Paul Moon: Exploding popular myths about the Treaty of Waitangi

A waka fleet off Ti Beach. Photo / APN
A waka fleet off Ti Beach. Photo / APN

One of the things that seems to survive largely intact over successive Waitangi Days is the set of stock misconceptions about the Treaty. Each February, a wide range of views on the agreement are trumpeted for a few days, and then, after that short burst of constitutional cacophony has died down, they are generally left to lie in silence for another 12 months.

This being the case, it might be helpful to clarify a few of the misunderstandings about the Treaty. Here are six common assertions about the agreement which are manifestly incorrect:

1. The Treaty is the foundation of our system of government

This surprising gem was proposed by some members of the Maori Party a few years ago. It is, of course, demonstrably wrong. The system of government ushered in by the Treaty was characterised by there being no elections, no political parties, with most of the government's activities, policies and funding controlled by London, and with the Governor exercising near-dictatorial powers in the colony.

The foundation for our current system of government was established with the passage of the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act, which almost ignored the Treaty altogether.

2. The Treaty was not signed in good faith / Maori were tricked into signing it.

In the 1970s, the catch-cry of some Maori protest groups was that "the Treaty is a fraud." And while the slogan was eventually abandoned, the sentiment that some deception was involved remained.

Admittedly, there were occasions where Maori and the Crown had different understandings and expectations of the agreement.

However, all the available evidence demonstrates that Sir James Stephen, who conceived the idea of a Treaty with the chiefs, and William Hobson, who executed the instructions, acted with the utmost good faith.

3. The Treaty was an attempt to conquer New Zealand

The last thing Britain wanted to do in the 1820s and 1830s was to conquer New Zealand. Since Cook arrived in the country in 1769, Britain had every opportunity to assert sovereignty over New Zealand but repeatedly refused to do so. The costs were prohibitive, the advantages unclear, and British government policy was firmly against the idea. It was largely the wilful actions of the New Zealand Company in 1839 that finally forced the British government's hand reluctantly to initiate a treaty.

4. A French threat prompted the signing of the Treaty

The notion that a possible French threat to take over New Zealand encouraged the British to seize sovereignty of the country does not match with what is known of British motives for the Treaty. France's flirtations with New Zealand in the early 19th century never reached the point of penetration, and French officials were ambivalent about the opportunities New Zealand offered them. At the same time, the British knew that their Gallic neighbours had little inclination and less chance of making New Zealand a French possession. Indeed, a cynic might suggest that the French were a far greater threat in New Zealand waters in the 1980s than the 1830s.

5. The so-called "Littlewood Treaty" is the "correct" English version of the agreement.

There are good historical, textual, and circumstantial reasons that undermine the arguments of the supporters of this document, but one argument alone clinches it conclusively: the so-called "Littlewood Treaty" is an unsigned document, so by definition, cannot be a treaty (which necessarily are agreements signed by parties to them). However, this inconvenient truth has not stopped its advocates claiming that there is a conspiracy to conceal this supposedly "real" treaty.

6. There is a fourth article of the Treaty

The suggestion that there is a "fourth article" of the Treaty, which promotes religious freedom, emerged in the 1990s, and still clings tenaciously to some people's views about the agreement. Dame Lyndsay Freer, for example, referred to it just a few weeks ago. The "fourth article" is easily debunked, however. Neither the Maori nor English text of the Treaty contains this article. Also, there is no evidence from 1840 that anyone even considered the possibility of such an article existing. The exponents of the "fourth article" cite conversations held between Hobson and others at Waitangi as somehow constituting binding parts of the Treaty, but this is based on false reasoning and an impoverished understanding of international law.

Unfortunately, this list is just the tip of an iceberg that proves reluctant to melt away. However, maybe some people will use this Waitangi Day to learn more about the events behind the slogans, and acquaint themselves with the intriguing history that sprouts from the Treaty.

Dr Paul Moon is professor of history at AUT University, and the author of several books on New Zealand history.

- NZ Herald

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