An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi
Bridget Williams Books, $39.95,
I was born on Waitangi Day and grew up in the years after it was made a public holiday, which meant that the commemoration of the signing of the Treaty held rather a different place in my early life than it might otherwise have done. While parents bemoaned the disruption to the newly-begun school term, and the concerns of protestors were conveyed to the nation through the mediating lenses of television news, the accident of my birth meant that the Treaty, in my childhood mind, was inextricably linked with the getting of presents, the eating of cake, and with not having to go to school.
Within mainstream Pakeha culture a rather more general theme of wilful disengagement from the Treaty persists, perpetuated by people who can’t, as I can, claim the excuse of childhood. We see in media-borne voices of dissent the competing claims of cherished cultural myths, many of them variations on the idea of “one people”, economic imperatives (whereby groups of Maori, or Maori as a whole, are seen by some Pakeha as using the Treaty as a sort of fast track to wealth, at the expense of other ethnicities) and, somewhere in the background, the context of history, the complicated “why” of things as they are.
It is to the credit of Claudia Orange that her new volume An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi not only provides the reader with a sustained historical synthesis of competing claims to the meaning and uses of the Treaty, but also explains the successive contexts out of which these different understandings have arisen. This is an approach that necessarily dampens the inflammatory rhetoric in which the Treaty is sometimes discussed, without playing down the impact of the rhetoric itself.
But to review this volume solely in terms of its consideration of cultural mythologies and disparate reactions to the Treaty would, in essence, be a misreading. It is first and foremost a work of history, and needs to be understood as such. From the point of view of someone who works alongside, rather than within, the field of academic history, I found Orange’s prose, and the thinking I infer behind it, clear, readable and refreshing. The effect is not of some “voice of history”, despite the considerable significance of the subject matter, but rather of a plainly expressed narration of political and, latterly, legal events.
In the example below, we can see how Orange handles the loaded matter of the making of two versions of the Treaty in a stylistically understated manner, at the same time as anticipating consequences that (as she later explains) would be disastrous for Maori:
Whatever [Henry Williams] intended, the result was not an exact translation of the English text. From the evidence available, we cannot be certain of Williams’s motives. Hobson had been told to keep his official instructions private (they were published late in 1840), and it cannot be assumed that he explained them clearly to Williams. The missionaries had been asked by their superiors to support Hobson’s negotiations, however, and this was probably what Williams was doing. What we do know is that the wording in the Maori translation was vague and ambiguous on crucial points.
This paragraph is typical of Orange’s tone throughout, although it is particularly to pre-1975 material that she brings this lightness of touch. This is not to say that the chapters dealing with the Treaty after 1975 become heavy going, but to acknowledge that the creation of the Waitangi Tribunal and the subsequent infusion of the Treaty into many areas of government and legislation make this history a book of two halves. Although temporally much briefer, the post-1975 history of the Treaty occupies almost half of Orange’s volume.
One significant theme in the first half is the rapidity with which, once the apparatus of government was consolidated in 19th century New Zealand rather than in Britain, the Crown used its legislative power to protect settler interests and aspirations at the considerable expense of Maori, and in particular how the maze-like operations of the Native Land Court constituted, in Orange’s words, “the most serious attack on the vitality of Maori life”. If the details of the Native Land Court’s duties and function remain at times difficult to keep in mind, the consequences of its operation do not.
A second theme from this first half is the extent to which both Maori and Pakeha society – the latter in the time of initial European settlement, particularly – were diverse, pluralistic entities. To the views and ambitions of the early missionaries, official appointees from New South Wales and elsewhere, as well as traders and profiteers wanting access to natural resources, can also be added the voice of the Colonial Office, which emerges from the narrative as an irregular lobby for the interests of native people. Hobson’s famous “he iwi tahi tatou” was as untrue of Europeans in New Zealand as it was of the imagined uniting of Pakeha and Maori culture.
