Dr Danny Keenan
Readers of the Chronicle have been debating through the letters columns as to whether Governor William Hobson ever uttered the phrase "He iwi tahi tatou" ("We are now one people") as he shook the hands of Māori who signed the Treaty in 1840.
This simple pledge has been picked up of course by Hobson's Pledge, a group set up by former National Party leader Don Brash and others in September 2016.
Their stated purpose is to "end Māori favouritism" and "Māori separatism". The group condemns "Māori privilege" and is feaful of a Māori cultural takeover of New Zealand.
This is all very well, but the problem is — did Hobson ever say such a thing? Where is the evidence?
The account of Hobson's statement comes from William Colenso, a mission printer who was present on the day the Treaty was signed in 1840. Colenso's version of events can be found in his book The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, published in 1890, 50 years after the event.
However, other accounts of pākehā who were also present do not mention Hobson saying such a thing. What caught the attention of most observers was the discord evident among Māori.
Missionary Richard Taylor's account does not mention any such statement being expressed by Hobson. Instead, he wrote of the hostility directed to the governor by Māori.
William Baker's account of 1865 also fails to mention Hobson's supposed statement.
Baker was a translator for the Native Department who was asked to provide an account for Parliament, which he did on July 8, 1865.
Baker's over-riding concern was a "war of words" which had broken out among Māori, threatening to derail the signing ceremony.
Even Hobson, himself, did not mention his supposed "pledge" — instead, he recalled that he had been opposed by Māori with displays of "great violence".
Other accounts of the Treaty signing from observers like CO Davis and George Clarke Snr are sketchy at best. So, was there ever a "Hobson's pledge"? This seems unlikely.
The problem is that the evidence for it comes from the memory of one participant, written down 50 years after the event.
Making matters worse is Colenso's style of writing. Despite occurring 50 years earlier, Colenso writes down the Treaty discussions as if they had happened yesterday, such is the level of detail he provides.
If true, it's a prodigious feat of memory, still intact after an intervening half-century of calamitous war and conflict. More likely, it's a mixture of memory and invention.
It's worth bearing in mind that by 1890, when Colenso published his account, colonisation, war and alienation had largely reduced Māori to penury. Māori had lost the Land Wars, with thousands of acres alienated, communities decimated and population numbers in dramatic decline. The evidence for all this is overwhelming.
By 1890, when Colenso was writing his Treaty memoirs, pākehā no longer saw themselves as colonisers. Instead, they sought a new identity based on permanence in this country.
Scholars like Edward Tregear and William Pember Reeves searched for a literary and figurative pākehā foothold among the indigenous undergrowth in what was otherwise (they said) an empty land.
In this context, according to historian Keith Sinclair, such writers drew inspiration from an imagined time when things were simpler, before 1840 — a time when pākehā were few, carefree and felt as if they belonged, even if they were living under the mana of Māori, and were happy to do so.
Relations with Māori had then been benign, even cordial. But by 1890, when Colenso was writing, this had all changed, following a half-century of aggressive Crown activity against Māori.
Looking back from 1890, some pākehā were now nostalgic, writes Sinclair, regretting the depredations inflicted on Māori, wishing things had been different. It therefore served their interests to present Hobson, not as an aggressive forerunner of colonisation (which he was), but rather as a benign official imparting benevolence and well-regard to Māori.
After all, had not pākehā been well-meaning, from the very beginning? Hobson's supposed pledge, as told by Colenso, reflected a new-found benevolence for Māori, felt in the 1890s but absent in 1840.
Such a new-found regard for Māori, as supposedly expressed by Hobson, also absolved pākehā for the ravages inflicted on Māori since 1840. Despite everything that had happened since, pākehā had really meant well.
But to most Māori, this all rang hollow ... as it does today.
Danny Keenan is a Whanganui-based Māori historian and writer whose area of interest is Māori and the state in the 19th century.