Waitangi Day – Day Of The Wailing Waters

Just the other day it was Waitangi Day here in New Zealand and I bet you have no idea what that really means. And if I tell you that Waitangi means ‘waters of sorrowful cries’ in Maori, you’re probably still none the wiser. For most New Zealanders, Waitangi Day is just another welcome day off, yet for those in the know, this is a day that marks either a celebration or a lamentation of historic proportions.

It is often said that out of all the European colonies, New Zealand treated their indigenous Maori population best. Many Kiwis will happily reiterate this statement, often pointing the finger at their barbaric neighbours in Australia who still hold one of the worst track records in terms of racism and inequality. Compared to the Aussies, New Zealand is a veritable role model and a text-book example of how to establish a colony while still respecting the native population. This is certainly a convenient truth for the less than 170-year-old New Zealand government, largely consisting of European descendants…

Now where did that image go?

One of the ways this popular belief is upheld is by marking February the 6th every year. A public holiday in New Zealand, this day commemorates the signing of a treaty – the Waitangi Treaty – between some 45 Maori chiefs and the Queen of England, who thus annexed their land and made it part of the British Empire.

While the Waitangi Treaty has had obvious benefits for the Maori – such as being recognized as humans rather than animals like colonial powers did in South America, Africa, Australia etc. – the treaty was by no means a just affair, nor is it even, to this day, part of the domestic law of New Zealand.

From Outpost To Officialdom

Back in the 1830’s, New Zealand was still a distant outpost for those Europeans who had traversed the globe and found themselves in the Southern Hemisphere. Where inland Australia was already being penetrated by gung-ho miners and adventurous cartographers, New Zealand was merely a convenient stretch of coast line for the whaling industry and a few traders.

Now where did that image go?

As the first official representative of England, James Busby was little more than an observer who stood guard over the British flag.

However, inspired by the movement for the abolition of slavery and by evangelical religious beliefs, key officials in the colonial offices of the British Empire were, in fact, advocating that New Zealand be established as a Maori nation which would accommodate a steady influx of European settlers.

Of course they were to accommodate to British settlers more so than other nationalities and so it was that a Declaration Of Independence was drafted by the comically power-less British resident James Busby, and signed by 52 Maori chiefs in 1835. The declaration claimed New Zealand to be a ‘Confederation of United Tribes’, but it was little more than a piece of paper (there were hundreds of Maori chiefdoms which hadn’t signed or even been informed of the declaration) to wave at the French government envoys, who were then on the lookout for yet another colony.

A Strategic Change Of Plans

The “noble” intentions of the British Colonial Office rapidly changed into a much more traditional divide-and-conquer approach when, in 1839, they learned of the infamous New Zealand Company’s plans to create an independent republic in New Zealand.

Now where did that image go?

The New Zealand Company was founded in 1937 with the explicit aim of colonizing New Zealand. Opposed to the Treaty of Waitangi, the company was at odds with the English government and was often accused of “trickery and lies”.

Unwilling to allow a private company to morph into a fully fledged nation state and thus loose the potential riches to be had from this new land, the Crown of England immediately effectuated a counter-plan: A treaty was to be signed between the Queen of England and the Maori people which would render New Zealand a British territory, thus making the Maori population British subjects. To put things into perspective, there were at this point only about 2000 Europeans in New Zealand and more than 100.000 Maoris.

An Amateur Affair

It was the sickly and ill-equipped naval officer William Hobson who was assigned the task of drafting a treaty and convincing all the Maori chiefs that it was in their best interest to sign it. With no time to loose, but also with virtually no prerequisite knowledge of such legal matters, Hobson started drafting the treaty almost immediately upon arrival.

To aid him in this colonial endeavour, Hobson had his secretary James Freeman and the similarly inexperienced “symbolic diplomat” James Busby. None of them were lawyers and without any draft document to work from, they hastily put together the document that would become the backbone for the formation of New Zealand as a British colony and later an independent country.

Now where did that image go?

