Te Tiriti o Waitangi or The Treaty of Waitangi 1840: Interpretations of the Tiriti/Treaty

Te Mana Potaka-Dewes, Kyushu Institute of Technology and Kita Kyushu City University, Japan

The aim of this essay is to discuss the Crown's position as stated in the English version of the Treaty of Waitangi 1840 (the Treaty) and the Maori position as stated in the Maori version of Te Tiriti o Waitangi 1840 (the Tiriti). This paper will also discuss the role of literacy and the impact print technology had upon Tiriti/Treaty relations between Maori and the Crown.

There are various interpretations of the Tiriti/Treaty. There are two Treaty versions with different languages and meanings. "Tiriti" refers to the version in Maori. "Treaty" refers to the English version. "Tiriti/Treaty" refers to both versions. It is virtually impossible to speak of one Maori interpretation of the Tiriti. Approximately 46 chiefs signed the Maori text at Waitangi on February 6th 1840. The Crown then engaged on an ambitious plan to gain the agreement of Maori chiefs living in other areas of Aotearoa. Separate copies of the Tiriti/ Treaty were made and these were presented to some 450 chiefs who signed.

Each Tiriti presentation was different and the circumstances at these meetings ranged from outright hostility to friendly relations. Most Maori chiefs signed the Tiriti -- the version in Maori. There was only one occasion from the many different meetings that the British had with various tribal groups where some chiefs signed the English version of the Treaty. What was said by one British official may not have been said by another. The message from the Crown was inconsistent. As a result, Maori have many different interpretations of the Tiriti/Treaty. These differences continue today.

Unfortunately there is very little information regarding oral discourse that took place amongst Maori chiefs and between British forces and Maori just prior to the Tiriti/Treaty signing. What is known is that Maori chiefs were very concerned over the loss of land and that they did not understand how a written Tiriti/Treaty was going to provide adequate protection of their chiefly rights.

The role of literacy or more precisely Maori illiteracy, prior to the Tiriti/Treaty is viewed by some Maori and Pakeha (Caucasian) academics as a deliberate ploy by the colonial government to colonise Aotearoa (Walker 1975; McKenzie 1985). Coupled with Christianity and the missionary zeal to convert Maori, particularly key Nga Puhi chiefs, Hongi Hika and Hone Heke, literacy played a big part in destabilising traditional Maori beliefs and values, drastically changing the balance of power and removing the importance of oral discourse to that of written discourse.

The Treaty Versions and Interpretations

There are three official copies of the Treaty of Waitangi (refer Appendix 1):

The Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi (Tiriti) has three articles. In Article I, Maori people agree to a central administrative government that will govern the country (but do not cede their sovereignty). In Article II, the Crown guarantees to protect "the rights and privileges" of the Maori chiefs over the "full exclusive and undisturbed possession" of their natural, cultural and intellectual treasures. Article III guarantees the treatment of Maori people as equal to British citizens.

Following Fairclough's (1989) model of critical discourse analysis, this section will deal with the "description" and the "interpretation" of the Treaty text. This section will compare the original Maori text against the original English text This assignment is only concerned with Article I and Article II since it is these two articles that contain the phrases which have been interpreted differently by the Crown and Maori.

The English version of Article I states that: The Chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the separate and independent Chiefs who have not become members of the Confederation cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and power of Sovereignty which the said Confederation or Individual Chiefs respectively exercise or possess, or may be supposed to exercise or to possess over their respective Territories as the sole Sovereigns thereof.

The Maori version of Article I is as follows: Ko nga Rangatira o te wakaminenga me nga Rangatira katoa hoki ki hai i uru ki taua wakaminenga ka tuku rawa atu ki te Kuini o Ingarani ake tonu atu te Kawanatanga katoa o o ratou wenua.

The difference between the two versions (as underlined) can be understood by examining the word "Kawanatanga" in the Maori version. The Maori chiefs had no cultural or pragmatic understanding of "Kawanatanga". The very idea of "Kawanatanga" was totally foreign to the chiefs. According to Kawharu, the Maori chiefs could not have had any understanding of the term "Kawanatanga". Kawharu's assertion is supported by McKenzie (1985: 35). The concept of sovereignty involves the right to exercise jurisdiction at international level as well as national level. It is certain that most of the chiefs did not understand the Maori text of Article I. The concept of nationhood whereby Aotearoa was inhabited by one united tribe was completely unheard of (Minogue 1998 : 11). Maori tribes were separate tribal nations that were run according to customary Maori lore. Each chief had rangatiratanga (chieftainship) over their own tribal domain. They were used to operating within their own territorial boundary, working with their own Maori people. The use of the word "Kawanatanga" did not sufficiently explain the concept of ceding absolute sovereignty. For the chiefs, "kawana" (governor) came from the Bible and was associated with the Roman governor Pontius Pilot (Orange 1987 : 41). It was crucial in order to effect the will of the Treaty that sufficient understanding of this term be provided in oral discourse explanation.

