What the hell happened at Waitangi?

Review in ‘Newsroom’ 9 May, 2023
In 1972, The New Zealand Journal of History published the article “Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Texts and Translations” by Ruth Ross (1920-1982). Its impact continues 50 years later, and is likely to remain significant in another 50 years. It’s one of the most influential pieces of work by a New Zealand historian, not only for its impact on our understanding of our history but because of its role in establishing the Waitangi Tribunal. However, when the work on the article had first been done two decades earlier, it had been dismissed by historians as of no great significance. The new book A Bloody Difficult Subject: Ruth Ross, te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the Making of History by New Zealand historian Bain Attwood, professor of history at Australia’s Monash University, tells the story of the paper, traces its consequences and raises more general questions about the way histories of Te Tiriti and related texts have been written during the last 50 years and the implications for the history profession.
Ross had been commissioned by John Beaglehole in 1953 to write a new introduction for a government republishing of the Facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi. Ross tackled the task by treating the documents not as sacred texts, but as human documents, written by humans in a context which can analysed in a scholarly manner (rather like the German theological scholars did to the Bible at the beginning of the 19th century). She spent a lot of time rummaging around in archives. From Attwood’s description of the period, this appears to have been unusual.
Ross concluded that there was, in fact, no Treaty of Waitangi. There was certainly Te Tiriti o Waitangi, a document signed at Waitangi on February 6, 1840. But on that day there was no English equivalent which was a translation of Te Tiriti. I remember being astonished by her conclusion when I first read her paper. I was chasing up the meaning of ‘taonga’ for a Waitangi claim. Until then, I had believed the standard story that there were two documents on signing day of roughly equivalent status. (International law gives precedence to the one in the indigenous language.) But there wasn’t one in English. To use the term ‘Treaty of Waitangi’ as if it existed in 1840 is a dead giveaway that the user is 50 years out of date.
Governor William Hobson forwarded five different English versions to his superiors in Sydney and London, which surely suggests he did not have an authoritative text. Shortly after the signing, the US consul, James Clendon, hunted around for an official English text but no one could provide it. Those translations of Te Tiriti, made for land dealing purposes in Auckland a decade later, would have been quite unnecessary if there were an official English language version of Te Tiriti.
I went through a careful account of the drafting of the text. What is called the ‘English version’ is one of the later drafts; it may not even be the last English draft (which has been lost if it existed). We know that the last English draft was translated into Māori by missionary Henry Williams and his son, and presented to rangatira at Waitangi on January 5. They objected to it. That night the Māori text was changed. We do not know what was revised. Ross thinks it may have been to change the term ‘kingitanga’, the word used for ‘sovereignty’ in the 1835 Declaration of Independence, or possibly ‘mana’, to ‘kawangatanga’. It would have been a minor change for the British but it would be a massive change for Māori (and for us). They signed the revised treaty on the following day.
(The treaty signed by Māori at Waikato Heads – one of the five versions in English which Hobson filed – is often labelled as the ‘Treaty of Waitangi’ as in the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. However, whatever a parliament may put in a statute, it cannot change the facts of history.)
Ross wrote in her summary, “The [Māori and Pākehā] signatories of 1840 were uncertain and divided in their understanding of [Te Tiriti’s] meaning; who can say now what its intentions were? … However good the intentions may have been, a close study of events shows that [Te Tiriti] was hastily and inexpertly drawn up, ambiguous and contradictory in content, chaotic in its execution. To persist in postulating that this was a ‘sacred compact’ is sheer hypocrisy.”
She presented her findings at a 1956 seminar at Victoria University College. The reaction was scornful. Attwood writes, “Its members regarded her approach to the Treaty as idiosyncratic and dismissed it.” Ross said that historian Mary Boyd, who was a close friend, “told me my approach was a waste of time” and “dismiss[ed] my preoccupation with the text as ‘historically worthless’.”
Ross told the seminar she had just found one of Hobson’s proclamations of May 21, 1840 in the Dominion Archives. She recalled that “the whole gang were up in arms. … Such a proclamation did not exist – that was final … I didn’t know what I was talking about, such a proclamation did not, repeat not, exist.” Ian Wards, Research Officer in the War History Branch, came to her rescue; he had seen the document in question. He too rummaged in archives.
