Yes, let's remember our history

19 June 2019

In the Autumn edition of the RSA Review, there was an article by Defyd Williams arguing that when we remember our fallen on ANZAC Day we should remember not just those who died at Gallipoli and in subsequent battles throughout the 20th century, but also those who died in the “New Zealand Wars fought in Northland, Taranaki, Wanganui, Waikato and the central North Island” in the second half of the 19th century.

The plea from Defyd Williams echoes that of Vincent O’Malley, author of The Great War for New Zealand, who also believes that for too long New Zealand schools have neglected to teach children and teenagers about the wars between some Maori tribes and government forces (supported by other Maori tribes) in the 1860s.

But if we are going to teach our children more about the 19th century let’s do it honestly.  Mr Williams quotes a Maori academic from Waikato University as telling last year’s History Teachers’ Association conference that Rangiaowhia was New Zealand’s version of My Lai, referring to the terrible destruction of civilian life when US aircraft dropped napalm on a village during the Vietnam war.  But this is an outrageous comparison: the US Army estimates that the death toll at My Lai was 347, all or virtually all civilians.  By contrast, 10 anti-government Maori and four government soldiers lost their lives at Rangiaowhia in a gun battle.  Civilian loss of life was minimal, and the myth that women and children were burnt to death when they had taken refuge in a church is just that – a myth, established as such by the fact that the church where civilians allegedly died was still standing decades later.

And if we are going to teach more about the history of 19th century New Zealand, let’s not forget that while fewer than 3,000 fighters lost their lives in the so-called Land Wars between 1845 and 1870 – roughly three-quarters of them anti-government Maori with the rest Pakeha and pro-government Maori – it is estimated that in excess of 20,000 Maori lost their lives in the fierce inter-tribal battles which took place in the decades immediately prior to the signing of the Treaty.  The fact that the overwhelming majority of Maori chiefs were willing to sign the Treaty despite the fact that Maori greatly out-numbered Europeans at that time was almost certainly related to that pre-1840 inter-tribal slaughter, and a desire to have some outside authority put an end to it.

Mr Williams’ article was critical of me personally, and my interpretation of New Zealand history.  He claims that I refuse “to read or understand the Maori version [of the Treaty of Waitangi], which was signed by more than 500 chiefs, [and rely] only on the English version, signed by 39 Maori, which uses words (such as sovereignty) with no Maori equivalent”.

But he is quite wrong.  There is only one correct version of the Treaty, and that is in the Maori language.  And we know exactly what that version of the Treaty was intended to say because we now have the English-language draft from which the Maori version was translated by the missionary Henry Williams.  That draft is identical but for a single word in the official Maori version of the Treaty, including in making no mention at all of “forests and fisheries”, something added to the subsequently drafted “official English language version of the Treaty.”  That single word is “Maori” in Article III.

In that version, Article I of the Treaty has those who signed the Treaty surrendering their sovereignty to Queen Victoria forever.  Did those who signed the Treaty fully understand the term “sovereignty”?  Possibly not, but they certainly understood that they were being asked to submit to a higher authority, something which is abundantly clear from several of the speeches of those who initially strongly objected to signing the Treaty.   And a very large number of chiefs showed that they had fully understood the meaning of Article I when in a major conference of chiefs in 1860 many made speeches affirming their strong allegiance to Queen Victoria.

Latter day revisionists also contend that the chiefs thought that they were being given the right to “chiefly authority” over all their lands, rather than simply having the ownership of their property guaranteed by Article II of the Treaty.  But they could hardly have misunderstood the meaning of that clause given that it goes on to affirm their right to sell their property to an agent of the Crown if they wished to do so.  It’s unlikely that they thought they were being offered the right to sell their “chiefly authority”.

Mr Williams describes my attitude to New Zealand history as “sinister”.  On the contrary.  My understanding of what the Treaty provided was the one universally accepted between 1840 and the 1980s, including by such Maori leaders as Sir Apirana Ngata.  It was not until Waitangi Tribunal member Hugh Kawharu did a new translation of the Treaty from the point of view of what the chiefs might have understood – while totally ignoring eye-witness accounts of the speeches at the time – that the notion that Maori chiefs hadn’t really surrendered sovereignty to the Queen at all gained currency.

So today we have the dopey notion that Maori really thought they were entering into a partnership with the Crown, with some Maori telling the newly-created Minister of Crown/Maori Relations that they were concerned that the Crown was making many decisions without Maori approval.  In law after law Maori tribes are being given special rights – sometimes described as the right to be consulted but often in reality the right of veto.  Some councils set about creating separate Maori wards and, when those plans are scuppered by ratepayer referenda, appoint unelected Maori to policy-making committees.  One district council, the membership of which was roughly one-third Maori, nevertheless appointed additional Maori to council committees on the grounds that elected councillors who were Maori represented all the people in the district, and not specifically Maori people.  We’ve gone nuts.

The idea that those with a Maori ancestor (always with other ancestors now of course) are in partnership with the Crown has been described as absurd by politicians as different as David Lange and Winston Peters.

It is long past time that we give appropriate recognition not just to Articles I and II of the Treaty, but also to Article III – which guaranteed to all New Zealanders equal rights. 

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Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.