There were further problems in Article II. In the English version the Queen "confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates, Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire as to retain the same in their possession;...".

In the Maori version, the idea of individual and collective ownership was dropped altogether. The word "Tino Rangatiratanga" was used to express ownership. However, for the chiefs, the meaning of the words "Tino Rangatiratanga" meant more than just ownership rights. The Maori version of Article II is (as pertaining to the underlined segment of the English text) : "te Tino Rangatiratanga o o ratou wenua o ratou kainga me o ratou taonga katoa".

The Maori version refers to ownership of all treasures (taonga) which the Maori chiefs interpreted as all natural treasures such as flora & fauna, waterways, game, forestry, etc. (this interpretation has expanded to include, for example, airwave rights to broadcasting). According to the second part of Article II in the English version, if the chiefs wanted to sell their land (or other treasures) they could only sell to the Crown and not to any third party.

The term tino rangatiratanga used in Article II is an old Maori phrase with connotations of chieftainship, authority and power which were familiar to the chiefs. Maori karakia (prayers) referred to God's rule in heaven and on earth: "Koia te rangatiratanga o nga mea katoa" (He is the ruler of all things, excerpt from the Lord's Prayer). The expectations of the chiefs were shaped by Biblical references. They also believed that there would be a "kawana" (governor) who would protect their rule over all their treasures.

From a Maori perspective, the Maori Treaty text presents a serious problem. The text fails to clearly explain the cession of 'sovereignty" in Article I. It did not explain "Kawanatanga", nor did the chiefs understand the intended meaning. The Maori version of the text gave the chiefs the impression that Article II is more important than Article I when this is not the case in the English version. "Surely the rule of God is greater than the rule of Pontius Pilate", reasoned the chiefs.

From the British point of view, Hobson thought he had secured "the full and clear recognition of the sovereign rights of Her Majesty" (Orange 1987, page 55). He could not have made a greater mistake because the chiefs thought that they had secured their chiefly status - Rangatiratanga by signing the "Tiriti".

It is clear that literacy played a major part in securing control of Maori natural resources. The written text provided insurmountable problems for Maori because the chiefs were illiterate. What then did Maori and British officials say during the Tiriti/Treaty signing? The next section will discuss the Tiriti/Treaty text as an oral document.

Maori Illiteracy and The Treaty As Oral Text - Maori Understandings Of The Tiriti

According to Maori custom, a hui (meeting) was called to discuss the Tiriti. The Tiriti was debated amongst the Maori chiefs with British representatives present over three days. Given that there was no traditional writing system, it is reasonable to assume that spoken discourse in the form of any assurances, promises or guarantees made during the 3 day hui would be an inclusive part of the Tiriti text for the Maori participants. This was the view of many of the Maori chiefs (Orange 1987, page 54). Oral discourse was the traditional mode of communication for any binding contract that was made in Maori society at the time.

The Anglican priest Henry Williams who translated the Treaty into Maori realised that the tenor (the social distance between the Actors -- the chiefs and the queen) of the English text was too great. He softened the tenor of the Maori version and he stipulated that the Queen of England had written the Tiriti specially for the chiefs. During the 3 day meeting Williams told the assembly of chiefs: "�that it was an act of love toward them on the part of the queen, who desired to secure to them their property, rights and privileges. That this treaty was a fortress for them against any foreign power which might desire to take possession of their country, as the French had taken possession of Otiaiti (Tahiti)" (Carleton 1877 page 11).

Williams blunted the force of the impact by putting the Treaty into the context that the queen wanted to make a personal tie with Maori people. It is unknown whether he deliberately or accidentally made a mistake in translation contained in Article I and Article II. If Williams were to have translated the English version of the Treaty word for word then it was unlikely that the chiefs would have agreed to it because the social distance between the Hearer (the chiefs) and the Speaker (the Queen) is too great.

Unfortunately, there is very little accurate information regarding what the Maori chiefs said during the 3 days. Most of the oral sources are taken from Pakeha people present at the hui and most of the active participants were either Anglican missionaries or British soldiers . A perusal of Buick's (1936:128-145) account of what was said by the chiefs during the first day of the hui leaves the impression that the chiefs were performing theatre. Translated into English these speeches seem farcical as though the chiefs were not taking the Tiriti seriously. It is doubtful whether these sources are reliable.

It is interesting that Orange (1987) pays little heed to Pakeha reports of the Maori oral discourse. She believes that the chiefs were initially against the Treaty. A number of the northern chiefs spoke against it saying that the new governor would not be able to get power from a piece of paper (the written Tiriti document). These chiefs did not see how the Tiriti could protect their rights because they had no prior experience with print technology.

