“We are now one people” no myth

Whanganui Chronicle. 6 January 2019

A few days ago, Danny Keenan (Whanganui Chronicle, 4 Jan 2019) argued that the statement attributed to Governor Hobson when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 – “he iwi tahi tatou”, or in English “we are now one people” – may not have been said by Governor Hobson at all.  He implied that if Governor Hobson did not actually say that as each chief signed the Treaty, somehow this would call into question the whole basis of Hobson’s Pledge, a group committed to the legal equality of all citizens.

But Mr Keenan’s suggestion that William Colenso dreamed up “he iwi tahi tatou” 50 years after the Treaty was signed, for socio-political reasons which suited the 1890s, is absurd.  While those words may not have been published till 1890, they were written down by Colenso as part of his record of proceedings when the Treaty was signed in 1840, and those notes were carefully checked by Busby at the time also.

And even if “he iwi tahi tatou” had been dreamt up by Colenso, so what?  The statement that we are now one people reflected the reality of what the Treaty provided.  The Treaty made an unqualified assertion that from the time of its signing all New Zealanders would have the rights and privileges of British subjects – an extraordinarily enlightened statement for that time and place.  Nothing remotely like it happened anywhere else in the world – certainly not in Australia or North America, where European settlers dealt with those who were there before them very differently.

So the words summarised the essence of what the Treaty provided.

Mr Keenan asserts that the statement “we are now one people”, written into our history 50 years after the event according to him, “reflected a new found benevolence for Maori, felt in the 1890s but absent in 1840”.  But there is evidence that there was a great deal of genuine concern for the well-being of Maori even in 1840, at least on the part of missionaries in New Zealand and government officials in London.

The real point of his article appears to be that the “new found benevolence for Maori” in 1890 “absolved Pakeha for the ravages inflicted on Maori since 1840… But to most Maori, this all rang hollow, as it does today.”

But the “ravages inflicted on Maori since 1840” of which he speaks are themselves a complete myth.  In the decades before 1840, Maori tribes waged fierce inter-tribal wars resulting in the slaughter of tens of thousands of men, women and children, almost certainly more numerous than all New Zealanders killed decades later in the First World War.

After 1840, a relatively tiny number of Maori and a similar number of Pakeha were killed in inter-tribal wars and in fighting Pakeha troops.  The Treaty, and the following Royal Charters by which New Zealand formally came under British rule, vastly improved the prospect for the great majority of Maori, including the very large number who had been slaves before 1840.

Maori population declined for a time after 1840 because of the relative absence of young people after the pre-1840 tribal wars, and in particular the relatively low proportion of young women in the Maori population, the direct result of female infanticide.   But Maori life expectancy began to increase steadily after 1840.

There are no grounds for disagreeing with Sir Apirana Ngata’s assessment years later that, had it not been for the Treaty of Waitangi, the Maori race might not have survived.

The really important point is not whether Governor Hobson said the words Colenso claims that he said, but whether any nation can long survive when political rights are based on the ethnicity of an ancestor.  Hobson’s Pledge believes that no matter when you or your ancestors came to New Zealand, you should have the same political rights.

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Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.