Attwood portrays Ross as lacking self-confidence. It made her vulnerable to criticism, but she also possessed a steely resolve to seek and publish the truth. She said she found studying the treaty “a bloody difficult subject”; she could be too. She also suffered the handicaps of a woman born in 1920 in modest circumstances. Attwood points out that Beaglehole never seems to have encouraged any of his “Beaglehole’s babies” – talented women students, all of whom would make sterling contributions to the study of New Zealand history– “to go to Oxford, Cambridge or London to do a doctorate, as bright young men were at this time”.
The reactions of the seminar provoked a personal crisis. She gave up the commission to write the introduction, retiring to the domesticity of a teacher’s wife (at first in the Hokianga), bringing up two children, tapping away on a typewriter for School Publications.
But during the 1960s the ‘Treaty of Waitangi’ was sneaking into the public consciousness, and in 1972 Ross spoke to another Wellington seminar. This time it was more warmly received. Keith Sinclair – another rummager – invited her to submit the paper to the New Zealand Journal of History. After some revisions the paper was published and, as they say, the rest is history.
That includes a contribution from Ross to the Act which set up the Waitangi Tribunal. It leads Attwood to a long discussion of the problems that historians have had working with the Tribunal and the broader implications for history writing generally; there are six or more books on the topic by some of the most senior members of the profession.
One of Ross’s most important conclusions is still not popularly understood: that Māori and Pākehā “signatories of 1840 were uncertain and divided in their understanding of [Te Tiriti’s] meaning; who can say now what its intentions were?”
I’d be astonished if Māori agreed among themselves about what they were signing. I doubt Hobson had the same understanding of its meaning as James Busby and Williams – or even whether those two agreed. We may never know. They are long dead and there was little contemporary documentation (some has been lost). One hint comes from the ‘unofficial’ Clendon back-translation which he commissioned from (almost certainly) Williams; it indicates what the missionary thought the Māori text said. It’s the closest we have to ‘the English version of Te Tiriti’.
No doubt Hobson thought he was fulfilling the Colonial Office instructions. But they were loose, and open to wide interpretation. We know this from the ‘Unsigned Treaty’ of the Governor of New South Wales, George Gipps, who was responsible to Britain for New Zealand at that time . In February 1840 he offered a treaty to some rangatira who were visiting Sydney. It said that they were to cede sovereignty in exchange for becoming British subjects, a sort of ‘you are so lucky to agree to allow us to take over your country’. Wisely, the rangatira refused to sign. If Hobson thought he was implementing the Colonial Office instructions, so did Gipps.
Hobson must have left Sydney with views similar to Gipps in the unsigned treaty. But following discussions with Busby and Williams at Waitangi, he changed his mind, leading to Te Tiriti with its rather different approach. In his book The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi, Ned Fletcher says of the Unsigned Treaty “its language and effect have similarities to the Treaty drafts”. But there is a distance as wide as the Tasman Sea between the spirit of the Unsigned Treaty and the spirit of Te Tiriti. (Fletcher also fails to observe that Robin Cooke, while President of the Court of Appeal, observed “[a]s is well known, the English and Maori texts in the First Schedule to the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 are not translations the one of the other and do not necessarily convey precisely the same meaning.”)
There is a critical shift here. Ross’s story gives Māori agency; indirectly through Busby and Williams responding to what they thought were Māori circumstances, and directly when Māori rejected the text on February 5 which resulted in at least one change to make it acceptable to them. Fletcher does not give them agency.
It is ahistorical to ignore Ross’s caution about the lack of agreement by the Waitangi participants on the meaning of what was being signed. We can seek to understand what a particular participant thought but that is very different from a supreme court of popular opinion seeking some original intent in a treaty. That path leads through a desert of another 183 years. As long as we trek down it, we will fail the real task: what does Te Tiriti mean for us today? We may no longer see it as a sacred text but it remains of considerable significance to Aotearoa New Zealand, today and in the future. Ruth Ross would agree.
‘A Bloody Difficult Subject’: Ruth Ross, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the Making of History by Bain Attwood
The original publication is here.