THE GREAT DIVIDE
By Ian Wishart
“Had Captain Hobson been able to conceive what was entailed in the piece-meal purchase of a country held under tribal ownership, it is difficult to think that he would have signed the Treaty without hesitation.
“He could not, of course, imagine that he was giving legal force to a system under which the buying of a block of land would involve years of bargaining, even when a majority of its owners wished to sell; that the ascertainment of a title would mean tedious and costly examination by courts of experts of a labyrinth of strange and conflicting barbaric customs; that land might be paid for again and again, and yet be declared unsold; that an almost empty wilderness might be bought first from its handful of occupants, then from the conquerors who had laid it waste, and yet after all be reclaimed by returned slaves or fugitives who had quitted it years before, and who had been paid for the land on which they had been living during their absence.
“Governor Hobson could not foresee that cases would occur in which the whole purchase money of broad lands would be swallowed up in the costs of sale, or that a greedy tribe of expert middlemen would in days to come bleed Maori and settler alike.”
As an opening shot in the war that has become the Treaty of Waitangi, those words just quoted are hard to beat. They encapsulate all the cynicism, doubt and eye-rolling frustration that have surrounded the Treaty in recent years.
So which perceptive commentator made that statement? Hone Harawira? Don Brash? Rodney Hide?
None of the above is the correct answer. The passage was written way back in 1898, while the ink was still ‘wet’ on the 1840 Treaty in a legal sense, and the massive treaty settlement upheavals of the 1990s and today were but a distant dream. The man who wrote it was William Pember-Reeves, a former New Zealand journalist turned cabinet minister, historian and lifelong socialist, in his book The Long White Cloud, a brief history of New Zealand.
There’s been a lot of revisionist history written in New Zealand in more recent years in my view; politically-correct stuff or agenda-laden texts from social and political change merchants who could be regarded as posing as historians or researchers. What I wanted to capture in this book was something different, what I consider to be the “authentic” voices from New Zealand’s past without being filtered through the pen and prejudices of academia. Naturally, and I can hear the screams already, some will say this book is filtered through the prejudices of a journalist. Perhaps. You can be the judge of that. But I think you will find this book plays the issue with a straight bat. I report it the way I found it, and provide references all the way through if you want to read the source documents for yourself.
I have no particular dog in the ring, except for my support of a written constitution to provide certainty moving forward. I am married to a woman of Maori-Italian extraction, and my children proudly share a slice of Ngati Whatua heritage – a couple have enough of the “tar brush”, as their Maori grandfather so quaintly puts it, that Maori mums at school or daycare have wondered which local hapu they came from. Under the strict terms of the Treaty of Waitangi Act, my children are officially “Maori”. They are also Scot and Irish, direct descendants of John McGechean who arrived in Wellington on the Bengal Merchant on 20 February 1840, literally 14 days after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and also of the Allison and Laurie families onboard Auckland’s “First Fleet” of migrants in September 1842 – the ships Duchess of Argylle and the Jane Gifford. In that extent, my family is typical of many in New Zealand today – blended ethnicities, authentic Kiwi ‘mongrel’. As Captain Hobson predicted at Waitangi all those years ago, ‘He iwi tahi tatou’ – we have indeed become one people.
One hundred and fourteen years ago, in 1898, William Pember-Reeves already had a pretty good handle on why the Treaty had turned into a legal minefield, and it seems little has changed. There have been a number of “full and final” treaty settlements since then involving the same portions of land and tribes, and somehow what was once deemed “settled” suddenly turns out not to be quite so.
Behind it all lies a labyrinth of cultural differences – fundamentally the Maori concept of land ownership was collective, whilst Europeans were used to individual title. The assumption that was often made – that those Maori currently occupying the land in question were its owners – was not always the case.
So who were these two “Treaty Partners” that modern legislation and court rulings talk of? What did each bring to the table, and what did they expect to gain or lose? Does a document essentially drafted on the equivalent of a café napkin in 1840 have legal relevance, and if so how should we look at it as we move towards a new Constitution?
To answer these questions, we need to set the scene; to go back in time and re-live some of those early moments of New Zealand history through the eyes of those who were there. It is only after hearing their voices that we can arguably put in context the arguments of modern Treaty commentators and advocates.
History doesn’t come alive until it lifts off the pages in front of you, and what I’ve tried to do in this book is give you the major waypoints on New Zealand’s journey to nationhood, in living colour. Some of what you read will challenge what you’ve read in other popular history books.
My preference has been to use original texts wherever possible – eyewitness reports – and commentaries as close to the events in question as possible, in order to give readers a feel for how people more intimately connected to those events interpreted them. I’ve quoted liberally from old texts and books long out of print, deliberately, so that readers can get the full context of what’s being said, rather than mere snippets dropped in to reinforce a point.
The downside to that is you can see some examples of what we would now call racist attitudes, but we’re all smart enough to make allowances for writers speaking to us from 100 to 300 years ago as creatures of their times. You will also notice archaic spelling, which I have not changed either given the context.
There is a difference between items of factual reportage, and items of opinion. All of us, including the voices from the past, are entitled to our opinions however outrageous. The facts however can speak for themselves. You can judge for yourself the merits of this approach, setting New Zealand’s past free from what I see as the biases of its cultural and political gatekeepers.
It is the experiences of real people, on all sides of an event, that define how the event is seen in history. The story of New Zealand is not some dry, dusty compendium of old parchments written by a collection of fusty academics; it is a story of life and death, of triumph and tragedy, of two peoples meeting for the first time in history – with wildly different backgrounds – struggling to find balance, honour and a new way forward.
It is the story of change, of how things never stay the same no matter how much we wish them to, and how ‘adapt or die’ is the overarching driving force that has filled humanity’s sails since the beginning of time. It was the wind of change that drove the first humans from the warmth of the tropical Pacific down to temperate New Zealand, and the same wind that blew European explorers onto our shores either hundreds of – or as little as 300 depending on who you believe – years later.
History was not forged by the politically correct. It was forged by people with strong beliefs, strong prejudices and all the passion you’d expect from people at the earth’s last civilisational frontier.
Maori or Pakeha, the making of New Zealand is a story we can all be proud of, something we can and should celebrate.
It’s our story.
THE GREAT DIVIDE: The Story of New Zealand & Its Treaty by Ian Wishart
Available from Whitcoulls, Paperplus, Take Note, The Warehouse, Relay, Dymocks and all good bookstores