The Treaty: Sovereignty, Property, Rights

a people composed of numerous dispersed and petty tribes, who possess few political relations to each other and are incompetent to act or even deliberate in concert. Colonial Secretary, Lord Normanby, speaking about the native inhabitants of New Zealand in his instructions to Hobson, August 1939

What it meant at the time

Opinion piece by Roger Childs

It was 6 February 1840 and the location was an elevated area above the Bay of Islands known as Waitangi. The British government’s envoy, Captain William Hobson, had called native tribal leaders together to sign a treaty.

When we examine the significance of this agreement, we need to understand what the signatories understood at the time.

This was a treaty about the scattered native peoples of New Zealand, through their iwi leaders, ceding sovereignty to the British government in exchange for

~ having the ownership of their lands, dwellings and property (taonga) protected

~ becoming British citizens.

There was no Waitangi Tribunal, no late 1980s Maori back-translation into Te Reo, no mention of partnership or principles.

Passing sovereignty over to the Queen

Lieutenant Governor William Hobson

So was the sovereignty of New Zealand placed in the hands of the most powerful nation on the planet? Absolutely.

There was no way the British were going to agree to joint governorship deals with what Lord Normanby called dispersed and petty tribes. He spelled out to Hobson that all of New Zealand, without exception, was to come under the sovereignty of Queen Victoria.

However Normanby wanted the Treaty to be fair to the native inhabitants. In exchange for sovereignty, they would be given many rights which were not accorded to native peoples anywhere else in the world as the time.

Henry Williams, and his son Edward, were experts in the written Maori language which they had helped devise. For sovereignty which was the English word, they chose the Maori term for governor – kawana, and added tanga to make the word ‘governorship’.

Many historians today, claim that the Maori chiefs didn’t understand that they would be ceding sovereignty if they signed the Treaty.

In reality, plenty of the tribal leaders who signed had a working knowledge of English, but regardless, from what the chiefs said at Waitangi, especially those who did not sign, they were obviously clear about what the treaty meant.

The first speakers on 5 February 1840, the day before they signed, strongly criticised the proposed treaty, raising issues that concerned them, such as the loss of their power as chiefs.

This showed that they understood, that in accepting British rule they would be giving up their tribal sovereignty (rule).

Ceding sovereignty to the British Crown was the basis of Article first.

Guaranteeing ownership of property

Property acquired by the spear. Hongi Hika’s definition of taonga

.. nothing but timber, flax, pork and potatoes. Nga Puhi chiefs understanding of taonga

This guarantee was the key point in Article second. It was extended to land and dwellings and the Crown was given the “exclusive right” to purchase land that the iwi wished to sell.

How about property? There has been great debate over the use of the word taonga.  In Hugh Kawharu 1989 back-translation of Tiriti it means “treasures”, which covers a wide range of elements.

However, the critical point is not what “taonga” means today, but what it meant to the chiefs in 1840.

In 1840 it did not mean “treasures” and everything that word conjures up. It meant property as stated in Thomas Kendall’s and Samuel Lees’ Maori dictionary and grammar of the time.

Maori become British citizens

In Article third, the people of New Zealand (everyone: Polynesian and European) gained the rights and privileges of British citizens. This was in exchange for the cession of Sovereignty to the Queen.

These rights were not given to indigenous people in South Africa or Australia until the late 20th century, even though those peoples had lived in their “countries” for tens of thousands of years.

An 1840 treaty

There have been various versions of the Treaty of Waitangi in circulation, with the latest being a back translation into Maori by Professor Hugh Kawharu in the late 1980s, as mentioned above.

He also included various subtle reinterpretations of words in the original treaty draft. Coincidently, for a time, he was on the Waitangi Tribunal and was also a claimant.

The Tribunal has made a meal out of the new meaning of taonga, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars of claims and payouts to the part-Maori descendants of the 1840 iwi up and down the country.

The reality of the Treaty

For all New Zealanders, regardless of their ethnicity and mixed ancestry, is that the Treaty (Tiriti)

  • is the country’s founding document
  • ceded sovereignty to the British Crown
  • guaranteed the ownership of property to all New Zealanders
  • extended citizenship rights to all.

As Hobson reiterated to each chief after he had signed the Treaty of Waitangi at the time: He iwi tahi tatou – We are now one nation.