As the matter was being discussed, the Anglican missionaries were busy lobbying key speakers, notably the Nga Puhi (largest northern Maori tribe) chiefs Heke and Tamati Waka Nene. Heke likened the Tiriti to a spiritual covenant that would bind both Maori and Pakeha under God's rule. Heke said that Maori people are just one of God's children and they must join the "whanau" (family) by signing this covenant and that Hobson was sent by the queen to be a father for Maori (Kawharu, treaty translation note 3). Heke's argument aided by the Anglican missionaries was very persuasive.

Another noteworthy speaker was Nopera Panakareo. Unlike Heke he was not interested in the Tiriti as a spiritual union between Maori and Pakeha but simply as a guarantee of rights. He believed that the Tiriti would protect his rangatiratanga when he said:

"Ko te atakau o te whenua i riro i a te Kuini, ko te tinana o te whenua waiho ki nga Maori".

"Only the shadow of the land goes to the Queen but the substance remains with us".

Williams had a number of opportunities to clarify the meaning of Article I and II. However he was very reluctant to do so. It is not known whether because of rivalry between Anglican and Catholic missionaries or his real interest in the affairs of Maori that he chose to remain reticent. He thought the chiefs were far better off joining the British Empire. It was well known that the French were very interested in Aotearoa and that Catholic missionaries were persuading some of the northern chiefs into rejecting the Tiriti.

What is agreed by both Buick (1936) and Orange (1987) is that the chiefs were very concerned over the loss of land. The focus of the hui particularly on the first day was on land grievances. There was very little attention paid to the written Tiriti text. There was no analysis of the Tiriti/Treaty articles of either version. The chiefs failed in that they did not ask any pertinent questions regarding the Tiriti text. The crown failed to properly explain to Maori the Tiriti text. Hobson merely read out the English version followed by Williams with the Maori version.

In summary, the oral discourse failed to provide any understanding of the written Tiriti/Treaty text. If anything the discussion during the hui created further misunderstandings which resulted in many various interpretations of the Tiriti/Treaty. It was clear to at least one perceptive Anglican priest, Colenso, who before the actual signing of the document and in front of the entire assembly asked Hobson if he thought that Maori understood the articles of the Tiriti/Treaty that they were about to sign. Hobson replied that he had made his best effort to explain the Tiriti/Treaty and time had run out (Orange 1987: 54).

The first Maori chief to sign was Hone Heke from Nga Puhi. Only a minority of the other chiefs followed. Out of approximately 156 chiefs only 46 signed. After each chief had signed, Hobson shook their hands and offered the words: "He iwi tahi tatou" - "We are now one people".

Hobson was employing Scollon & Scollon's (1983) 'solidarity politeness strategy". Colonisation has been the start of assimilation policies by the Crown. Maori tribal groups vehemently oppose any attempt at removing their separate tribal identity. They view assimilation (aka solidarity politeness) as a breach of Article II.

It was only 3 years later after the first signing at Waitangi that Maori and the Crown were back at war. That war is still being fought today not with guns but with the pen.

Honour The Treaty

Aotearoa/New Zealand has gone through many periods of social and economic upheaval. The Treaty has withstood the gamut of attitudes: total rejection and criticism; partial acceptance; the Crown's present policy of recognising the constitutional nature of the Tiriti/Treaty in the present legal and political framework. The position of the Crown has evolved over time. So too has Maori understanding. Maori have realised that literacy is a weapon and it is being put to effective use in the legal system. Maori chiefs have been replaced by Maori tribal boards. Each board recognises the Treaty as guarantee of their tino rangatiratanga over their taonga (treasures). Article II does not define "taonga" or "other properties". However, according to Maori it does not need to.

Maori tribal boards believe that given "full exclusive and undisturbed" ownership, modern technological developments to the asset base need to be taken into consideration. The Treaty is not frozen in time. It is a living document which confers future rights and future obligations. The issue is, would Maori have developed assets over time (such as the Maori language and broadcasting rights) given that they were the original owners of the asset base. The answer according to Maori is "Yes!". In fact, as government statistics show, Maori have been exploited and marginalised by the Crown. Recent successful court cases have expanded the interpretation of Article II as "the exclusive possession and development of their taonga (all natural, cultural and intellectual properties)".

Maori tribal boards have valuable economic rights to things that could not have been considered in 1840 such as: radio mobile and satellite communication frequency rights; deep-sea fishing rights; native timber forestry rights and cultural and intellectual property rights. Tribal boards have embraced the literacy tool as a means of ensuring their Tiriti/Treaty rights. They will continue to assert their Article II rights through the court system.

There is an interesting proverb that portrays the Maori regard for the spoken word. While the English proverb says: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"; the Maori proverb holds that the spoken word has mana of its own:

"He tao rakau he taea te karo - he tao korero e kore e taea."

"The blow from a warrior can be parried but the blow from words cannot".

Related Materials


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