Despite wildly differing tribal views, this was a rallying cry as Ngapuhi
laid out an agenda to reframe the events of the past; and based on the
potential settlement of 1200 claims, set their economic sights on new
As Erima Henare, a former senior Government executive with strong ties to
the north, told the Weekend Herald (15 May 2010), his relatives don’t
want a dry recitation of history from the Waitangi Tribunal hearing, they
want a show.
And perhaps it is not unreasonable to expect one. The events of 5-6
February 1840 were full of drama; British pomp and ceremony, religious
rivalry between the Protestant missionaries and the Catholic Bishop
Pompallier, and a challenging and emotional display of Maori oratory and
In the wider context though a much larger drama was playing out on the
world stage, with New Zealand as a test case; which it still is in many
ways, for improved race relations.
Humanitarian activists William Wilberforce, Charles
Grant (Lord Glenelg), James Stephen and their successors in the
so-called Clapham Sect; who’s Christian-based reforms bought an end to
slavery, were determined this would be the first nation where Britain signed
a partnership treaty with the indigenous people.
Clear assurances given
The Treaty of Waitangi translated by Henry Williams and his son, was
ultimately based on instructions from Colonial secretary James Stephen
junior. The missionaries, who had initially opposed widespread colonisation,
championed the signing because it gave clear assurances that Maori land,
rights, customs and privileges would be respected and the people protected
and given equal rights as British citizens.
It had taken the missionaries 20-years from 1814 to win the trust of
Maori, learn their language and customs and displace the propensity for
merciless utu or ‘an eye for an eye’ with the principles of forgiveness and
‘love thy neighbour’.
With the revelation that all were equal under one God, the new faith spread
like wildfire, transforming Maori communities across the country in the
20-years leading up to the treaty. Chiefs abandoned cannibalism and released
slaves, inter-tribal wars diminished and greater effort went into cropping,
trading and wider family life, not just raising male warriors.
Semantics aside, the Treaty of Waitangi could never have been signed
without this socio-spiritual shift, nor could it have come into being
without the specific consent, participation and indeed urging of Ngapuhi.
Hone Heke, the bold Ngapuhi chief and astute businessman who was in fact
an Anglican layreader, believed he and his people would benefit
significantly from signing. When Hobson asked for signatures on 6 February
1840, it was Heke who first stepped forward and convinced his peers.
Within three years however the last of the humanitarian Christians in the
Colonial Office had been ousted from power, and a new British administration
dismissed ‘the treaty of tears’ as ‘injudicious’. It
recommended the Crown take ownership of all unoccupied Maori land and funded
the New Zealand Company to 'extinguish’ any
title on land it had been granted.
Heke, Henry Williams and the other missionaries, felt a keen sense of
betrayal. Heke, who once demanded landing fees from visiting ships, was now
being charged to land his own waka at Kororareka. The much prided flag of
the United Tribes was gone and flying on the pole hewn from Heke’s own
forest was the Union Jack.
Acts one to four of the flagpole felling drama were designed to gain the
attention of the new governor FitzRoy to explain why the flags couldn’t fly
together, why Maori mana had been undermined and all the promises were
turning to dust?
Fading to Grey
By 1845 Governor Grey had waged war against Heke, rejected the peacemaking
advice of the missionaries, forced the sacking of Henry Williams — the
greatest advocate for Maori — and accelerated the colonial land grab.
From 1860 as land wars escalated across central North Island, Ngapuhi in
the far north — still under the strong influence of Christianity and loyal
to the Crown — remained in relative peace.
Now the country’s largest iwi raise a constitutional conundrum, in much
the same manner as their activist ancestor Hone Heke raised an axe to the
flagpole. Ngapuhi suggest they are independent and not party to the English
version of the treaty. So what is the baseline for
settlement and who is liable for the claims to
most everything north of Auckland city?
It is said the implications could "rock the nation constitutionally".
However New Zealand’s ‘constitution’ is already a shambolic thing,
comprising various pieces of legislation, legal documents, common law court
decisions, established practices and conventions and awkward references to
variously interpreted treaty principals.
Obviously though the Maori version of the treaty remains central to the
debate, and Ngapuhi are right to ask where is the Anglican Church in all of
this? After all this was an agreement signed in faith because Maori trusted
So what would the church bring to the table in this allegedly secular age?
If it’s to pick up the peacemaking mantle of the past, preaching
forgiveness, restoration and healing then indeed it should take its place
alongside the Government in the process.
Responding to the challenge
So what is the real challenge from the tribe who first invited the
missionaries and British governance and hosted and first signed the Treaty
of Waitangi? How will we react as the Ngapuhi drama plays out over the next
six years and we again confront the past through one of the last big treaty
settlements? What will this tell the world about New Zealand?
Perhaps this living history lesson could serve as a catalyst to complete
the nation building exercise that began not in 1840 but in 1814 when the
foundational relationships between two peoples were first forged.
Dare we ask whether this young Pacific nation at the sunrise edge of the
world is ready to pass from post-colonial pubescence with a visionary
constitution that embraces the true spirit of the treaty?
How can we further the originals intent of a partnership without bankrupting
the country? Indeed how can we leverage that partnership to ensure we all
enjoy the benefits of our joint efforts pulling together in the same waka?
Certainly both treaty partners owe it to our children’s children to move
beyond historical grievances, honour Maori and Pakeha roots, and forge a
future where we can all celebrate this place we call home.