Surviving a fire, 2 world wars, countless relocations and 173 years of ageing, the original treaty is still around to tell the tale…

Perhaps the most crucial part of drafting this historical document was the translation of the treaty into Maori. After all, it was intended for the Maori chiefs to understand and subsequently sign. After 3 busy days of authoring the treaty, this final important job was then done overnight by the British missionary Henry Williams who had some grasp of the local lingo.

Translation Or Interpretation?

Needless to say the whole project was fraught with inconsistencies and misunderstandings. For a start, the Maoris were not familiar with the notion of sovereignty, nor did the Maori translation fully convey the implications of ceding it to the Queen of England. Indeed, Queen Victoria was viewed by many Maoris as some sort of biblical figure (thanks to the ever-industrious missionaries) and as such this treaty would be a sort of “sacred covenant” to ensure their safety and well-being.

And so it was that on the 5th of February 1840, on the banks of the Waitangi River, this faulty document was presented to a few hundred Maoris. Being served a splash of porridge for sustenance, the Maoris, at this point represented by a number of chiefs, deliberated all day and night on this ambiguous proposition made by envoys of a distant ruler.

Now where did that image go?

Although this painting of the signing of the treaty shows Hobson & Co. in full regalia, they were in reality so surprised by the chiefs’ early morning readiness (a day early) that Hobson himself was still in his dressing gown when the treaty was signed.

Williams the missionary no doubt played a key-role in convincing the Maori chiefs to sign the treaty. Being a somewhat trusted person in the area and having the necessary language skills, Williams repeatedly stressed the goodwill of the Queen as their protector and non-intrusive ruler and by the morning of February 6th, 45 of the chiefs were ready to sign the historic treaty. As each chief signed the document, the soon-to-be Governor of New Zealand, William Hobson, said to them (probably with a thick accent, and perhaps with a tinge of doubt); “he iwi tahi tātou”, which in English means “we are now one people”.

Lawmakers Above The Law

To sum it up, the Treaty of Waitangi consisted of 3 main articles and conditions: 1) That the Maori “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England all the rights and powers of sovereignty (…) over their respective territories”; 2) The Queen guaranteed “full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties” while at the same time giving her the exclusive right to buy and sell the land; & 3) The Queen would extend to them her “royal protection and impart to them all the rights and privileges of British subjects”.

Obviously, having 45 chiefs’ signatures was far from sufficient as there were hundreds of chiefdoms all over New Zealand yet to be informed of the treaty let alone consent to it. A few weeks later, Hobson therefore had some 200 copies of the treaty printed and over the next 7 months around 50 meetings were arranged between British representatives and Maori chiefs, with between 530-540 chiefs finally putting their signatures down.

So what exactly makes this treaty so controversial? Well, beyond the ambiguous translation (there is still no consensus on what was actually agreed upon) the British didn’t exactly adhere to their own legal contrivance: Trying to keep in accordance with internationally recognized constitutional procedures, the British were still in too much of a hurry to follow through; before the treaty had been presented to – and signed by – all the Maori chiefs, Hobson unlawfully proclaimed British sovereignty over New Zealand so as to prevent the New Zealand Company from creating their own colony (not to mention the French who were still trying to set up shop in this far-away land).

Now where did that image go?

From the 1960’s onward, Maori protesters started voicing their frustrations more and more in public.

Not only did the British not respect the very same laws with which they were asserting themselves, they also failed to acknowledge that there were, in fact, scores of chiefs and tribes who had either not been heard or who had refused to sign the treaty. To add to the invalidity of the whole affair, the treaty was also being circulated in several different versions..!

A Word Is (Only) A Word!

A great irony in the history of the Treaty of Waitangi is the little known fact that this much disputed document was nearly lost only a few years after its conception: In a government office fire in Auckland in 1842, records clerk George Elliot managed to rescue this crucial document only by risking his own life, and with this self-less act he might have potentially changed the course of a nation. Perhaps if “Ti Triti O Waitangi” as the treaty is called in Maori, had been lost in the flames, the Brits would have had a difficult time asserting their perceived rights over New Zealand…

Most likely, though, it wouldn’t have made a difference. For all the noble promises and legally binding documents they presented, the colonial rulers seemed to be less concerned with keeping their word than with filling their pockets and claiming the land for their settlers. What happened over the next century only underlined the fact that the treaty was a mere instrument for international recognition of British sovereignty over New Zealand rather than an actual agreement between the Maori people and the Queen of England.

