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Waitangi A Living Treaty by Matthew Wright



Matthew Wright begins his new book with an interesting observation. New Zealand’s founding document is very modest in size. The three clauses contain just 176 words in te reo Māori and 226 in English. The headings and contextual wording nearly doubles the number, but that is still well short of the 1776 US Declaration of Independence at 1,337 words and the US Constitution of 1787 which originally ran to 4,543 words but has doubled with the amendments designed to keep it relevant to changing society. England’s Magna Carta from 1215 came in at 4,478 words and 63 clauses.


Wright’s book places the Treaty in the context of its historical setting, within the events of the 1820s and 30s which are essential to understand in order to see the drivers which brought it about. It recreates the moments of history in February 1840 at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds when the signing took place, and follows the travels of the Treaty and some of the copies that circulated around the country seeking signatures from Māori. Learning about the discussion or hui that took place before these copies were signed, is perhaps more important than the act of signing and helps us to understand many of the difficulties of interpretation that have subsequently arisen.


I found this book both readable and informative. I liked the flow of two centuries of history which helped me to see many events in a different light. In particular I learnt much about the lawlessness of the times when much of the immigrant population lived outside the law of any nation. Authorities in Sydney made several attempts to bring New Zealand’s wayward sailors, whalers, beachcombers and ne’er-do-wells under control. I also learnt that there was quite a strong American presence in New Zealand, many whaling boats were based here, and that at one point some Māori waka flew American flags just to annoy the English.


At the same time that William Hobson was here drafting the treaty, a large fleet of settlers from England was also on its way here, intending to settle on land purchased by the New Zealand Company. These were land purchases which would be in dispute in the following years. What I found interesting was the contemporary reaction to the arrival of so many settlers. Yes, Māori were benefitting from trade with settlers, giving them access to better tools and goods, but they were unprepared for the sheer numbers. When Te Wharepouri, one of the chiefs who made settlement arrangements with William Wakefield, saw settlers arriving he had assumed it would be a handful, perhaps a trading agent for each of the local pā. When 200 poured off the first ship, he nearly left the district. A week later two more ships brought another 500. By the end of 1840 1,300 settlers had arrived in the Hutt Valley and Wellington.


It would be wrong to see Waitangi: A Living Treaty as simply an investigation into nineteenth century history. It brings us bang up to date, and is invaluable for filling in gaps in knowledge. I had not realized that it was only in 1987 that Justice Sir Robin Cooke made the first attempt to define the principles in the Treaty, and in doing so began the first conscious attempt to modernize the Treaty in the seven or so generations since it was signed.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Bateman. RRP $39.99

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