Hobson’s choice, Bryan Gilling

Te Ara Ki Te Tiriti: The Path to the Treaty of Waitangi
Paul Moon
David Ling, $29.95,
ISBN 0908990839

The Treaty of Waitangi often appears to have sprung forth, fully formed, from William Hobson’s pen on 6 February 1840. Many accounts begin days before the actual signing with only a passing reference to preceding events in Sydney in January and to Hobson’s send-off by Governor Gipps, bolstered by a brief discussion of part of the instructions with which Hobson was despatched by Lord Normanby, Secretary of State for the Colonies.

This truncated sort of analysis is typical of a stream of New Zealand historiography which considers only what went on here, as if this country were sealed off from outside influences. Such analysis is also encouraged – although not required – by the Treaty claims process which, of course, by definition can only consider events after the signing and focuses on what went on between Maori and the Crown. The legal, intellectual and cultural contexts which informed and influenced the New Zealand situation are often omitted as irrelevant to the statutory requirement to measure actions against the yardstick of the Treaty principles.


The great benefit of Paul Moon’s book is to remind us in detail of the various influences and trends which contributed to the formation of the Treaty and to its signing by both parties – to point out that no event “just happens”, but always takes place in a complex context. In this case, the complex context was happening in the Colonial Office, in Westminster politics, and in British society that led to both the concept and execution of such a thing as a treaty with indigenous people on the far side of the world.

The first chapter skates rapidly over the Colonial Office’s internal difficulties and some of the policies of Bentham and JS Mill. It also refers to representations made by various settlers and officials who wanted British intervention in New Zealand and to representations by the Church Missionary Society. (Pace Moon, the Church Missionary Society was not the only – merely the least upmarket theologically and socially – of the Church of England’s missionary bodies; and Samuel Marsden was not its sole spokesman.) The chapter flits backwards and forwards, implying the three decades prior to 1840 were a unitary period, but they were not – for Britain, the Australian colonies or New Zealand.

The book has been advertised – indeed Moon repeatedly promotes it himself – as a radical presentation of new evidence. This is not the case. Moon, it is true, places his emphasis differently from many others, but there is little here that has not already been researched and written about elsewhere, often a generation or more ago.

One of Moon’s central and allegedly most radical theses is that the British Government did not want to take over New Zealand, that the process was all ad hoc. This is far from new. Ian Wards in the mid-1960s documented the officials’ difficulties much more fully, while 20 years later Claudia Orange wrote of the “one consistent and fundamental attitude – a reluctance to intervene formally”, in The Treaty of Waitangi. Or consider McLintock in 1958, in Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, suggesting that the Treaty was “heir to a weary half-century of irresolution which culminated in a grudging acceptance by the Colonial Office and its allies of what was in effect a fait accompli, a settlement in fact if not in name.”

Furthermore, it is a historical given that, where at all possible, the British Government wanted an economic empire achieved by non-governmental agencies such as the East India Company. Britain only became politically involved where its subjects were either in, or had caused, trouble, a pattern continuing late into the 19th century with missionaries in Africa. Moon’s discussion of the drawing of Britain into New Zealand would have been more sophisticated had he more fully explored the fruits of Busby’s residency: the 1831 petition, the 1834 authorisation of a New Zealand flag and the 1835 Declaration of Independence, and especially their legal implications. These were all Crown actions relating to Maori on matters of “sovereignty”, with little or no reference to Pakeha settlers.


In chapter four, Moon explicitly tackles the allegedly received wisdom that the British sought Maori sovereignty (and that Maori also gave it up), arguing that this is not at all what the Colonial Office intended. From a number of passages (in Lord Normanby’s 1839 instructions to Hobson, for example), he argues that where these have been read as indicating that Maori were expected to surrender their sovereignty, the passages, in fact, refer to a type of legal national sovereignty that Maori did not actually possess. Moon’s argument is that the British only wished to acquire the authority to rule effectively over troublesome British subjects. To do so, they had to acquire sovereignty over the country, but not over Maori. But Hobson came not just as Consul but as Lieutenant-Governor, intending to annex the country and supported by Gipps’s January proclamations. Beyond question, too, the pre-Treaty dealings in Maori land were to be judged by British law.