It is another twist of irony that these first official promises were made by the banks of a river which name in English means “water of lamentation”: Indeed, for a nation that is often said to have treated its native population fairly, there are plenty of nastiness swept under the parliament rugs. From the 1863 Settlements Act, which literally meant the brute confiscation of more than a million hectares of Maori land, to the 1909 Native Health Act which prohibited Maoris from breastfeeding their babies, causing the infant mortality rate to go through the roof, various New Zealand governments certainly has lots to answer for.

Now where did that image go?

Although Waitangi Day is a controversial public holiday among many Maori’s, some are also celebrating the day with a full display of Maori culture. This picture shows Maori waka’s (war-canoes) at the Bay of Islands on Waitangi Day.

Catching Up With The Past

Despite all the shortcomings, though, some recognition and several admissions have been made to the Maori population by New Zealand governments. Since the first official Waitangi Day in 1947 (it wasn’t made a public holiday until 1974) the public debate has gradually included more and more criticism of the way the Maori has been treated in their own ancestral land.

One culmination of these criticisms and the subsequent self-reflections on part of official New Zealand, was the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975. While initially having negligible power and function, this tribunal gained more influence in the 1980’s and has, since then, been an important player in the many claims for compensation put forward by Maori tribes.

Like the treaty itself, however, the Waitangi Tribunal doesn’t wield any legal powers. Instead, it is set up as an investigative body aimed at verifying the validity of the – often historical – claims before they reach the courts. As such, the Waitangi Tribunal is only an advisor to the New Zealand Government, and although their advice is mostly being taken into account by the courts, the tribunal has also been ignored in some cases. One is tempted to conclude that it is only when it suits the government’s own interest that they care to play the part of benevolent compensator…

If you think that all of this talk about Waitangi Day is already “old news” and only interesting for historically minded nerds (like myself), think again. The Treaty of Waitangi is indeed still a hot potato and its contested significance is still the basis of current court cases. Many land concessions have been given and literally hundreds of millions of dollars have been – and are still being – paid out in compensation to Maori descendants.

Now where did that image go?

As the New Zealand Government puts down new policies, Maori protest movements are continuing to hold them accountable for the promises made in the Waitangi Treaty. This picture shows an unhappy mob outside the NZ parliament, protesting against the Foreshore & Seabed act a couple of years back.

Please Wait – Colonization In Progress…

In recent years, the treaty has even been referred to in cases revolving around the Maori ownership of radio-waves, the protection of the Maori language and Maori rights to water and geothermal resources. These claims have come in response to the government, once again, not taking Maori rights into account when laying down new policies. From my point of view, this shows that the colonisation of New Zealand is an ongoing process rather than an historical event…

Moreover, the very notion of the land and its resources belonging to anyone in particular seems to me ridiculous. But even if many of us do not recognize humans’ ownership of the planet, we unfortunately have no choice but to play the game and see if we can hustle a bit of space for ourselves. Then we can, at least, share those lands and resources fairly among those who feel similarly.

The current government party - National - has a long history of opposing Maori claims to their rights as citizens and original inhabitants of New Zealand. This old election poster kind of says it all...

The current government party – National – has a long history of opposing Maori claims to their rights as citizens and original inhabitants of New Zealand. This old election poster kind of says it all…

I will leave you, dear reader, with a quote from a report that was made by the Waitangi Tribunal, bearing in mind that this is an advisory body commissioned and set up by the Government of New Zealand:

“What we saw and heard in sittings over many years left us in no doubt that unless it is accepted that New Zealand has two founding cultures, not one; unless Māori culture and identity are valued in everything government says and does; and unless they are welcomed into the very centre of the way we do things in this country, nothing will change. Māori will continue to be perceived, and know they are perceived, as an alien and resented minority, a problem to be managed with a seemingly endless stream of taxpayer-funded programmes, but never solved.”

Happy Colonisation Day!

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Stealing Australia Day | Impromptu Immigrant

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