When scholarship becomes focused on what is fashionable rather than what is true then trouble is ahead. Unfortunately that is precisely where the Waitangi Tribunal is taking us with the so called “modern scholarship” it has used to declare that Maori retained sovereignty in spite of signing a Treaty which clearly states otherwise.
We should not be surprised. As I noted two years ago (“One sun in the sky” – NZ Herald 22.01.13) the claim that sovereignty was not ceded has become increasingly fashionable among certain academics, activists and bureaucrats ever since the Court of Appeal launched the concept of “partnership” into the Treaty narrative in 1987. The same Court judgement noted that “the Maori people have undertaken a duty of loyalty to the Queen, (and) full acceptance of her Government”. This part of the judgement is somewhat less regarded but it far better reflects the facts of history.
William Colenso was present at the Treaty signing and his notes of proceedings are the prime source quoted by historians. They are freely available online at the NZ Electronic Text Centre. Any honest reading will find no trace of the power-sharing, partnership concept now being endorsed by the Tribunal. Rather they show a group of initially wary and reluctant chiefs eventually deciding that their best interests lay in establishing the mana of the Queen as the supreme authority in the land. Regardless of what some may want to believe today – this was what was agreed.
It was also the commonly accepted understanding of the Treaty for nearly 150 years until the modern revisionists came to the fore. For instance in 1922 we find Sir Apirana Ngata explaining the Treaty in very clear terms. Speaking of the how the Treaty impacted on the authority held by the chiefs he wrote,
“It was the chiefs who bespoke the land and gave it away. They had the power even for life or death. These were the powers they surrendered to the Queen. This was the understanding of each tribe. The main purport was the transferring of the authority of the Maori chiefs for making laws for their respective tribes and sub-tribes under the Treaty of Waitangi to the Queen of England for ever.” (Sir Apirana Ngata, 1922)
The Waitangi Tribunal has played an important role in progressing justice for Maori unfairly alienated from land and resources. However on this issue Ngata’s words stand testament as to how far the Tribunal has missed the mark.