signing Captain Hobson’s treaty, the chiefs had voluntarily ceded all political authority to these pale-skinned men in their uncomfortable woollen coats, starched collars and feathered hats.
Personally, I’m not so sure this was the case. Contemporary records of the debates at Waitangi on 5-6 February 1840 make it clear that everybody present knew exactly what was going on.
And one of the more important things that Maori knew in February 1840 was that when it came to the disposition of cultural, economic and military power in Niu Tirani (as they called New Zealand) Maori were very much in charge.
Sure, the British were powerful. Indeed, there were Maori leaders present at Waitangi that day who had seen for themselves just how powerful the British were. But, those same Maori were equally aware of how very far away Britain was, and of how much effort it required to successfully navigate the 12,000 miles that separated the River Thames from the Bay of Islands. It would be a very long time, they calculated, before the treaty they’d just signed amounted to anything more than words on paper.
They were wrong about that.
Just a quarter-of-a-century later, in 1865, there were as many British soldiers serving in New Zealand as there were miles separating them from their homeland. And they weren’t just here for show. General Cameron’s 12,000 imperial troops were slowly but surely demonstrating to the Maori King, Tawhiao, and his allies, that, when it came to the disposition of cultural, economic and military power, the tangata whenua were no longer in charge.
The pale-skinned men in their uncomfortable woollen coats, starched collars and outlandish head-gear were rapidly taking the Maori’s place – and their land. Since 1840, tens-of-thousands of Pakeha had made the journey to Niu Tirani – and they had come to stay.
Fast-forwarding 150 years to 2015, let’s put ourselves in the same position as those Maori leaders at Waitangi on the day the Treaty was signed. Looking forward a quarter-of-a-century, to the bi-centenary of the Treaty’s signing in 2040, how much will have changed, and how much will have stayed the same?
Something tells me that the changes of the next 25 years will be as great – if not greater – than those which overwhelmed Niu Tirani between 1840 and 1865.
There will, of course, be plenty of New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, who disagree: foreseeing no serious alteration to the status-quo. Like the Maori leaders of 1840, they are confident that the balance of cultural, economic and military forces will endure. Some on the Maori side may even predict a strengthening of the indigenous people’s position.
I do not share their confidence.
The New Zealand I foresee taking shape in 25 years’ time will be profoundly different. Its ethnic composition and cultural preoccupations will reflect the burgeoning regional dominance of the People’s Republic of China. Long before the bi-centenary of the Treaty, the number of New Zealanders with familial connections to China will have easily surpassed the numbers identifying as tangata whenua. Mandarin will be the second language of New Zealand – not Maori.
Rising sea levels, due to global warming, will also have driven hundreds of thousands of Pasifika to New Zealand’s shores. By 2040, their numbers, too, will exceed those of Maori.
In 25 years, Pakeha New Zealanders will still constitute a majority of the population – but only just. And these will be much changed from the Pakeha of 2015.
The world-wide economic crisis of the 2020s, during which New Zealand abandoned its historical relationships with Britain and the USA, and the threw in its lot, irrevocably, with the People’s Republic, will have driven New Zealand’s political elites steadily towards the tightly-managed form of democracy currently observable in Hong Kong.
The generous bi-culturalism of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, with its Treaty Settlements and co-management of key resources, will have fallen among the first casualties of New Zealand’s strategic turn from West to East.
Indeed, so much may have changed by 2040 that the Treaty of Waitangi’s bicentenary passes unnoticed and unmissed.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 February 2015.