Much is made of London’s “apparently stubborn refusal to supply more troops to the colony” as demonstration of the lack of intention to rule Maori. However, Moon himself quotes Under-secretary Stephen’s admission that every soldier around the empire was already committed. Police historian Richard Hill has shown in detail that, in fact, a coercive apparatus (to be applied to all within New Zealand) was promptly set up, based around police magistrates, and that Hobson’s initial resources were expanded expeditiously. Only five policemen may have come with Hobson, but marines were aboard ship and more troops and police soon arrived or were employed – before Hobson’s actions allegedly forced the Colonial Office to embrace British rule of Maori.

Moon attacks Henry Williams, the missionary primarily responsible for translating the Treaty into Maori. Portraying Williams as a highly competent linguist consciously mistranslating the Treaty to deceive Maori into signing, Moon examines neither the man nor the full story of his work, including his later dismay when British sovereignty was implemented, according to Moon, exactly as Williams desired. In fact, Williams had long openly supported the arrival of British authority for humanitarian reasons and had no need to disguise his sympathies. Moreover, even given Williams’ length of service in New Zealand he was not one of the expert Bible translators, while Moon never addresses the issue of translating such a technical document as the Treaty. It is far from clear, for instance, that “mana” was the appropriate translation for “sovereignty”, as Moon declares.

Clearly Moon also violently dislikes Hobson and his “iniquitous officials”. The reasons for this are never explained, perhaps being taken for granted following Moon’s biography of Hobson. How, precisely, were these officials iniquitous and corrupt (without exception apparently) – as opposed, say, to being merely occasionally inadequate? Moon does not consider whether the virtual rebellion of the New Zealand Company’s settlers pushed both the terms and timing of Hobson’s May proclamations of sovereignty (which themselves go virtually unremarked in The Path). Analysis of such events should surely inform an evaluation of what Hobson intended with regard to both settlers and Maori, especially when the book’s central thesis is that Hobson drove the extension of British sovereignty.


Moon deserves commendation for his extensive footnotes (and his publisher for printing them). Sometimes, however, there is simply too much information. For example, four footnotes support the book’s second paragraph, describing the Colonial Office at 14 Downing Street. These advise us that, in addition to the “four-story” [sic] building, there was an attic and basement, and that officials often stored work at home.

What seems missing from the extensive sources referenced is a feel for their relative value, or a weighing-up of their discrepancies. Colenso, for example, writing 50 years after the event, with the twin benefits of hindsight and no-one left alive to contradict him, cannot be taken at face value. He was a printer, unordained and uneducated, and his self-aggrandising account of his own role casts doubt on much of the rest of his tale. Moon’s book lacks close-grained analysis, comparison and evaluation – even of the events of the few days surrounding 6 February 1840. No detailed minutes were taken; the various sources give us many snapshots taken from numerous angles but without necessarily displaying the same scene and certainly not a complete picture. These snapshots are therefore difficult to assemble into the connected panorama Moon’s account requires.

Another disappointment is a failure to ask and answer the “so what?” question. What do Moon’s claims about intention mean for the subsequent colonisation process? What do they have to say to Maori (and historians) who agree with his central proposition? What do his claims have to say to the modern politician or lawyer, who argues that past intention really doesn’t matter now and that 160 years of practical and enforced British sovereignty long ago overtook any residual Maori independence? Is the whole question of intention now merely an antiquarian curiosity? Do Treaty principles such as partnership and fiduciary duty lack validity because no such partnership or trust relationship was ever entered into? Unnoticed by Moon, scholars have already tackled some of these issues; F M Brookfield’s Waitangi and Indigenous Rights springs to mind.

Moon’s focus on the Treaty’s context, especially the British intention, is valuable; but ultimately his conclusions are neither as startling nor as widely researched as he claims – and they are left hanging in the very early 1840s. Those seeking truly detailed studies and analysis should go to such works as those of Adams and Wards, and much research generated during the Waitangi Tribunal process.


Bryan Gilling is a member of the Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit, Victoria University of Wellington.



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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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