Done Deal: The Prime Minister's comments regarding the peaceful settlement of New Zealand have been ridiculed by his detractors, but they were considerably less controversial than the Waitangi Tribunal's assertion that Maori never ceded sovereignty to the British crown. (Image drawn from the TVNZ docudrama About Waitangi: What Really Happened?)
THE PRIME MINISTER, John Key, has been much mocked over the past week for his claim that New Zealand was settled peacefully. Hoots of derision have echoed through the Twittersphere from those who profess to know their New Zealand history a great deal better than the Prime Minister.
Are they right? Is Mr Key wrong?
It might help to place the Prime Minister’s comments in context. His remarks followed the Waitangi Tribunal finding that the tribal chieftains of the far-North did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840.
This finding is considerably more controversial than anything the Prime Minister decided to offer by way of commentary. The Auckland-based historian, Paul Moon, has already derided the Tribunal’s historical conclusions, and his intervention is unlikely to be the last.
Indeed, it is extremely difficult to understand how the Waitangi Tribunal’s latest finding could be so provocatively definitive. The Tribunal’s enabling legislation allows the Crown to test the evidence presented to it by cross-examining witnesses and by introducing evidence of its own. It may also commission professional historians to assess evidence presented in support of radically revisionist interpretations of New Zealand history.
Did the Crown take full advantage of its interrogative powers in this case? Did it seize the opportunity to open up the vital constitutional issues under consideration to wider public scrutiny and debate? Apparently not. The strongly held beliefs of those bringing the claim were accorded a decisive credibility. The settled view of more than 150 years of historical research? Not so much.
A crucial element of the settled view is that the Maori chieftains who signed the Treaty, many of whom had enjoyed long and mutually beneficial relationships with the Europeans who had taken up residence in New Zealand since Cook’s exploratory voyages of the late eighteenth century, knew exactly what they were agreeing to at Waitangi on 6 February 1840.
Captain William Hobson was guaranteeing them the inviolability of their traditional territories and the safety of their people. In the light of what had befallen the iwi and hapu of Niu Tirani (New Zealand) between 1769 and 1840, the existential value of these guarantees is readily appreciated.
The indigenous population of these islands at the time of first European contact is estimated at 100,000. Between 1800 and 1830 as many as 30,000 Maori were killed and/or driven from their traditional lands by enemy iwi and hapu armed with the devastating military technology of the Pakeha. The protection of Queen Victoria (symbolising the world’s most powerful nation) was what they needed. Hobson offered it. The chiefs grabbed it with both hands.
So, in the sense that New Zealand was gazetted as a possession of the British Crown by virtue of a treaty of cession, rather than by outright military conquest, the Prime Minister’s assertion that “New Zealand was one of the very few countries in the world that were settled peacefully” is not only historically uncontroversial but also, in general terms, correct.
That correctness is bolstered when we compare the wholesale slaughter, land seizure and population displacement that accompanied the so-called “Musket Wars”, with the death-toll of the Land Wars of 1845-1872. Over the course of those three tumultuous decades roughly 2,000 Maori and 2,000 Pakeha fell victim to fatal violence. On the Maori side of the ledger, a significant proportion of those fatalities were inflicted by Maori fighting for the Crown. And, if we divide the total number of fatalities by the 28 years the conflict lasted, then the average fatality rate is 143 deaths per annum – less than the 2013 road toll.
Even the relatively large-scale conflict encompassing Taranaki, the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty between 1860 and 1863 was more of a civil war than a war of conquest. The Kingitanga’s brave attempt to re-define the terms of Hobson’s deal, by proposing a two crowns/one flag formula, was deemed to be unacceptable by Governor Grey; antagonistic to the fast-expanding settler interest; and a doomed attempt to wind back the clock by those Maori leaders who knew that, for better or worse, the Pakeha had come to stay.
In the smaller flare-ups of the late-1860s and early-1870s, it was these “Loyal Maoris” who played a crucial role in extinguishing the isolated bush-fires of iwi and hapu resistance. That the Waitangi Tribunal masks their participation by subsuming their contribution under the all-encompassing rubric of “The Crown” says it all really.
Accordingly, I will not be participating in the condescension and derision of the Twitter handle #johnkeyhistory.
Is the history of Maori-Pakeha relations entirely free of violence and injustice? Of course not. There’s blood in the foundations of every state. But, if John Key’s saying there’s a lot less in ours than most, then I, for one, agree.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 November 2014.