The diversity of Maori culture can be seen not only in the illustrations of Maori tribal locations, but also in the book’s many photos of late 19th and early 20th century Maori life. There is a visual as well as a textual narrative here: the reader sees political and tribal leaders, prisoners-of-war, food gatherers and local people at hui. The impression this gives is not of a dying people, as contemporary Pakeha saw it, but of multiple attempts at resistance and appeals for justice on a variety of issues. The seriousness of these appeals is apparent in a photo of a mission to Britain of the King Movement and Waikato Maori in 1914. In top hats, gloves and carrying canes, these gentlemen give the impression of being able to walk the walk on all levels. We learn they “were given an audience with King George V – on condition that grievances were not discussed. This defeated the aim of the appeal, which was to seek justice, especially over the confiscation of Waikato land.”
More work is required of the reader in the second half of the History, which deals with the Treaty since 1975: the Waitangi Tribunal, the emergence and consolidation of the settlements process, the handling of the Treaty by successive governments and the shifting perceptions of the public. The explanation of the claims and settlements process in particular requires concentration, although a two-page “flow chart for claims processes” clarifies procedures that, although linear, are by no means singular. Orange analyses the issues within both Maori and Pakeha culture generated by 20 years of claims and settlement, and notes, at times critically, the role played by the mass media in constructing Maori grievance as Maori reluctance to fit in with the shifts in mainstream public opinion, itself manipulated by the news media.
It is clear from this volume the extent to which both the greater role of the Treaty in the public sector and the willingness of the Crown to hear and settle Maori grievances were facilitated by the Fourth Labour Government. What emerges simultaneously, however, is the way in which that government’s socially liberal agenda was threatened and compromised by its neo-liberal economic reforms. Heady, experimental days indeed, in which the undermining of the possibility of settlement due to the selling of public assets which might be subject to Maori claims was stalled not by watchful public servants or cabinet members, but by tribal initiatives through the courts.
Reading Orange’s account of the court cases is like living those unsettled and disruptive times again, from the point of view of a different group facing dispossession from those family and friends with whom I experienced it first time around.
Orange’s conclusions are thoughtful rather than hopeful, reminding the reader that although “a relationship ‘akin to a partnership’ has begun, and can become a real part of the country’s future … such commitment requires a courageous political will.” Her book reveals a nation whose governments have operated largely reactively to the Treaty. Where political will has been exercised most emphatically in recent years, it has often been over the question of how much money the government is willing to spend on settlement, and for how long. In general, this is not a book in which a case is made for what the status and uses of the Treaty might or ought to be. In this regard, it may not please those fighting to expand the legislative limits of tino rangatiratanga. The possibility remains that the necessary narrative complexity of the last 30 years of Treaty history will provide fuel for those who would like the Treaty, and the extensive range of legal precedents that now arise from it, consigned to history.
Orange is clear in her introduction about the orientation of her work as “an independent study, one that argues no particular case but records a complex history”, noting also that “the story inevitably becomes more opaque” the nearer one draws to the present. Only in the promotional literature accompanying the book’s release do Orange’s thoughts about how her volume might be used become clearer. Countering the idea held by many Pakeha that “once the Waitangi Tribunal has processed iwi claims, the Treaty will ‘go away’”, Orange suggests the Treaty “is something that our ancestors, ourselves, and our children and grandchildren can be proud of.”
One thing the History makes clear is the extent to which this attitude to the Treaty is dependent on a continuous historical memory. It is this sense of history as the vital and invigorating force at work in life and culture that can be interpreted (from a Pakeha standpoint) as driving not only Maori grievance – the Treaty never receded from Maori view, even within a pluralistic culture – but also Maori respect and indeed custodial care for the Treaty and the partnership it symbolises. Among the merits of mainstream Pakeha culture, the same cherishing of historical detail (and its politically active offshoot, litigation) has not been applied to the Treaty as it has to other facets of New Zealand’s life and culture – sport, for example.
Orange’s volume, written within a Pakeha scholarly framework, provides not only an opportunity for interested readers to augment their understanding of the Treaty’s context and history, but also a chance to reflect more generally on what it means to have a history of Treaty partnership between Maori and Pakeha – a partnership variously interpreted, applied and contested by the signatories’ cultural heirs, and as much a living thing as the document out of which it arises.
Megan Clayton teaches literature and other arts subjects at the University of Canterbury. She is of Pakeha descent.