Treaty and Maori sovereignty

In a followup to yesterday’s post Korero about Te Tiriti o Waitangi here is a guest post on the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori sovereignty from Dr Scott Hamilton.

Alan Wilkinson claims that ‘It is perfectly clear that the Maori signing the Treaty knew and accepted that they would have to obey British law from that time on.’

As someone who has spent too much time in musty rooms reading nineteenth century documents, I want to ask whether Alan’s confidence in his interpretation of the intentions of the men who signed the Treaty might be misplaced.

Anyone who has studied the behaviour of the British Empire in the nineteenth century ought to be able to appreciate the difficulty of the idea that the British were very interested in imposing their laws and institutions on a small and strategically unimportant colony at the bottom of the world inhabited by a well-armed indigenous people. The British were masters of indirect rule. Even in India, the jewel in their colonial crown, they often ruled by giving local factions a large degree of autonomy.

And anyone who has read about nineteenth century Maori society is also likely to be incredulous at the idea that the proud and tooled up rangatira of Nga Puhi and so many other iwi would surrender their mana to a handful of British bureaucrats who lacked much armed backup and had repeatedly promised them that the Treaty of Waitangi wouldn’t mean a surrender of sovereignty.

If Alan thinks that everyone accepted that the Treaty meant Maori had ceded sovereignty in the nineteenth century, and had agreed to follow British laws, and that it is only relatively recently that a new interpretation has developed, then he should jump on Papers Past or read Keith Sinclair’s classic book Origins of the Maori Wars, and look at what the leaders of the colonial governments of NZ were saying when they waged war against Maori in the 1860s.

Colonial Premiers like Alfred Domett, who presided over the invasion of the Waikato in 1863, absolutely despised the Treaty, and continually described it as an irrelevant document. They held this view because, according to the Maori who had set up the King Movement and other ‘rebellious’ organisations and also according to the colonial office in London, the Treaty really did allow for Maori to exercise legal authority within their rohe.

The British would hardly have inserted article 71 into the Constitution Act of 1852 if they believed that the Treaty was incompatible with Maori legal autonomy. Article 71 states quite clearly that Maori tribes may run their realms and make their own laws if the British governor or the colonial assembly agrees.

Vincent O’Malley has pointed out that in 1861, when Governor Gore Browne sided with the land-hungry settlers in the colonial assembly and prepared to start a war to suppress the de facto state the King Movement had established in the Waikato, his superiors in London rebuked him, and urged him to use article 71, and let the Kingites run their own affairs and make their own laws.

Like the American constitution, the Treaty is a document that inevitably means different things to different people at different times. It is up to us to decide what the Treaty means today.

But the question of what most Maori and the British Crown and settlers thought the Treaty meant in 1840 and for decades after is relatively easy to answer. We only have to look at what Maori and British and settlers did and said to see that they believed that the document did not extinguish all Maori sovereignty, and did not preclude the possibility of Maori making their own laws.

PS Let me just offer a link to something I wrote a couple of years back in response to Kitty’s claim that ‘Maori were not the first people here anyway’: